Time for sides to shine in Champions League quarterfinals
The Champions League quarterfinals kick off Tuesday across the Fox family with defending champions Inter Milan squaring off against Schalke (2.30PM EDT, Fox Sports Net) and Real Madrid facing English upstarts Tottenham Hotspur (2.30PM EDT Fox Soccer).
The action continues Wednesday with the blockbuster meeting of Chelsea and Manchester United (2.30PM EDT, Fox Soccer) and Spanish giants Barcelona facing surprise Ukrainian hopefuls Shakhtar Donetsk (2.30PM, Fox Soccer Plus).
The Fox Soccer crew sat down to break down the biggest matchups and the key players to watch.
Q. Injuries have hit both Real Madrid and Tottenham very hard before this match; Real will miss Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo while Spurs may miss Gareth Bale, William Gallas and Alan Hutton. What does this do to this matchup?
WARREN: Well, it makes this game interesting now, doesn’t it? Before hand, I was sure that Real Madrid would take the match: They have the better players, all that experience here, and maybe with the injuries it has opened it up a little bit, but I still think that this is a bridge too far for Spurs. If Gareth Bale cannot play, that’s enormous. When that team succeeds, it is because he has played a role, and with all due respect to Aaron Lennon, I don’t think he is at the same level. Without him, I fear Spurs could be a one-dimensional side on the night.
CHRISTOPHER: Even though I still give Real Madrid the slight edge, I think that Tottenham have a real chance to surprise in this leg despite their own injury problems. Spurs have to make a decision whether to go for that away goal or to play a conservative game. Every time they play that midfield clogging game, they don’t play well, so I think they have to attack. Lennon’s speed can help them - he stretches teams and allows players like Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart time and space to orchestrate.
WARREN: I think we also have to talk about Jose Mourinho. You cannot overstate his importance: Mourinho can be whatever he needs to be for a match like this, and you see he is already trying to draw Harry Redknapp into little mind games. He can play a philosopher like Arsene Wenger, an aggressor like Sir Alex Ferguson, and here he’s playing the likable guy role, teasing Redknapp. He can adapt to anything - fight fire with fire if need be - and he is just so smart about how he sets these games up that it makes it much easier on his players.
Q. Inter are coming off a tough derby loss to AC Milan; can they rebound here?
WARREN: Yes: this is a perfect tie for them, the way the Germans are set up, and they will relish this. I think Leonardo has them right in line, and I think top to bottom, Inter wins out in every category and matchup. I also think Inter, like Barcelona, will benefit from their opponents’ awe. I see them going through.
CHRISTOPHER: I normally don’t like to make predictions, but I see Inter winning this one 2-0. Inter has an amazing team that, unlike so many others in Italy, can match the rest of the Europeans in terms of speed. They had a poor result in the Milan derby, and that will weigh on them, but Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o and Thiago Motta can turn it around. I think Inter Milan can go very far in this tournament: this is a very good matchup for them against a side that is struggling everywhere else.
Q. Big game for a lot of our fans is of course Chelsea-Manchester United. Massive game. Who wins it?
WARREN: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this has to feel like destiny for Chelsea. With all the difficulties they’ve had this season, and the fact that they are now coming good at a critical time, I think their players have to feel like this has a whiff of fate about it. It’s the last go-round for Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and John Terry as a group, and I don’t see them slipping. This might where it ends for United - but I will say, whoever wins this tie could win it all.
CHRISTOPHER: I think we’re starting to see United ascend at just the right time. Getting Valencia back is a big piece of the puzzle: he’s an important figure, and they need him in there to take pressure off Nani and Ryan Giggs. He really helps to balance this team, and with him out wide, he stretches opponents, and allows Paul Scholes to link up with Wayne Rooney and Chicharito. It makes them very dangerous up front. Their concern is the back four, and obviously Edwin van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic will be keys. You can say that United haven’t scored many goals in this competition, but they are starting to find that touch and that confidence.
Q. Speaking of, Warren, we’ve heard a lot of chatter about Wayne Rooney being done; he comes out and scores a hat-trick this weekend!
WARREN: I’ve played with a lot of great players and all of them has had a dip in form at some point in their careers. I think people were saying that because his standards were so high. He showed he has the character of a champion Saturday. Bottom line: Don’t bet against him!
Q. Barcelona-Shakhtar looks like a mismatch on paper. Thoughts, guys?
WARREN: Barcelona are the best soccer team left. Have they played the most attractive football? Yes. They're a great team to watch, and they are a winning team, and I think we all agree that Pep is the best coach. But: are they champions? Are they European Cup winners? I think that’s still a question mark in their minds, to be frank.
CHRISTOPHER: I love the way Shakhtar plays, and I think this tie could be one of the most aesthetically pleasing ones of the round. I’m actually a big fan of what Mircea Lucescu has done as a manager, because he gets the best out of his teams not only in terms of individual play but in overall team play as well. They’re going to try and play Barcelona straight up and just attack. Barcelona is clearly the best soccer team on the planet - maybe the best side in 20 years - and I don’t see Shakhtar being able to defend with the same intensity that they will attack, but I don’t think Pep Guardiola will have Barcelona looking past them at all.
WARREN: Shakhtar have some quality but I think they come in and see Barcelona - the stature and the history and the players - and it’s too much for them. I cannot see any other outcome than Barcelona heading on.