When giants collide
The Uefa Champions League is again offering fans a few utterly mouthwatering clashes
Sports writers refer to the knockout stages as the “business end” of a competition. This week, the business end of the Uefa Champions League began with what would, in the past, have been a mouthwatering cross-channel clash of giants. The match pitted French Ligue 1 kings Paris Saint Germain (PSG) against reigning English Premier League champions Chelsea.
But with the English side having fallen from grace and now struggling to make the cut for even the second-tier Europa League next season, many expected this to be an average game, which would end with a walkover for PSG. It was not to be.
Although PSG emerged 2-1, Chelsea would have been happy with their away goal lifeline for when they host Les Rouge-et-Bleu at Stamford Bridge. In the other big game of the week, Real Madrid cruised past Roma.
This week the attention will turn to the really juicy clashes. Arsenal vs Barcelona (Tuesday, 9.45pm) This is the one we’ve all been waiting for since the draw was made in December.
Arsenal will be seeking to emulate their epic 2011 performance of the last-16 first-leg encounter at the Emirates Stadium when they triumphed over a Pep Guardiola-managed Barcelona side that was at the height of its powers. On that night – still cited by fans and players as one of the most memorable at the Emirates – Arsenal defied Barcelona’s totally superior ball possession to emerge 2-1 winners and bolster its dreams of going all the way to the final. However, the dream was to be short-lived, as Barcelona crushed the Gunners’ hopes with a 3-1 win at the Camp Nou.
Five years later, Arsenal will come up against a Barcelona side that is just as – or even more – formidable than that 2011 side. While the MSN (Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Neymar) upfront combination is scoring goals at will, the team’s overall approach makes most of their opposition generally look like schoolboy teams.
With the seasoned Petr Cech in goal, Arsenal’s defence has been a lot stingier than usual this season and longtime manager Arsène Wenger will be hoping this can somehow tame the MSN machine. But concerns have been raised as to whether the otherwise perceptive Per Mertesacker’s famed lack of pace will be the chink in the armour.
Barcelona’s Luis Enrique will be hoping to stabilise his own suspect defence, whose blushes have been saved by the starkly skewed balance of power in Spanish football.
Juventus vs Bayern Munich (Tuesday, 9.45pm)
Juventus shocked everyone by making it all the way to the 2014/15 Champions League final.
After pushing Borussia Dortmund and Monaco aside in the last 16 and the quarterfinals, the Italian giants were given no chance when drawn against Real Madrid for the semis. An all-Spanish final was on the cards if Barcelona managed to get past Bayern Munich in the other semi. Barcelona did their bit to set up an El Classico in Berlin, but Juve spoilt the party with their 3-2 overall score. Their own party, however, was to prove a dream too far when they were outplayed by Barcelona.
Bayern players have promised to give their much-loved coach, Guardiola, a great send-off by letting him join the ranks of elite coaches such as Carlo Ancelotti and José Mourinho, who have lifted the trophy with clubs from different leagues.
Munich go into this game with Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller in the middle of a goal-scoring feast. Of the Bundesliga leaders’ 53 goals this season, the pair have scored 36 between them.
On the Juve side, this will be a chance for the young Paul Pogba to prove his worth as a talisman on the big stage.
The 22-year-old has become the face of Juventus, both as a match winner and a marketing tool. With massive stars such as Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez and Juve legend Andrea Pirlo having moved on, the spotlight has fallen on the young man, perhaps unfairly.
When he has not come to the party, he has been accused of inconsistency – but fortunately, the club’s management – conscious of the intense interest in him from Europe’s big spenders – has always been there to shield him from criticism.
If he performs on Tuesday, he will cement his value to the Old Lady, along with further fuelling the big-money race for his signature.
Fortunately for him, coach Massimiliano Allegri’s newlook Juventus has dependable soldiers in Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandžukić and Álvaro Morata. And, of course, there is the living ancestor in the form of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who is now 38.
MAESTRO Lionel Messi has been in good form for Barcelona POINT TO PROVE Alexis Sánchez will come against his former side EYE FOR GOAL
Robert Lewandowski will hope to hurt Juventus
YOUNG WARRIOR Paul Pogba carries Juventus’ hopes