Barca in prime shape for Champions League return

BY foxsports • April 4, 2011

After virtually wrapping up the defense of its Spanish title, Barcelona returns to Champions League action this week with confidence sky high ahead of a quarterfinal against Ukrainian underdog Shakhtar Donetsk.

Pep Guardiola's team won 1-0 at Villarreal on Saturday to establish an eight-point lead over rival Real Madrid, which was upset 1-0 by Sporting Gijon to end coach Jose Mourinho's run of nine years without a home defeat in league play.

While Madrid must regroup before facing English side Tottenham in the first leg of its Champions League quarterfinal on Tuesday, Barca is in prime shape heading into a match pitting the competition's favorite against its dark horse.

"Our confidence is at a maximum level," Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said. "It will be a tough series but we are excited to play and the victory (against Villarreal) will help us a lot."

In the other two first legs, Chelsea hosts Premier League rival Manchester United on Wednesday in a repeat of the 2008 final and Schalke visits defending champion Inter Milan on Tuesday.

Three-time European champion Barcelona remains the team to beat, however, as the Catalan club's form has been stellar lately, both on the domestic front and in Europe.

The team has played so well, in fact, that Guardiola started the game against Villarreal with star forward Lionel Messi on the bench, meaning the Argentine - the Champions League's joint top scorer with eight goals - will be fresh for Shakhtar on Wednesday.

Playmaker Xavi Hernandez will also be fully rested, having missed Saturday's match because of suspension.

Unfortunately for Mourinho, Real - a nine-time European champion - doesn't have such luxuries in selection.

Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo missed the match against Sporting on Saturday with a hamstring problem and is a doubt for the visit of Spurs, while striker Karim Benzema and defender Marcelo are also struggling with injuries.

"If Cristiano plays, it is because he and I risk it," Mourinho said.

With Tottenham being the competition's surprise package this season after topping a group that included Inter and seeing off AC Milan in the last 16, Mourinho is predicting a close quarterfinal.

"Against Tottenham, a (0-0) is a good result," he said about the first leg. "Or, at least, it is not a drama."

Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp must decide whether to risk star winger Gareth Bale, who has missed the last two weeks with a hamstring injury.

After losing to Manchester United in the 2008 final in Moscow, Chelsea is looking to take a measure of revenge when the two English powers meet in the quarterfinals.

Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti said it is the team's "destiny" to have to get past United in its bid to win the Champions League for the first time.

"This could really be the time for Chelsea to do something in the Champions League," said Ancelotti, who won the competition with Milan in 2007.

"It's important to have tradition and history in the Champions League. The experience of the team, the personality of the player, the character, are very important for this kind of game where there is a lot of pressure."

Chelsea looks like it will relinquish its English title to United, which moved seven points clear at the top of the Premier League at the weekend thanks to Wayne Rooney's hat trick in the 4-2 win at West Ham on Saturday.

Indeed, with the team having also made it through to the semifinals of the FA Cup, United is still on course to repeat its exploits of 1999 when it won the treble.

"When you look at the teams we will be facing in the next games, it is going to be very hard," captain Nemanja Vidic said. "It is possible, though, and I feel the best way to approach it is just to assess each game.

"It is dangerous to start looking too far ahead. The achievement would be great but we all know one game can change everything."

Inter Milan is looking to become the first team in Champions League history to retain the title, and is also attempting to avenge its defeat to Schalke in the UEFA Cup final in 1997. Inter coach Leonardo will have to pick his team up, however, after its 3-0 loss to Milan on Saturday that left the defending champions five points off the lead.

Schalke has progressed through to the last eight of the Champions League even though it is struggling in the German league, lying just five points above the relegation zone.

Striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has missed the last four weeks with a knee injury and is not expected to feature, even though he has traveled to Milan. Mario Gavranovic (ankle) and Peer Kluge (torn abdominal muscle) are out while defender Christoph Metzelder may play with a face mask after breaking his nose.

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