Champions League returns — can anyone stop Barcelona?
How we’ve missed the Champions League. It’s nine weeks since the line-up for the last 16 was completed and a couple of months since the draw offered up a handful of belting ties, including Inter Milan v Bayern Munich in a repeat of last season’s final.
We’ll have to wait a week for that one, with the more leisurely format these days meaning we see just two matches a night. This week, we can look forward to AC Milan v Tottenham and Valencia v Schalke on Tuesday, with Roma v Shakhtar Donetsk and Arsenal v Barcelona on Wednesday.
So, to get to the question in the headline, can anyone stop this mesmerising Barcelona side winning the tournament for the second time in three seasons?
While I don’t think there’s much doubt that Pep Guardiola’s team are the pick of the 16 sides teams in the competition, playing a style of football that can take the breath away at times, they are far from invincible. An injury or an off-day for Messi, the absence of Carles Puyol at the back or a perfectly executed tactical job, such as the one masterminded by Jose Mourinho last year, could see them thwarted again.
Inter look weaker than last year, but Manchester United have been remarkably difficult to beat this season and the other three English sides also have the powerful incentive of playing in that “home” final at Wembley.
Arsenal are obviously the biggest outsiders of that group, given that they have to face Barcelona in the last 16, but don’t write them off quite yet. They will have learned a lot from last season’s tie, when they barely got to touch the ball for long periods at home and away, and in Theo Walcott they have a player with the sort of pace Barcelona do not often come up against in Spain and who could give them a real fright.
But if Barcelona do in fact march on, I suspect their strongest rivals will come from closer to home. Under Guardiola, Barcelona have won every one of their games against Real Madrid but I can assure you they would not relish coming up against the nine-times champions in their favourite competition.
Real have to get past bogey team Olympique Lyon before they can even contemplate such a tie but with Mourinho now in charge of tactics I suspect they will break that run of disappointments against the French side.
There are plenty of other sides capable of going a long way but there is just something about the combination of Real Madrid and Mourinho that seems tailor made for the Champions League. The squad looks a little stretched, perhaps, and the fixtures are starting to pile up but they have shown remarkable discipline and determination to stay on the heels of Barcelona in La Liga and in Cristiano Ronaldo they have the “something special” every Champions League winner needs.
Barcelona won one European Cup at the old Wembley. If they are to win one at the new version something tells me they’ll have to get past Real to do it.
PHOTO: Sergio Busquets attends an interview with Reuters (which you can read here) at his club’s training grounds in Barcelona February 14, 2011. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino