Kind draw promises wide-open affairs

March 15, 2013

The names of the eight clubs left standing in the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League emerged from the shiny capsules pulled from a bowl by three men in expensive-looking suits on Friday morning. As the men cracking bad jokes at a dais, eagerly watched by lots of other men in expensive-looking suits, the clubs were paired off for their next bouts, in the ritual of the Champions League quarterfinals draw.

In April, Malaga will face Borussia Dortmund; Real Madrid will meet Galatasaray; Paris Saint-Germain was matched with FC Barcelona; and Bayern Munich will take on Juventus.

While scintillating matchups between archrivals like Barcelona and Real or Dortmund and Bayern had been a possibility, the biggest clubs in the competition mostly avoided each other. As such, the tournament promises to remain wide-open all the way through to the semifinals stage.

Of the five remaining clubs thought to be contenders – Dortmund, Real, Barca, Bayern and Juve – only the latter two drew each other. Should four of those five teams progress, that would set up some of the most high-octane semifinals in recent memory, as it would be unusually devoid of overachievers, reachers or Cinderella stories.


It’s rare for the tournament to have no clear favorites at this late stage. But none of the most well-stocked and well-prepared teams have set the tournament alight this year, nor have any been entirely convincing.

Dortmund emerged as the winner of the "group of death" -- but they weren’t entirely convincing in their round of 16 win over Shakhtar Donetsk, relying on a good dose of luck to draw the first leg 2-2. While they dazzle with the ball at their feet, things look a lot shakier at the defensive end.

Real Madrid relied on a somewhat fortuitous call to give them the upper hand against Manchester United in their last round. It wasn’t until Nani was expelled from the second leg in a controversial call that they gained the upper hand. Manager Jose Mourinho himself conceded without prompting that “the better team has lost.” That team, to be clear, was not his.

Barcelona, meanwhile, considered by many to be the greatest club team of all time following three Champions League trophies in the last seven years while quite plainly reinventing the sport, struggled mightily in their first leg against AC Milan. They took a 2-0 loss in Milan and while they overturned it in quite spectacular fashion by winning 4-0 at home, questions over their ability to consistently break down negative teams remain.

Bayern is running away with the German league, giving them the luxury of resting players for their two-pronged affair with Juventus, but they, too, are an enigma of sorts. They demolished Arsenal away 3-1 in the first leg, but grew complacent in the second and nearly gave away the tie in a 2-0 loss. They can be as dominant as any team, but they are prone to mental lapses and have thus far lacked the efficiency to put them over the top.

Juventus have reclaimed their perch atop the Italian game and promise to successfully defend their Italian league title this year. They are a soundly-built squad, but they may lack the offensive firepower to score the necessary goals against the very best of oppositions. Their strikers are many and prolific but none are quite elite, exactly.

Outsiders Paris-Saint Germain, Malaga and Galatasaray are all new to the heady heights they have reached. The first is newly assembled on the back of a monumental Qatari investment; the second is a scrappy outfit enjoying their very first foray into the Champions League; the third is a solid organization that picked up aging stars Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder in the winter transfer window, enabling them to latch onto the top.

Between those eight, Juve and Bayern will probably offer up the juiciest contest between two tactically-disciplined teams. PSG and their vast stockpile of talent will pose a serious challenge to a much thinner Barca and are likely also to provide fireworks.

''They are the favorites, not only against us but all the teams. But you just have to (treat) these moments like a big party,'' PSG sporting director Leonardo said. ''It's a big event for us, the first year back in the Champions League for so many years.

''If we had to sign for this before the season, it would be perfect. To play a quarterfinal against Barca will be very special.''

The only clear pattern that’s emerged among the last eight teams is that all of them have been successful this year through bright, attacking soccer. This represents a victory of sorts for the sport’s aesthetes after last year’s edition was won by a soul-sappingly defensive Chelsea, who upset Barcelona in the semifinals and Bayern Munich in the final.

The final at iconic Wembley Stadium in London on May 25 beckons. And it’s as unclear as ever who will play in it.