It is that time in European football where men have been once again separated from boys. It’s the last eight, the top eight teams in Europe’s premier club competition – Champions League – that we are talking about and the stage is once again set for those long European nights of enticing football.
Of the eight teams still alive in the competition, six have won the title at least once in their history, one has come closest possible to claim the glory while there’s a team completely alien to the enormity of these nights. The amalgamation this time speaks for the enhanced levels of competition across the continent since the eight teams represent seven different leagues.
Once again, the conventional powerhouses will start as favourites to occupy the final four spots but it’d certainly take a brave man to discard the pretenders already.
Neo GSP Stadium, Nicosia
Tuesday, March 27, 2012; 18:45 Hrs GMT
This is the clash of the two extremes. The most successful team in the European competition travels to Cyprus to meet the side that is making its debut on this stage of the Champions League. APOEL have undoubtedly been the discovery of this season’s Champions League edition. After winning the group comprising more familiar names like Zenit, Porto and Shakhtar, the Cypriots went on to eliminate Lyon from the first knockout round to confirm their place in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, have failed to win only one of their eight matches in the competition so far and are certainly one of the title favourites alongside their Spanish compatriots Barcelona. Jose Mourinho’s sides have never been eliminated from this stage in his entire managerial career and odds strongly favour the Portuguese manager to keep this record intact.
The Cyprus based outfit must be keen on drawing some inspiration from the draw CSKA managed at home against Madrid. Their strategy must be focused on containing the Madrid juggernaut to the greatest possible extent, who will be pressing high up the pitch. The hosts will line up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. Gustavo Manduca will be serving a suspension and Ivan Trickovski is likely to replace him in the role of the Central Attacking Midfielder.
Real Madrid too are facing certain issues with the availability of the players. Xabi Alonso will miss this tie after accumulating enough yellow cards while Di Maria, Carvalho, Callejon and Diarra are all nursing injury have been ruled out from the contest. Granero is likely to partner Khedira in the defensive midfield.
TheHardTackle’s Prediction: APOEL 1-3 Real Madrid
Estadio da Luz, Lisbon
Tuesday, March 27, 2012; 18:45 Hrs GMT
David Luiz and Ramires will lock horns against their former teammates as Chelsea travel to Portugal to face the country’s only remaining representation in Champions League – Benfica. Chelsea have not had the smoothest path till this point but a reassuring performance at Stamford Bridge to go past Napoli must have done their confidence a world of good. Their form in the league has been far from electrifying but the pride in being the only English side still alive in the competition should keep them wanting for more.
Under the interim coach Roberto Di Matteo, it could be argued that Chelsea have already exceeded expectations overturning the first leg result in Italy but any complacency will potentially cause them some serious trouble at the end of this leg. From what the league table suggests in England, Chelsea have to win this competition to qualify for the same next season unless teams from North London miraculously drop points and hence, the West Londoners cannot afford any more slip-ups.
Di Matteo will continue with a 4-3-3 formation with Drogba leading the attack from the centre flanked by Mata and Sturridge. Alongside Ramires and Essien, Frank Lampard will start from the left of midfield. Portuguese sides have not remained kind to their English counterparts this season with Sporting already having eliminated Manchester City and Benfica winning the group that saw Manchester United’s ouster. Chelsea may hence prefer to remain on their toes while playing away.
Benfica have slipped up a little in their domestic form as they have lost the top spot in the league table. Their latest draw against Olhanense means they are not going into this game in the best possible frame of mind but Jorge Jesus must motivate his players enough to grind out a positive result from the home leg itself. In defence, Benfica are missing Ezequiel Garay while striker Yannick Djalo will also be unavailable. Gaitan, Witsel and Bruno Cesar will constitute the midfield while Cardozo and Rodrigo are expected to lead the attack. Javi Garcia will be the only holding midfielder for the home side.
TheHardTackle’s Prediction: Benfica 2-1 Chelsea
Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Wednesday, March 28, 2012; 18:45 Hrs GMT
Marseille’s win over Inter in the previous round was to a great extent fortunate as the French outfit failed to do anything particularly spectacular throughout the 180 minutes of play over the two legs. It was only a matter of Inter overtaking them at being miserable. That, however, will not be the case against the rampant Germans who are one of the title favourites sharing the tag with the Spanish giants. Didier Deschamps has been at this stage before and the fact that Bayern have not been the greatest travellers in this competition so far will be right up there in his mind.
Marseille are currently ninth in the league table and the chances of them making it to any of the European competitions are extremely bleak. Their season is finding no real direction and the French outfit must be finding themselves out of place here. Even if they are able to salvage a draw at home, the immovable object that Bayern are at the Allianz Arena leaves little room for their ambitions to go past this stage.
Bastian Schweinsteiger is expected to miss this trip to France and in his absence Bayern will continue with the 4-4-1-1 shape. Luiz Gustavo will slot in as the defensive midfielder while Kroos will operate from the centre in a much more attacking role. Both the players will be flanked by Robben and Ribery who have been enjoying a good run of form. Thomas Muller will play the withdrawn forward while the sole man upfront will be the most in form striker in Germany – Mario Gomez. With the lineup they boast of, anything other than a pulsating victory for the Germans will be a surprising result.
TheHardTackle’s Prediction: Marseille 1-2 Bayern
Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan
Wednesday, March 28, 2012; 18:45 Hrs GMT
Quite unequivocally, this is the most awaited match in the entire European footballing circuit at the moment. Historically, Milan are the second most successful team in Europe but there’s little to deny this Barcelona unit is the best side to have assembled in a long, long time. The two were placed in the same group and much to the surprise of the entire football fraternity, Milan pulled in two competitive performances against the Catalan giants.
Going into this clash at San Siro, Milan are missing their most important cog in the wheel in form of Thiago Silva. The Brazilian, who is the one of the best central defenders in the world today, suffered a vital injury during the weekend clash against Roma and has been ruled out nearly for a month’s time. The list of the already injured players for Milan is hardly pleasing and this latest addition only adds to Allegri’s pains.
The availability of Kevin Prince-Boateng and Alberto Aquilani is a big relief for the manager however the makeshift defence – that too in the absence of the suspended Mark van Bommel – does not make for a good sight against an attack as potent as that of Barcelona. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has got a point or two to prove against his former employers and there could not be a better time to do so than now.
With Real Madrid dropping points on two successive games in the league, the domestic title once again appears in contention for Pep Guardiola’s men but presently their entire focus must be on going past Milan to book a berth in the final four. Barcelona are certainly the favourites going into the away tie considering the depleted Milan side that they are facing but their task will not be any mean.
With Adriano and Abidal both out, Carles Puyol will move the left of defence while the central positions will be held by Pique and Mascherano. Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta will make the midfield while Sanchez and Pedro will accompany Messi in the attack. The diminutive Argentine is already the top scorer in this season’s Champions League and will certainly be looking to score his first goal from open play at the San Siro.