Tonight’s game promised to give one of the closest indications so far of who could become European champions this year, but in truth, nobody could’ve predicted what followed. Barcelona dissected their rivals with precise, incisive play that arguably would have torn absolutely any team in the world apart. In doing so, they confirmed their status as clear favourites for the Champions League once again, and it’d take a brave man to doubt them. With 13 goals in their last 2 league games, they are beginning to look even more menacing than they ever did in their historic 2008/09 season, and their form will be striking fear into managers across the continent.
Regardless of tonight’s result, however, it would still be naïve to completely write off Real Madrid at this stage. They will have learnt a great deal from tonight’s events, and in particular, Mourinho will now have a far better understanding of his team’s strengths and weaknesses, and possibly even his own managerial weaknesses. The biggest concern has to be the fact that he abandoned his usual “park the bus” (for want of a less horribly clichéd term) tactics for these key matches in favour of a slightly more ambitious counter attacking system, and saw his team get dismantled with relative ease. Real were exposed down both flanks, and coupled with a high defensive line, Barca always threatened to get in behind and cut the ball across goal to create more chances. Will this cause Mourinho to abandon these more ambitious tactics in future big games despite the pressure from those above him? Only time will tell, but it may be Real’s only chance of success, considering their weakness in the core areas compared to the likes of Barcelona and Chelsea.
Outside of Spain, it appears that the usual recent suspects will be challenging – almost by default. In England, Manchester United remain unbeaten and are now finally hitting their stride, having predictably struggled to find any real form in the first third of the season. Their defence looks imperious once again, Nani is in the form of his life, and with Rooney dropping deep to play behind Berbatov, the two forwards finally look capable of reaching their potential as a partnership. Chelsea have begun to stutter of late, and this has highlighted the challenge they face. When fully fit, their squad is intimidating to even look at, but remove two or three key players and suddenly they become a beatable side. For this reason, it will be absolutely essential for them to keep Lampard, Drogba, Essien, Malouda and Terry fit if they’re to have a realistic chance of toppling Europe’s elite sides for the first time. They may well struggle to keep up with the congested fixture list in the closing period of the season unless they make a couple of signings in January – David Luiz of Benfica is one player currently heavily linked with the club. Arsenal, meanwhile, appear to be suffering from the same problems that seem to plague them every year. They remain uncertain at the back and display a real lack of character whenever they have found themselves under heavy pressure, so although the quarter finals will be a minimum expectation, this will most likely be the furthest they go unless they avoid the top sides – particularly Manchester United, Chelsea and Barcelona.
Both of last year’s finalists; Inter and Bayern, have looked extremely underwhelming so far this season. Without the injured Arjen Robben, Bayern have looked painfully mediocre for long periods, but they still look set to top Group E, ahead of Roma. If the draw is favourable to them, they might just have a chance of reaching the semi finals, but their reliance on Robben will once again be huge. One sign for encouragement, though, is the sudden improvement of Mario Gomez. The big-money signing from Stuttgart struggled to impress in his first season at the Allianz Arena, but he has now scored 16 goals in 20 appearances this season. Inter, however, will now almost certainly finish second in Group A behind Tottenham Hotspur and this will most likely mean they have to face one of the favourites for the competition in the next round. Unless they are lucky enough to be drawn with Shakhtar or Schalke, the writing may well be on the wall for them unless they make drastic changes in the January transfer window. The squad is finally beginning to show its age, and Rafael Benitez is already under huge pressure, following a multitude of disappointing results and unacceptable performances so far this season.
I would love to be able to predict great success for Shakhtar Donetsk or Copenhagen, but truthfully speaking, it will be a colossal surprise if any team other than those already mentioned features in the Wembley final. If I had to predict an outsider to cause a few shocks, it would be Tottenham. They are absolutely desperate for a top class midfield enforcer to replace the wasteful and clumsy Wilson Palacios, and they still lack the world-renowned goalscorer they searched so hard for in the summer, but Rafael Van Der Vaart, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon have already proven they can expose just about any defence around. They have beaten Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Inter in the last 6 months or so, but under the extreme pressure of a Champions League knockout match, it would be no great surprise to see them crumble.
After failing to reach the finish line last season, Barcelona will be determined to re-claim the Champions League trophy and it’s looking increasingly likely that they will do so this year. The only hope for the rest of Europe is that Manchester United or Chelsea face them as early as possible and somehow nullify them in order to grind out a positive result over two legs. If they reach the final, there is simply no way they will be stopped in a one-off match if they reach the levels they are capable of finding.