Friday, March 19, 2010
I'm happy with the draw. Arsenal do not play they style that gives Barca trouble: two lines of four playing defense and then quick counters. (Inter and United, on the other hand, can both play that style.) They do what Barca does, only they do it with inferior players. Moreover, they have been mostly abused over the past two years when they've played truly top shelf opposition (read: United and Chelsea). Arsenal have a major question mark in goal and there's a good chance that they would be trotting Sol Campbell out in central defense. (I'm sure the mentally fragile Campbell will handle the pressure of a Champions League knock-out tie against the holders with aplomb.) Barca get the second leg at home and they haven't lost with the second leg at home since 2003. Finally, this will be the chance to impress upon Cesc that the time is now. I could see a strategy for Arsenal that would involve a defensive style and then attempts to spring Arshavin into the space behind Dani Alves on Arsenal's attacking left, but will Wenger go against type and play a Mourinho/Benitez style? What matters more, Arsene: your vision or the result?
A semifinal with Inter will be trickier. Mourinho has done a great job remodeling that team since last year. Barca handled them comfortably in the group stage (0-0 at the San Siro and 2-0 at the Nou Camp despite Messi and Ibra not playing), but Wesley Sneijder had just joined Inter when they played the first time and he was out for the return match. Inter are a different side with Sneijder; he's the link-up player that they have lacked for years. Inter fit together very well, especially as a yin to Barca's yang. The question is whether they have a left back who can handle Messi, even with assistance. I'd give Barca a slight edge because they have the second leg at home, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Inter win it. One other factor that helps Barca: Jose Mourinho is a master preparer, but how much does that advantage really count when the semifinal matches would be the ninth and tenth times that his sides have played Barca? He can't have any new tricks, can he?
Regarding the other side of the bracket, short of drawing CSKA, this is the draw that Sir Alex would have made if he picked the balls himself. United won't see the three strongest contenders until the final. Although come to think of it, with the way that United have handled Arsenal recently, Sir Alex would probably rather play them than Bayern. I have to imagine that United fans will be thinking the same things about Ribery that Barca fans are thinking about Cesc: let's smack this team up so their best player decides to join us. The wild card for United is Arjen Robben, who is in the form of his life. My black 2004 Bayern Champions League jersey (Makaay #10, in case you were wondering) will definitely make an appearance.
The French have to be reasonably pleased with the draw because they are guaranteed to have a team in the semifinals for the first time since Monaco in 2004. I don't pretend to know what the history is between Bordeaux and Lyon, other than that Bordeaux ended Lyon's long run of Ligue Un titles last year. Laurent Blanc is a hot name in coaching right now and a Champions League semifinal against United would be a great platform for him.
One final thought: after suffering through three English semifinalists in each of the last three years, it would nice to have a balanced semifinal this year. If the four favorites progress, we'll have teams from Spain, England, France, and Italy. Michel Platini would be very pleased with that result.