Champions League draw analysis
Many football fans were hoping for Barcelona and Real Madrid to meet in either the Champions League quarterfinals or semifinals — two games instead of one. But placed on opposite sides in Friday's draw, it didn't happen. However, the Spanish giants are favored to meet in the May 19 final in Munich, so for those fans suffering from Clasico fatigue, a one-off title match is even more appealing.
Barcelona, on reputation, has an interesting quarterfinal against Serie A leader Milan, with Real paired with the team everyone wanted … APOEL.
Champions League Draw
APOEL vs. Real Madrid
Marseille vs. Bayern Munich
Benfica vs. Chelsea
AC Milan vs. Barcelona
March 27-28 and April 3-4
Marseille or Bayern vs. APOEL or Madrid
Benfica or Chelsea vs. Milan or Barca
April 17-18 and 24-25
Who's favored to win it all? We rank the eight teams still in contention.
1. Barcelona (faces Milan in quarters): It may be well off the pace in La Liga, but but the cups keep coming for Barca. Already winning the Spanish Super Cup, European Super Cup and Club World Cup, Lionel Messi & Co. are on the verge of winning the Spanish King's Cup. (Barca will face an impressive Athletic Bilbao in that final.)
Barca just doesn't have the same depth as Real Madrid, and over the season, too many points have been dropped in the league away from home. However, if the starting XI can stay fit, especially Messi, how can Barca not be the favorite to repeat in the Champions League?
Forward Alexis Sanchez is back in training, which is good news for the Catalans ahead of the quarterfinals. And in case they needed more inspiration, it came in the form of French defender Eric Abidal, who is preparing for a liver transplant a year after having a tumor removed on his liver.
In meeting Milan and then likely Chelsea in the semifinals, Barca confronts two sides that know how to set up shop defensively and stifle the opposition's attack. However, that experience also comes at a cost — both squads are aging — so Barcelona should still like its chances. It's off to Munich.
2. Real Madrid (faces APOEL in quarters): If Real Madrid has to face Barcelona in the Champions League, the preference for boss Jose Mourinho is a one-off game instead of two legs, a format where the Special One has found success against the Catalans (see the King's Cup final from last season). He got his wish.
Barcelona, though, still has the edge over its fierce rival in Europe's top club competition and perhaps that will be too large of a mental barrier for Real to overcome if the teams meet, as expected, in Munich.
The squad is certainly there; if Messi wasn't around, we'd all be fawning over Cristiano Ronaldo. The return to form of Kaka is nice to see, with the Brazilian putting in a man-of-the-match display against CSKA Moscow this week in Madrid and earning plaudits from Mourinho. Mesut Ozil continues to pull the strings in midfield. Bottom line: Real's attacking options are going to be tough for any team to stop; it's perhaps at the back where Los Blancos are relatively weak.
But first things first: APOEL. And let's face it — Madrid's B-team would likely ease past the Cypriot side in the quarterfinals. A tougher task would await in the semis if Bayern Munich, as expected, is the opponent.
3. Bayern Munich (faces Marseille in quarters): All of a sudden, things are smooth at Bayern. It put seven past Basel to overturn a one-goal deficit in the round of 16 and scored seven more against Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga. Dutch winger Arjen Robben is rounding into form at the right time, and how to get your ex girlfriend back
p://soccernet.espn.go.com/player/_/id/42015/Mario-Gomez”>Mario Gomez continues to hit the back of the net.
Most importantly, though, is that midfield general Bastian Schweinsteiger has returned from an ankle injury. He's the team's talisman.
Munich should cruise against a mediocre Marseille in the quarterfinals, and the prospect of playing at home in a Champions League final would only spur them on if battling Real in the semis.
4. Chelsea (faces Benfica in quarters): Life is seemingly good at Stamford Bridge now that Andre Villas-Boas is gone. The player revolt worked. The veterans put in an inspiring performance to rally and eliminate Napoli this past Wednesday, with captain John Terry looking like the new manager (not Roberto di Matteo) when he directed traffic in extra time. Defender David Luiz, so often criticized, had one of his better games this season as well. That's not to say Chelsea wasn't slightly lucky. Napoli had chances aplenty but was unable to capitalize.
Sure the Blues had more dangerous opponents to potentially face in the quarters, but Benfica hasn't lost at home in the Champions League this season and tied Manchester United at Old Trafford. Expect Chelsea to progress but for the journey to end in the semis. Still no Champions League title, the trophy he craves, for owner Roman Abramovich.
5. Milan (faces Barcelona in quarters): AC Milan will take heart from tying Barca at Camp Nou in the group stage and keeping it close in the return affair. However, Milan's showing in Barcelona was hardly vintage. Call it a smash and grab of the highest order.
Milan made it past Arsenal in the round of 16, but had the Gunners actually showed up to play in the first leg in Milan instead of rolling over, Arsenal would have been the team going through to the quarters.
As it stands, Milan will take on the defending champion. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will need to shine over two legs against his former club — and so often he's flattered to deceive in big games before — for the Italian side to progress.
6. Benfica (faces Chelsea in quarters): Playing well at Old Trafford will mean Benfica won't be overawed when heading to London for the second leg against Chelsea. The key is to win the opener in Lisbon and prevent the Blues from scoring an all-important away goal.
In winger Nicolas Gaitan, Benfica possesses one of the most exciting — and sought after — prospects in Europe. No one has more assists in the Champions League than the Argentine this season. While Gaitan continues to make headlines, don't forget the contribution of Belgian international Axel Witsel. Javi Garcia, the holding midfielder, is another positive, and Oscar Cardozo scores goals up front.
It all adds up to a side that, while not winning the competition, shouldn't be underestimated.
7. Marseille (faces Bayern Munich in quarters): The Champions League has been a welcome relief for Marseille. In Ligue 1, it has lost four straight under Didier Deschamps without scoring a goal. Thankfully for Marseille, it drew an even more slumping Inter Milan in the round of 16.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Marseille heading into the match against Bayern is that its keeper, captain Steve Mandanda, is banned for the first leg.
8. APOEL (faces Real Madrid in quarters): The rank outsider, all associated with hard-working, organized APOEL this week were saying they wanted to avoid Barcelona and Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. The football gods weren't kind to the Cypriots, as they face Los Merengues. Paulo Jorge, a stalwart in the center of defense, will be very busy against Mourinho's men, as will heroic keeper Dionisios Chiotis. Hurting APOEL in the first leg is a suspension to Brazilian Gustavo Manduca, its leading scorer in the competition.
It was fun while it lasted, but APOEL's dream run in Europe will come to an end in the quarters.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.