Champions League quarterfinals kick off with high-profile reunions
The Champions League quarterfinals offer an enticing set of fixtures, with the teams from same countries kept apart. Headlining the Tuesday first legs are four likely domestic champions, while Wednesday sees the reunion among Jose Mourinho and two of his former players, Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba. Here is what to watch for ...
This is the closest of all the ties to call, with Bayern having the perfect preparation by beating Hamburg 9-2 last weekend; it is probably one more round of matches away from clinching the Bundesliga title. That leaves the rest of the season to focus on Europe and avenge last season's runner-up finish in this competition. I'd like a euro for the thoughts of Pep Guardiola, though: does next season's coach really want to take over a side that has won the treble?
"We had a unique opportunity to get a coach that the world wants," Bayern president Uli Hoeness told Sport/Foot magazine. "To find a coach with his own philosophy was almost as important to us as winning trophies. [Current Bayern coach Jupp] Heynckes is one, Guardiola another. And yes, it will be more difficult [for him] if Heynckes wins the treble, but he can still provide us with more ideas."
Guardiola met with Bayern executives Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Matthias Sammer in Barcelona last week. Apparently his German is progressing well. Sammer returned to give his players a public warning via Bild newspaper:
"Our senior players must take the lead again," he said. "We must be disciplined and compact without the ball, and we need to increase creativity and pace with the ball. We need to show an absolute unwillingness to compromise - starting from now."
The buildup has been disrupted by reports that Inter Milan wants to sign Arjen Robben next season, while former coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, now a pundit for Sky TV, said he couldn't see a role for Thomas Muller in a Guardiola side.
Juventus will only have two players -- goalie Gianluigi Buffon and midfielder Claudio Marchisio -- who were part of its last defeat in Europe, a 4-1 loss to Bayern back in December 2009. It also is the only team still in the competition to play with a back three, although its defensive strength at one end is somewhat offset by a lack of a 20-goal-a-season striker (unsurprisingly, neither Nicklas Bendtner nor his replacement, Nicolas Anelka, have stepped into the breech).
While Bayern looked shaky last time out against Arsenal, it was missing Bastian Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribery. With those two in the side, Juventus' back line is assured a tougher test than it faced from Celtic in the previous round.
This game has been nicknamed the Qatar derby, given that PSG have Qatari owners and Barcelona is sponsored by Qatar Airways. And while it's the kind of high-profile fixture that PSG owners QSI would have wanted when it took control of the club, Barcelona was the draw everyone wanted to avoid.
That said, these two teams played each other in August: a preseason friendly, in which Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in his PSG debut in a 2-2 draw. Barcelona went on to win 4-1 on penalties. An omen? Ibrahimovic has been cleared to play in the first leg after UEFA overturned the red card he was shown at the end of the round of 16 first-leg win over Valencia. Club lawyer Francois Klein pointed to the one-game ban given to Manchester United's Nani for his tackle on Alvaro Arbeloa and claimed Ibrahimovic's was no worse. And given how poor PSG was without the Swede in the second leg against Valencia, his presence will only benefit the host.
While the back story will focus on Ibrahimovic and his turbulent season at Barcelona -- he reportedly told then-coach Pep Guardiola, "You bought a Ferrari, but you drive it like a Fiat," as well as, "You have no balls!" and also revealed in his book "I am Zlatan," "Guardiola started his philosopher thing. I was barely listening. Why would I? It was advanced bullshit about blood, sweat and tears, that kind of stuff" -- the more significant story is the Swedish forward's poor record in Champions League knockout matches.
He has only scored four knockout goals out of his 31 European strikes, a ratio of 13 percent, which lags behind Europe's elite: Wayne Rooney has 52 percent (14 knockout goals out of 27), Lionel Messi 46 percent (25/56), Cristiano Ronaldo 45 percent (20/44), Didier Drogba 33 percent (13/39), and Robin van Persie 24 percent (5/21). If PSG is to have any hope of eliminating the competition favorite, Ibrahimovic will need to add to his tally at the Parc des Princes.
The tears, the man hugs, the love; it will be very touchy-feely when Madrid coach Jose Mourinho greets two of his former players who are now at Galatasaray, which in itself shows how far Wesley Sneijder and, to a lesser extent, Didier Drogba, have slipped down the ladder since parting ways with the Portuguese.
One of the reasons Galatasaray reached the last eight was because of a wonder strike from Hamit Altintop, a player whom Mourinho signed and then released one year later. When the Turkish midfielder hurt his back, he offered to rescind his contract and walk away from the club. The response: these things happen in football, we would never do that.
"For me, that was the sign of a great club," Altintop told Marca last week. "Mourinho is a fantastic coach, he knows when to get close to a player, when to walk away, he is an expert at managing personal relationships. But at Galatasaray we also have a brave coach [Fatih Terim] who never holds back. We will attack like we always do and will not change our philosophy. We are the Barcelona of Turkey."
That may be true, but it also has Emmanuel Eboue and Albert Riera as fullbacks. Add to that the fact that Terim still does not seem to have solved the problem of where best to play Sneijder in his system, and it could be a long night for Altintop and Co. at the Bernabeu.
There's something about Malaga in Europe this season. The club is in disarray off the pitch, with an absent owner and a ban from European competition already in place for next season, and yet, in its debut Champions League season, has been outstanding. Coach Manuel Pellegrini led another debutant, Villarreal, to the semifinal in 2006 and could repeat that feat.
He has no real right to: for all the promises of big money from Malaga's absentee boss, the team is made up of a rag-bag of rejects and players with a point to prove, not to mention the fact it sold Santi Cazorla and Jose Rondon last summer, and Nacho Monreal in January. How must have Manchester City felt when the striker it dumped on loan, Roque Santa Cruz, headed home the winner against Porto in the round of 16 with his first touch after coming off the bench?
What about the likes of Benfica or Roma, watching Javier Saviola and Julio Baptista hit a purple patch in the twilight of their careers; and what about Joaquin, 10 years ago the great new hope of Spanish football and now, doing what he does best with some fantastic wing play, but away from the spotlight and far away from La Roja.
Of course Dortmund should win this tie. The German side topped a group that contained Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax and it has pulled itself into second in the Bundesliga and is all primed for an assault on Europe, which was seen as its priority this season. It has the players and coach to reach the last four.
But does it have that something else, that intangible quality that Pellegrini, like an alchemist, appears to bottle for the Champions League? We will see -- but I just wonder if Malaga has it.