Last year saw Real Madrid and Barcelona humiliated in the semi-finals of the Champions League, but will the teams from La Liga have the last laugh this time around?
Before this tie was announced, Sulley Muntari had suggested that Atlético Madrid were the weakest team still left in the Champions League, saying that he would be happy for Milan to draw Los Rojiblancos in the round of 16. Muntari got his wish, but Atleti will certainly be no pushovers. They have been one of the best sides in Europe this season, but a combination of injury, fatigue and squad rotation has culminated in a series of uncharacteristic performances from Diego Simeone’s side recently, including a loss to lowly Almería and two humbling defeats to city rivals Real in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey. In contrast, Milan started the season awfully and are only just beginning to show signs of improvement under new coach and ex-player Clarence Seedorf. Needless to say, Simeone will pick his strongest eleven for Wednesday’s game against Milan, and will give Seedorf little breathing space in his first Champions League tie as manager. Atlético were brilliant in the group stages, collecting 16 points, a total only matched by Real Madrid this season. Many have touted them as dark horses for this competition, and El Cholo will relish the chance for his team to progress to the latter stages of the competition.
Despite his unrivalled credentials and calm exterior, some Madridistas had doubts about Carlo Ancelotti at first. They felt that his style of play was ‘boring’ compared to last season under Mourinho, and pointed to a limp Clásico defeat in which Ancelotti had named a defensive lineup, with Los Blancos rarely threatening the Barcelona defence . Any of these doubts have now been completely dispelled. Ancelotti’s side are in imperious form, scoring goals for fun in La Liga and arguably reclaiming their status as Madrid’s best team. La Décima has become an obsession for Real Madrid in recent years, and there is the growing sense in the capital that Ancelotti could be the manager to deliver the mythical tenth European cup, perhaps even this season. Schalke, for all of their qualities, should not represent too much of a test for Madrid, but the greater challenge will lie in the next two rounds, in which Real Madrid could find themselves facing another German team, the dreaded Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola has moulded the Bavarian team into an even more formidable outfit than last season, and, if any team can stop the likes of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, it will be them. Real Madrid have bad memories of Bayern, and Ancelotti will be hoping they do not come up against the Germans in the next round.
Barça are in equally devastating form. Tata Martino was another manager who had his doubters when he was put in charge of Barcelona last summer, but on Saturday his side evoked memories of Guardiola’s dream team, thumping Rayo Vallecano 6-0. It is just as well that the Catalan team are at their best, as they are up against none other than Manchester City. Manuel Pellegrini has transformed City into a formidable attacking force, and this will be Martino’s toughest assignment yet. Barça are far from invincible, and the loss against Valencia a few weeks ago demonstrated that. However, while there are still weaknesses at the back, Barcelona have more than enough firepower themselves to eliminate City. It promises to be a mouth-watering tie.