The UEFA Champions League Final Eight – The Contenders

“I firmly believe that any man’s finest hours – his greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear – is that moment when he has worked his heart out in good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

-Vince Lombardi

The second round of the UEFA Champions League has finished and the competition is now down to it’s final eight.

Eight sides who will need to work themselves as hard as possible, who will need to lay it all on the line and fight for every inch possible if they are to achieve the ultimate victory in this season’s competition.

Here’s our in-depth look at the quarter-finalists, their strengths and weaknesses, and their chances of making it to Wembley, and becoming UEFA Champions League winners 2011.

The Favourites: Barcelona – 5/4

Pep Guardiola’s side are the must-watch side in Europe, not just this season, but ever since Guardiola’s ascension into the role of Head coach in 2008.

Los Cules have broken record after record since, winning Europe’s premier club competition in 2009, before being beaten in last season’s semi-final by eventual winners Inter Milan – managed by Jose Mourinho.

A side boasting the World Cup winning heptad of David Villa, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Pedro, not to mention Brazilian full-back Dani Alves and reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, are sweeping all before them in La Liga, playing the most thrilling brand of football.

Having seen off Arsenal in the round of 16, they’ll not fear anyone in the last eight and if they play to their potential between now and the end of the season, then a treble – comprising of La Liga, the King’s Cup and the Champions League – is more than achievable.

Key Player – Lionel Messi

Unquestionably the best player in the world, the Argentine forward has been in breathtaking form this season, already scoring 45 goals, including eight in Europe. Needs just three goals to break the record for most goals scored by a Barcelona player in a season – a record he already shares following last seasons exploits with Brazilian legend Ronaldo – Messi’s brilliance turns an outstanding side into quite possibly the best side ever.

Weaknesses

Pep Guardiola’s side like to attack and push their opposition back as far as possible, playing a very high defensive line. When they give possession away, the nearest three or four players immediately press, no matter who they are. If opposing sides can bypass that group of players, they can immediately counter-attack at the Barcelona backline.

Can be vulnerable from set-pieces, whilst the loss of the experienced French defender Eric Abidal, due to a liver tumour, for the remainder of the current campaign, will be a big miss.

One side they’d like to avoid: Chelsea

Matches between Barcelona and the reigning Premier League champions are always tight, controversial affairs, and whilst Guardiola’s side won’t fear taking on Carlo Ancelotti’s side,  they’ll not be as keen on facing the Blues as they would be other sides.

The physical power, defensive resilience and big-match experience of the Chelsea side, regardless of their form in the Premier League, would put them in as good a position as anyone to stop Barcelona from reaching third successive semi-final.

The Nine-Time Winners: Real Madrid – 4/1

Real Madrid, have slayed one of the demons which has haunted them in recent campaigns, by finally getting past the first knockout stage for the first time in seven years, and with a talented side capable of playing breathtaking football, they’ll be looking to go further than the quarter-finals.

Champions in 2000 and 2002, when a stunning volley from Zinedine Zidane defeated Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park, the Madridistas have been starved of success on the European stage since.

But with the self-proclaimed “Special One”- Jose Mourinho – at the helm, and a jet-heeled attack containing the likes of the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo, German international playmaker Mesut Ozil and Argentine winger Angel Di Maria, Los Galacticos supporters will be hoping that this can be the year where they win their elusive 10th European title.

Key Player – Cristiano Ronaldo

A former Champions League winner from his time with Manchester United, the Portugese forward has excelled once again this season, his second at the Bernabeu. With 27 goals in just 26 La Liga matches, the forward has tortured opponents with his searing pace, mesmerising footwork and power finishing. Having embraced life under Jose Mourinho, much in the way he did working under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, Ronaldo has grown into his role as one of the leaders in the Real Madrid dressing room and can, on his day, be a match-winner against any side.

Weaknesses

Jose Mourinho’s side are always threatening going forward, but their achilles heel remains their defence. When sides can stop the supply going into the likes of Ronaldo and Di Maria, usually by shutting down the sides twin playmaker axis – sitting in front of the back four Xabi Alonso, and sitting behind the forwards Mesut Ozil – and can press the Real backline, chances invariably follow.

Both full-backs, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, can be exploited,  especially by quick direct wingers such as Tottenham’s Gareth Bale ,whilst Ricardo Carvalho, still an excellent reader of the game, isn’t as quick as he once was. Morever, his central defensive partner Pepe is capable of self-destructing.

One side they’d like to avoid: Barcelona

Whilst most football fans across Europe would like to see two more El Clasico’s this season, Jose Mourinho and his players, no matter how much they publicly say they don’t mind, will not want to face their most bitter rivals. With Novembers 5-0 humiliation at the Camp Nou still fresh in their minds, the last thing they’ll want, after slaying the proverbial dragon that was getting past the second round, is a double-header against Pep Guardiola’s side.

The Desperate For Continental Success: Chelsea – 6/1

After a tumultuous season which has all but ended their hopes of retaining their Premier League crown, and also resulted in a dismal fourth round FA Cup defeat, the Blues last chance of silverware would appear to be the one that owner Roman Abramovich truly craves – The UEFA Champions League.

Carlo Ancelotti, the manager, knows how to win it, after successes in 2003 and 2007 when in charge of AC Milan, however the majority of his playing staff – the majority of whom came so close in Moscow in 2008 – are still awaiting their first European crown.

With the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka all the wrong side of 30, this season could be this Chelsea sides last chance at winning the Champions League crown, before wholesale changes are made.

Key Player – Frank Lampard

The England international midfielder has been a major goal threat for Chelsea ever since his move to Stamford Bridge from West Ham in 2001, regularly reaching over 20 goals a season.Yet, 32-year-old Lampard has struggled for form and fitness this campaign following a hernia operation and groin injuries. Nevertheless, in recent weeks Lampard has been showing signs that he is getting back to somewhere near his best, and if he can do just that between now and the end of the season, Lampard’s goal-getting ability could be the difference between success and failure.

Weaknesses

An experienced and powerful side, Chelsea have this season shown sides that maybe age is catching up with them. After blowing sides apart during the early part of the season, sides have realised that if you can break up Chelsea’s flow, deny the full-backs, in particular Ashley Cole, the England left-back, the chance to get forward, and suffocate the space in the middle, then you can frustrate Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

The mobility of Alex, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic – three of the club’s four centre-backs – can be tested by quick forwards, the likes of Barcelona’s David Villa or Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez running the channels, whilst creative attacking midfielder’s, like Mesut Ozil, Lionel Messi or Wesley Sneijder, can find space drifting past the Blues midfield, especially if Jon Obi Mikel isn’t playing.

One side they’d like to avoid: Internazionale

Last season’s meeting between the two is still fresh in the mind, and whilst the reigning champions are no longer lead by Jose Mourinho, nor as powerful as they were, their ability to mix a physical battle, and create chances even when under the cosh makes them more than dangerous opponents, especially to a side who can be frustrated in the way that Chelsea can.

Furthermore, powerful striker Didier Drogba never seems to get the best of Brazilian defender Lucio, witness his needless sending off during last season’s second leg whilst Samuel Eto’o, whose goal at Stamford Bridge effectively knocked Chelsea out last season, is in the best form of his trophy-laden career.

The Experienced Campaigners: Manchester United – 7/1

The Premier League leaders remain on course for a historic treble – reminiscent of 1999 – despite it being claimed by many that Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad is as weak as it has been at any point during the last 10 years. Winners in 2008, and beaten finalists in 2009, United made hard work of Marseille in the second round, but on their day have proven over the years that they’re more than a match for anybody.

With Edwin van der Sar, in outstanding form in his final year before retirement, and Nemanja Vidic providing a solid base, Ferguson will still be hopeful that Rio Ferdinand can return from injury to add a calm, re-assuring head, to his defence to make it even more dominant.

Further forward, Portugese winger Nani has matured into a genuine match-winner, whilst Javier Hernandez pace and goal-poaching ability has added an extra dimension to the United attack.

But if they are really to threaten a place in the final, and possibly win the European Cup for a fourth time, then all eyes will be on Wayne Rooney to show the form of last season, after a disappointing campaign thus far this term.

Key Player – Nemanja Vidic

Whilst United haven’t been firing on all cylinders this season – Strange considering they’re currently still in with a chance of repeating the 1999 treble success – the Serbian defensive powerhouse has been on top of his game all season

Strong in the tackle, physically dominant, good in the air and an intelligent reader of the game, Vidic’s partnership with Rio Ferdinand has been the cornerstone of United’s success in the last four seasons.  And whilst the England international has struggled this season with injuries, Vidic has put in consistent high-quality performances that have seen him talked about as a possible contender for England’s Footballer of the Year.

Weaknesses

Uncharacteristically for United, scoring goals has proved a problem for the Red Devils in the Champions League this season. They’ve found the back of the opponents net only nine times in eight european matches, with both Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov struggling to find form.

Furthermore, whilst the centre of defence looks strong, even with Ferdinand’s injury worries – Chris Smalling, the England under-21 international, has proved a more than able deputy – right-back Rafael, can be lured into making crude challenges.  Expect the likes of Pedro, the Barcelona winger, or Shakhtar Donetsk’s Willian to try to exploit this, to get the Brazilian youngster booked and sent off.

Also there are worries in midfield, particularly with Michael Carrick, the England international, who has looked shorn of confidence on the European stage since being  comprehensively dismantled in Rome during the 2009 final by Barcelona duo Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

One side they’d like to avoid: Chelsea

Although United were somewhat unlucky during their recent visit to Stamford Bridge – when they were beaten 2-1 – Ferguson’s side won’t fancy taking on Carlo Ancelotti’s experienced side, who just seem to have the knowhow when it comes to beating the Red Devils – their last three meetings have all resulted in victory for the Londoners. Nemanja Vidic, the United captain, will be particularly keen to avoid Chelsea, and his own personal kryptonite, Fernando Torres.

The Reigning Champions: Internazionale – 9/1

Last season’s all-conquering Inter side were treble winners – adding the Scudetto and Coppa Italia to their Champions League crown – however this years incarnation are a very different side.

Without Jose Mourinho at the helm, Inter are less well-organised, and more unstable defensively, however, their forward players play with much more creative license and freedom, undoubtedly influenced by current chief Leonardo.

The reigning champs will unquestionably feel relieved to have made the final eight, after a sensational comeback in the Allianz Arena against Bayern Munich, when, having been battered by Louis van Gaal’s side and needing two goals to progress, Wesley Sneijder and Goran Pandev both scored during the second period, to put Inter into the last eight.

Key Player – Samuel Eto’o

The Cameroon international striker is a three-time Champions League winner (2006 & 2009 – Barcelona, 2010 – Inter), and he’ll be looking for his third successive winners medal this season.

Eto’o has been in the form of his life this season, quite a feat for a player with his goal-record, and his performance in the Allianz Arena against Bayern almost single-handedly dragged Inter back from the jaws of defeat.

The former Barcelona striker is perhaps the deadliest finisher world football has seen in the last five years, and a further 19 goals in Serie A this season would further cement that claim.

Yet it’s his mentality, his never-say-die attitude and his ability to lead from the front, which means that Inter will always be a dangerous threat to whoever they face.

Weaknesses

Minus the Mourinho factor, Inter look far more vulnerable than they did at any point whilst under the Portugese’ management. Under Leonardo, the side is certainly capable of scoring goals, but they look horrendously untidy at the back.

Errors have crept into the games of Brazilian defensive duo Maicon and Lucio, whilst Julio Cesar’s form has dipped from that which made him the worlds best goalkeeper some 12 months ago. Furthermore, in the absence of Walter Samuel, who is out for the season with a knee injury, Andrea Ranocchia, the young Italian defender, has come in, but struggles against fleet-footed forwards, as Frank Ribery showed in the second round. Lionel Messi would certainly fancy his chances against the former Genoa defender.

One side they’d like to avoid: Tottenham Hotspur

It goes without saying that the Italian champions would like to avoid Barcelona, who would have revenge in mind following last years semi-final, but Inter will almost certainly not fancy the prospect of taking on Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham side. And in particular, Spurs flying winger Gareth Bale.

Bale showed just how vulnerable this Inter side is to pace down the flanks, and the ease of the Welshman’s destruction of Maicon in the two group matches will have done much harm to the psyche of the Brazilian right-back, who until then was seen as the world’s best.

Redknapp’s side have already showed that they can score goals galore against the reigning champions and the side from White Hart Lane would certainly go at Inter’s creaky backline with no fear, and would fancy their chances of putting the holders to the sword.

The Attack-Minded Approach: Tottenham Hotspur – 12/1

Harry Redknapp’s flamboyant side have been free-scoring in this seasons Champions League, but in the last round showed that they could play in a more considered, tactical way, as they edged out AC Milan 1-0 on aggregate.

The defence has become more solid as the competition has progressed, but Spurs real strength lies in their attacking qualities and the number of ways in which they can  cause opponents difficulties.

The North London side are equally capable of penetrating down either flank, with the lightning speed of wingers Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, or playing patient, possession football through the middle, via the outstanding Croatian midfielder Luka Modric and the Dutch attacker Rafael van der Vaart.

Nonetheless, if both of those options fail, then they’re more than happy to play direct, from back to front, looking long for Peter Crouch and trying to get onto his knockdowns.

Key Player – Gareth Bale

The Welsh wonder made all of Europe sit up and take note with his sensational hat-trick and virtuouso performance in the San Siro against Inter during the group stage.

Frighteningly fast, with a sweet left foot, Bale’s ability to beat people at breakneck speed,  deliver inch-perfect crosses and carry the ball for 40/50 yards at a time means Spurs always carry a threat.

The former Southampton youngster, after 12 months of consistently brilliant displays will now go into games with the added confidence that he truly belongs on the field with the games best players and he’ll have the added bonus of knowing some of them truly fear what he’s all about.

Weaknesses

Whilst Spurs defence has improved over the course of the season, the same weaknesses still remain from their first european outing of the season against Young Boys Bern.

As a team, Harry Redknapp’s side like to play very attacking football, keeping as much width and depth as possible, which leaves them open to counter attacks. Sides with more imagination, speed and flair than AC Milan will be able to take advantage.

The full-backs, Alan Hutton and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, aren’t the best defensively and can be picked off by skillful opponents willing to take them on, the likes of Angel Di Maria and Nani, whereas forwards who like to drop off into the hole between the Spurs midfield and defence, like Wayne Rooney or Raul, will always find plenty of space in which to operate.

One side they’d like to avoid: Real Madrid

In a tie where Spurs would be undoubted underdogs, Redknapp’s side would be coming up against a team who are built to stop them at one end and also take them apart at the other.

Carvalho and Pepe’s touch-tight defensive styles and oft-underhand tactics would see Crouch give away numerous fouls, whilst Marcelo and Sergio RamosRamos would be matched up more evenly than one would assume against Lennon and Bale, largely due to physical similarities between the players who would be in direct opposition.

Mesut Ozil, the Madrid playmaker, would have plenty of space between the lines within which to operate, whilst Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo would fancy their chances of doing serious damage to the Spurs backline, especially at a hostile Santiago Bernabeu. Throw in the Jose Mourinho factor, and Spurs would be really up against it.

The Eastern Europeans: Shakhtar Donetsk – 25/1

Mircea Lucescu’s 2009 UEFA Cup winners have reached the quarter-finals and in doing so become the first side from the Ukraine to reach this stage since Dynamo Kiev in 1999.

Mixing robust defending, thanks to the likes of Dmitro Chygrinskiy and Toma Hubschmann, with attacking flair and panache, through their eclectic mix of Brazilian imports, the likes of Jadson, Willian and Douglas Costa, Shakhtar have had a fine campaign to this point, topping a group containing Arsenal, before destroying Roma in the second round 6-2 on aggregate, being the only side to win both legs of their tie.

Throw into the mix an unbeaten home-record since moving into the Donbass Arena in 2009 – over 60 matches have been and gone and the Pitmen are still to face defeat – and the tricky trip to the Ukraine is one that the other seven sides may well want to avoid.

Key Player – Jadson

The diminutive Brazilian schemer is the player who really makes the Ukrainian champions tick.With a sublime touch, awareness of whats going on around him, and ability to play the killer pass, Jadson is the man who Shakhtar look to to create chances when matches are tight.

The 27-year-old is by no means a prolific goalscorer from his position playing behind lone striker Luiz Adriano – only five goals in 24 matches this season, two in eight in the Champions League – but his ability to dictate play from a central area, and bring Shakhtar’s dynamic wingers Willian and Douglas Costa into the game, makes his the man to stop when travelling to Donetsk.

Weaknesses

Lucescu’s side are an extremely impressive attacking unit, all very comfortable on the ball. However, against sides who attack at pace and get men forward, they will struggle, as they don’t switch from attack to defence quickly, and players can be caught out of position, especially in wide areas.

The two centre-backs, Dmtryo Chygrynskiy and Yarolsav Rakitskiy are both strong and physical, but both struggle against strikers prepared to spin into the channels and run in behind them – the likes of David Villa and Samuel Eto’o.

Furthermore, the goalkeeper, Andriy Pyatov, is far from convincing.

One side they’d like to avoid: Barcelona

Unquestionably, Shakhtar wouldn’t like to take on the Spanish champions. In England, Arsenal are known, quite disparagingly, as “Barcelona lite” and Shakhtar are a similar story.

If they are pitched into battle against Pep Guardiola’s side, they would undoubtedly struggle, as they are not the best side defensively, and would go long periods without gaining possession of the football.

Furthermore, no matter how good the Ukrainian sides home-record is, it wouldn’t matter over a two-legged tie, if they were to be hit for four or five, at the Camp Nou by Lionel Messi and company.

The Rank Outsiders: Schalke 04 – 50/1

Schalke are frustratingly inconsistent, which would explain why they have reached the last eight of the Champions League, aswell as the German Cup final, but have struggled for any kind of form in the Bundesliga this season. Furthermore, Felix Magath, the Head Coach, has been sacked despite guiding them into the last eight.

The Germans were somewhat fortunate to get past Valencia in the second round, the Spanish side having created more than enough chances to progress, only to find Schalke captain and Germany international goalkeeper Manuel Neuer in outstanding form.

Going forward, and Schalke have real pedigree up front, with Klaas Jan Huntelaar, the Dutch striker, and the Champions League’s record goalscorer Raul. Throw in the pace of quicksilver Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfan and the trickery of attacking midfielder Jose Manuel Jurado, and Schalke have enough in their locker to trouble teams.

Key Player – Manuel Neuer

The German international has been linked with big money moves away from the Veltins Arena this summer, to both Bayern Munich and Manchester United, but until then Schalke’s hopes of clean sheets rest in his hands.

With outstanding reflexes, the 24-year-old is capable of making top-quality saves and he was at his best in the second round as he made a number of vital stops to deny Valencia.

Having been at the club since the age of five, Neuer is now one of the dressing room leaders, and his increased presence since becoming captain, which has seen Neuer become more commmanding in his own penalty area, has helped him to become one of the worlds best goalkeepers.

Weaknesses

The side are very poor defensively, and only the outstanding Neuer, and some extremely good fortune enabled them to fight their way past a misfiring Valencia in the second round.

Benedict Howedes and Christoph Metzelder, the centre half pairing, are both strong, and Metzelder is an excellent reader of the game. However, both are lacking in pace, and can be caught out by the pass into channels, or by opponents who play quick one-twos in front of them.

Moreover, the full-backs Atsuto Uchida and Christian Pander, are often found guilty of ball watching and can be exploited by clipped passes in behind, to someone timing a run from out wide – something that Barcelona duo Xavi and Daniel Alves have perfected this season.

Any side who can sustain pressure against the Germans, will invariably create chances.

One side they’d like to avoid: Manchester United

As 50/1 outsiders Schalke are the underdogs against whoever they will play. They have done quite remarkably to get this far with a side that lacks pedigree on the European stage.

However, if Schalke were to face a United side firing on all cylinders, with Wayne Rooney at his creative best, and Nani and Luis Antonio Valencia, back from injury, causing havoc down the wings, then there would only be one winner.

With the movement of Javier Hernandez up front, the Schalke defence would struggle and United’s quick-fire, high tempo style at Old Trafford, would be enough to sink the sole German ship riding in the quarter-finals

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About AA_Richards

Football writer & all-round pen for hire. Can tiki-taka or counter-attack at pace. Differentiates Athletic from Atletico. Follow me on twitter: http://twitter.com/AA_Richards
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3 Responses to The UEFA Champions League Final Eight – The Contenders

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