Chelsea may have edge in Champions League battle
Published: 22.03.11 / Written by: David Gold
Chelsea V Manchester United is the stand out tie of the quarter finals, the tightest of the quartet to accurately predict.
The winner will face Inter Milan or Schalke in a game the Italians will go into as favourites. La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona are set to face each other in the semi finals if they get past Tottenham and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively. It is a mouth watering draw, and some wonderful games lie ahead in the coming weeks.
Real Madrid V Tottenham
Harry Redknapp’s side have enjoyed a remarkable Champions League journey to date, but this is where it will probably end. And it will probably be in the Bernabeu too, during the first leg. It is important to remember how the London side got to this point. They went to Inter Milan and were ripped to shreds for 45 minutes, before a virtuoso display from Gareth Bale pulled them back into the tie. That gave Tottenham the confidence to play their carefree attacking football, after they looked inhibited at the start of the game.
Against AC Milan, that confidence showed as they set about the Rossoneri with a performance of control and pace which the home side could not deal with in the second period. For the remaining three quarters of the tie, Spurs were second best to Milan, but superb defending and a brilliant counter attack sent them through.
So whilst Tottenham have been wonderful so far in the tournament, there is no escaping that they are coming up against an opponent better than anything they’ve already faced. Barcelona showed earlier in the season that they are on another level from their Spanish rivals, but it is hard to argue against the notion that Real are in turn on another level from the rest of Europe’s top sides – including Tottenham, and the likes of the Milans and Chelseas. Real racked up a record points total for them in La Liga last year, beaten only by Barcelona. It is the brilliance of the Catalans which has forced Real to find extraordinary skill and resilience to even keep within five to seven points of them for much of the current season. Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil in the centre of the pitch are a trio that will cause Tottenham endless problems, and they are unlikely to see much of the ball. The key will be trying to keep quiet Christiano Ronaldo. Or the wily Angel Di Maria.
If Tottenham can pull this off, it will be the result of the tournament. But they won’t.
Barcelona V Shakhtar Donetsk
An all Spanish semi final probably awaits Europe, but standing in the way of the tournament favourites are Mario Lucescu’s Shakhtar Donetsk. It is difficult to glean too much from their victory over a poor Roma side, a self destructive Roma indeed. But they are tactically adept and technically impressive, with a superb home record.
The combative Thomas Hubschmann will be the key man for the Ukrainians, as they will rely on him to win back possession and supply the creative talents of the Brazilians Jadson and Douglas Costa. The problem for them is one that was highlighted on their trip to London earlier this season to play Arsenal. Their lack of defensive organisation cost them that night as they lost 5-0. Any similar lapses against this Barcelona side and they will surely be punished.
But Barcelona have been to Ukraine and lost before, with Shakhtar having a better idea than most how to beat the Spaniards. The problem is that they also have to play Barcelona away, and it is here that the game will probably be lost before they get to take them back to Donetsk.
Inter Milan V Schalke
Not often can a side who have just reached the Champions League quarter finals sack their manager, and certainly not an unfancied side like Schalke. But Felix Magath has a habit of turning teams against him, even when bringing them success, as he proved when he found himself turfed out of Wolfsburg, having just won them the Bundesliga.
They have the players to hurt Inter if they switch off, with Raul retaining his predatorial instincts that have served him so well over the years. With the creative talent of Juan Manuel Jurado to supply Raul and striker partner Klaas Jan Hunterlaar, the Germans pose a real threat to an Inter side who have looked suspect defensively since Leonardo arrived as coach to replace Rafa Benitez .
But Inter have also looked sublime going forward, and Samuel Eto’o remains one of Europe’s top strikers; arguably the most consistent goalscorer on the continent, bar Raul, of the last decade. A more unpredictable tie than some would think, as Schalke have the ability to cause problems to any team on their day, and their victories so far this season against Benfica and Valencia demonstrate that they have the big match know how to cause problems. But Inter should, probably, win.
Chelsea V Manchester United
The most unpredictable of the quarter finals, the all English tie pits the two sides who competed in the 2008 European Cup final for a rematch together. Chelsea have an edge in games between the two sides recently, but United are having a better season, and look stronger. However, the fact that this is a two legged game could be an advantage for Chelsea.
United have looked solid defensively for much of the season, conceding just twice in the Champions League so far, but a defence probably shorn of Rio Ferdinand will face a tough test against Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka. Though the Spaniard has yet to recapture the form of his Liverpool days, he has an excellent record against Manchester United and Nemanja Vidic in particular.
But United are strong at home, and a tight first game may well leave this tie level going into the second leg, where home advantage could prove crucial to United. Javier Hernandez has shown the predatory instincts to get crucial goals for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side this season, and they could prove crucial. A tight game which is probably too close to call. But with their focus almost exclusively on the Champions League, Chelsea may just have a slight mental edge.