Friday, March 14, 2008

Insta-Champions League Draw Blathering

As you might guess, I am quite happy with the draw. Barca are in no position right now to take on one of the four EPL sides. With Messi and Yaya Toure (arguably the two most indispensable members of the team because of the lack of cover at their positions) injured and the backline struggling, Barca would have been a relatively easy foil for Arsenal, Chelsea, or Manchester United. Instead, Barca have drawn Schalke, a side that: (1) is struggling worse than the Blaugrana; and (2) have a history of winning bugger-all on any level (as frequent commenter Klinso likes to say). The readers of agree, as they conclusively picked Schalke as the preferred opponent before the draw. (See the sidebar.) If Barca can get through this tie and then get Messi back for the semifinal (his injury was supposedly going to have him out for six weeks and the semifinal is exactly six weeks after the second leg against Celtic), then they would be a formidable opponent for United (assuming that United dust Roma again).

I also have this pet theory that Barca are much better when they can play the first leg on the road because they are at their best when the other team has to score and take chances. That plays perfectly into Barca's possession game. When Barca have the first leg at home, they commit too far forward and are very vulnerable to counter-attacks. Against Schalke, they can pass the ball around all day and force a defensive team to come get them. Here's the record from the Rijkaard era in the Champions League:

2005 - Second leg on the road; lost to Chelsea

2006 - Second legs at home against Chelsea, Benfica, and Milan; won all three

2007 - Second leg on the road; lost to Liverpool

2008 - Second leg at home; beat Celtic

I like the idea of Barca playing the first leg in Gelsenkirchen. Schalke are a defensive team that will have to attack because they will need a victory to take onto the road for the second leg. That will create space for Barca's attackers, with the result possibly being similar to Barca's first leg against Celtic (although Schalke obviously have better players than Celtic). If I were Mirko Slomka, I'd play nine behind the ball in the first leg, hope for a 0-0 draw, and then be patient in the second leg, hoping for either penalties (where German sides tend to do OK) or Kevin Kuranyi knocking in a header (a real weakness for Barca against northern European sides). Gabi Milito is going to have to be on his best behavior against Kuranyi. Schalke can present problems for Barca because they are the sort of defensive team that can frustrate the Blaugrana. If Slomka thinks about this and doesn't try to attack too much in the first leg, then an upset is quite possible.

As for the other ties, Fenerbahce/Chelsea is absolutely fascinating to me. Chelsea have the best defense in the tournament; Fenerbahce have the best offense. Chelsea can play some attractive football when they face an opponent who comes out to play. It's only when they meet a similarly dour team (read: the Scousers) that nothing happens, not unlike what happens when France and Italy play. There is some upset potential here. It goes without saying that if Barnsley can beat Chelsea's first team, then the best team in Turkey can do the same. I wish I could comment intelligently on Fenerbahce, but I've never seen them play, aside from highlights of the ties against Sevilla.

Roma/United - yawn. United have handled Roma in the past two years, so they should go through. The football will be fun to watch, but I was sorta hoping to see Roma and Arsenal because I think they would produce some really good games. I'd love to see Roma win this tie, but the track record isn't encouraging.

Arsenal/Liverpool - This is the tie of the quarterfinals, pitting arguably the two favorites in the tournament right now. As someone who really dislikes this Liverpool team, this is the draw I wanted to see. Arsenal are 7-1-3 against Liverpool in the last five years. Liverpool lose their Champions League advantage when they play an opponent who is familiar with their crap style and with Benitez's tactical tricks. Wenger isn't going to be out-foxed by Benitez the way that so many Continental managers are. Cesc and Flamini's battle in the midfield against Mascherano should be interesting.

The one concern I have for Arsenal is that Fernando Torres is positively torrid right now. As good as Phillipe Senderos is in Europe, that match-up would scare me if I were a Gunner. Oh, and the other thing that would concern me is that Liverpool's European pedigree is far, far, far, far better than Arsenal's. As good as Wenger is as a manager, he's made exactly one Champions League semi-final, which happens to be the only European Cup/Champions League final in the club's history. Liverpool, as their fans constantly remind us, have history in Europe.

If you asked me to pick right now, I'd take Arsenal, Barca, United, and Fenerbahce as the one upset. I can imagine that TV executives across Europe would love a Barca-United semi-final and probably a Barca-Arsenal or Barca-Liverpool final. Let the conspiracy commence!


Tim said...

AT the risk of getting ahead of myself, I'd like a rematch of the 2006 final... Without the stupid Lehmann tricks this time.

That said, Torres worries this Arsenal fan a lot (not to mention the two teams play one anther three times in 8 days).

Michael said...

It's great to have a comment from you, Tim.

Would you prefer Almunia in goal in a rematch, knowing his performance in 2006? (Now that I think about it, I didn't think that the winner was his fault [it's hard to close one's legs that fast, as "Kristen" can attest] and he made a great save on Eto'o at the end of the first half, but he was poor on the equalizer.)

An Arsenal-Roma final would be pretty sweet, as both sides pass the ball very well. An Arsenal-ManUtd final seems like the most likely result, though. Any thoughts on that prospect?