Champions League perfectly poised

Just when Europe’s top clubs had breathed a sigh of relief after Milan looked to be in cruise control against Barcelona, the inevitable happened. Milan were beaten 4-0 at the Nou Camp and eliminated 4-2 on aggregate, with Barca now favourites to lift the trophy.

But the destiny of the much coveted Champions League title remains very much in the balance. Barcelona’s frailties were demonstrated in their 2-0 loss to Milan in the first leg, and in successive defeats against Real Madrid, which left the team looking in a very sorry position. Even they are not invincible.

It is fair to say that the best team in Europe based on form are Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga leaders had been characteristically efficient in dispatching top teams, and, bar the shock defeat to BATE Borisov in the group stages, looked very comfortable in Europe’s top competition. They tore apart Arsenal in the first leg of their tie at the Emirates, but not everybody was satisfied, and Bayern’s defending of the set-piece from which Arsenal scored was an omen for the second leg. On Wednesday their weaknesses were highlighted again, as they lost 2-0 and looked very much overawed by a second-string Arsenal side including the likes of Fabianski, and without their usual saviour Jack Wilshere. Jupp Heynckes admitted that it had been a poor performance, and this above all demonstrated that the Bundesliga outfit are far from impregnable. On his day goalkeeper Manuel Neuer does indeed, as one German newspaper said, resemble a ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’ in his fluorescent green gloves, but when the side defend as they did yesterday, he is reduced to a mere human. This should be a wake-up call to Bayern.

For Real Madrid, this Champions League campaign represents everything. After winning La Liga in stunning fashion last season, this year has been an entirely different story, except in the Champions League, where business has largely been as usual. Getting through a tricky group consisting of the champions of England, Germany and the Netherlands was quite an achievement in itself, but this was to be expected of a team of Madrid’s calibre. Despite only squeezing past the mighty Manchester United with the help of a dubious Nani red card, Real Madrid were briefly bookmaker’s favourites. There is also the sense that this is a mission for the collector Mourinho, who is looking to add another Champions League to his CV, and break another record. It is true that the atmosphere in the Bernabeu dressing-room was toxic at one point, but the coveted ‘Decima’ might just materialise this year after successive wins against Barcelona and the win at Old Trafford restored confidence in the team.

Dortmund and Juventus seem to have points to prove. Whilst last years German champions Borussia Dortmund have trailed to Bayern domestically, they unnervingly clinched top spot in the ‘group of death’ containing Madrid, Ajax and Manchester City, to set pundits purring at their superb style of play. After their 2-2 draw against Shakthar in the first leg of their tie, Dortmund stayed focussed and took apart the Ukrainians at home 3-0, no easy task and a testament to their efficient style of play which is also easy on the eye.The Germans seem intent on proving themselves in Europe after a poor showing in last year’s competition. Juventus, on the other hand, are back after a brief hiatus, and have nothing to lose. Having dominated Serie A bar a few hiccups, the Italian champions have an impressive team and could go all the way. They will be looking forward to fully testing their mettle against a strong Bayern side after strolling past Celtic in the last 16.

At the moment the two weakest teams look like Galatasaray and Malaga. Having said that, Galatasaray have acquired two European heavyweights in Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder. And, whilst their best years may be behind them, no team will relish having to come up against the veteran duo. Let’s not forget the immense fire-power of Turkish front-man Burak Yilmaz, who has largely been overlooked after the signing of Drogba, but who is very much in his prime and was the main reason why the Turkish side progressed during the group stages. Before the knockout stage, Yilmaz was responsible for 6 out of Galatasaray’s 7 goals, and the Turkish side’s chances of going further in this competition will hinge on the striker.

Malaga are this year’s dark horses. Enjoying Champions League football for the first time in their history, the team from the Costa del Sol have had no end to problems off the pitch, including debts and a future one-year ban from the competition, but Manuel Pellegrini has kept his eye on the ball, and has stirred his team to achieve great things on the field. Malaga owe their success to the Chilean manager and the positive atmosphere he has instilled at the club, as well as star man Isco, who has looked increasingly mature as Malaga’s most exciting player. This season seems like ‘all-or-nothing’ for Malaga in Europe, and who knows how far they could go?

So far this year’s edition of Europe’s top competition has proved that even the likes of Bayern and Barcelona are not invincible. The supposedly weaker teams, Galatasaray and Malaga, should take heart from this, as anybody is capable of causing an upset. The draw for the quarter-finals has been made, and all the ties look tantalising. The closing stages of the Champions League promise to be mouth-watering.

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