Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Barcelona lead their respective leagues handsomely, but all 3 of them have lost out in the CL to one or more opposition who were miles behind them. Dortmund and Real Madrid, whose league form has been nowhere near comparison to their squad’s potential, have left the world begging for more after their Champions League endeavors. And last but not at the very least, the Champions of England and the Champions of Europe have both been unceremoniously dumped out in the Group stages, with City going a step forward and not making it even to the Europa League, like Chelsea have.
Such was the story of the group stage this time around that the world waited with baited breath, even enduring the presence of McManaman and Gianni Infatoni, for the ever so nerve wrecking Round of 16 draw. And the audiences world-wide were rightly rewarded for their patience. Some mouthwatering clashes between Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and Barca and Milan, alongside the small matter of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United facing the Galacticos, Real Madrid.
United- Madrid face off
Looking at that final fixture; pundits for all they are worth, can’t seem to figure out which would be a more enticing battle: Cristiano Ronaldo’s reappearance at the Theatre of Dreams, or the rivalry of Fergie and Mourinho that might turn into a claim for the Manchester throne by ‘the special one’.
Week in and week out in the EPL this season, United have been winning games that at times they did not even deserve a single point from. This has been the story of quite a few seasons now, but their remarkable second half form often saves Fergie the blushes.
With a defense that conceded 3 goals in 25 minutes against Reading, no one will give United even a minute’s rest with the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema and Di Maria in the opposition’s ranks. The midfield departments of both these superpowers are a story in contrast; where Madrid boasts the options of Alonso, Khedira, Modric, Kaka and Ozil, United will have to make do with Carrick, Anderson and Cleverley being supported by Scholes and Giggs. Attacking seems to be the only option left for United as it is here that their quartet of RVP, Rooney, Welbeck and Chicharito seem to humble the likes of Higuain and Benzema.
Arsenal- Bayern Munich face off
Prior to the draws, a number of Barca players including Fabregas and Alex Song came forward and said that they would love to face their ex-club Arsenal in the next round; and you thought that Arsenal fans could not hate the duo more!
Wenger’s Christmas wish seemed to be satisfied when his team were not drawn with FC Barcelona, but the Frenchman fell down to harsh reality when he realized that last year’s finalist and one of the strongest contenders for the crown this season, Bayern Munich was his opponent.
With German teams often being overlooked in this competition, the arrival of Dortmund and Bayern this season has been ominous. Every department of Jupp Heynckes’s Bayern seems to be well gelled and well supplemented. If Mario Gomes was not enough, they have Pizzaro and Mandzukic now. If Robben was not enough, they have Shaqiri now; and the emergence of Toni Kroos for the Bavarians this season has been nothing short of phenomenal.
One look at the team sheets of Bayern and Arsenal would tell you that the contest is going to be an intense midfield battle. Martinez on Cazorla is one particularly interesting all Spanish affair; Schweinsteiger on Jack Wilshere promises to be a contest between a proven maestro and an emerging genius. It would be the strikers department again where Arsenal will fall short as Giroud will be easily curtailed by the likes of Dante and Badstuber. Playing Theo Walcott in that position may cause a few ruffles in the Bayern backlines, but no major upsets can be seen here.
Barca- AC Milan face off
FC Barcelona has often been the opponent’s worst nightmare in previous seasons, but the Catalan giants’ somewhat indifferent form in the group stage will be a big boost for Allegiri’s Milan. AC Milan had faced Pep’s Barca in such circumstances last season, and some brilliant defending by Nesta which had kept Messi in his pocket, was the only saving grace for the Italian giants. This time around Allegiri will be devoid of Nesta, and the pairing of Mexes and Zapata will leave ‘the Flea’ smacking his lips.
If Wenger ever had a bad dream of visualizing Mikel Arteta against Lionel Messi, it is now Max Allegiri’s nightmare of preparing Nigel De Jong for the ballistic Argentine.
Best of the Rest
Amongst the fixtures that are certain to go unnoticed are the match-ups between PSG and Valencia, Dortmund and Shakhthar, Celtic and Juventus and Malaga and Galatasaray. Though the footballing world would be in Madrid- Man United oblivion for most of February, one fixture amongst the other less fortunate ones promises to be a scintillating battle, Dortmund vs Shakhthar.
Each of these 2 teams was responsible for the uprooting of an English superpower, Man City and Chelsea respectively. Both these 2 are dazzling in counter attacks with the likes of Fernandinho, Willian and Adriano for Shakhthar and those of Gotze, Blaszczykowski and Lewandowski for Dortmund. The contest promises to be an end-to-end match with Dortmund’s superior defence of Subotic and Hummels maybe just edging it for them.
Just as the first half of the 20th century saw the likes of Hungary, Austria and Italy sweep away the English, who considered themselves to be the creators of Football then; this post 21st December 2012 era might see an almighty drop in the English dominion of European football. The present batch of Iniesta, Xavi, Messi, Schwienstiger and Ozil could easily replicate the same fate on the English as Hidegkutti, Puskas and Sindelar did in the 50’s.
This fixture list throws a strong possibility that there would not be a single English team left at the Quarter-Final stage of the competition. Though Manchester United and Chelsea, with all the talents brought in, are sure to make it to the group stages next year; Wenger’s Arsenal have a real battle to achieve that trophy equivalent 4th spot.
Just one thing is for certain, we shall see Manchester City in another Group of Death next season.Published 22 Dec 2012, 11:19 IST