Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Are Barcelona now the Champions League underdogs?

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 10:  Lionel Messi of Barcelona looks on during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg match between Barcelona and Paris St Germain at Nou Camp on April 10, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 10: Lionel Messi of Barcelona looks on during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg match between Barcelona and Paris St Germain at Nou Camp on April 10, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

The line-up for the semi-finals draw is so strong the Catalans may be the team the others want to meet.

Barcelona

Coach Tito Vilanova (since July 2012)

Winners 4

Last five years (most recent last): SF - W - SF - W – SF

Astonishingly, the team everyone has feared for the last five years may be the one to be drawn against. Barcelona started with eight of the all-conquering Spanish XI against Paris Saint-Germain but still trailed before Lionel Messi limped on. The Argentine upped the tempo and forced the goal that secured a sixth successive semi-final. Relief, though, was mixed with concern at confirmation that Barça have what the Catalan press has diagnosed as a bad case of Messidependencia.

Not that this is necessarily coach Tito Vilanova's main concern. Gerard Pique is the only fit central defender, with the other options either injured (Javier Mascherano, Carles Puyol), unconvincing (Alex Song, Marc Baltra), suspended (Adriano) or easing back from serious illness (Eric Abidal). If Puyol and Abidal are not ready, Sergio Busquets could drop back. That may allow Mario Gotze, Mesut Ozil or Thomas Müller the freedom to cause havoc. There are Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, David Villa, the under-appreciated Pedro, plus rampaging full-backs, and Barça have the experience of being here before, but...

Real Madrid

Coach Jose Mourinho (May 2010)

Winners 9

Last five years: 2R - 2R - 2R - SF – SF

Real Madrid, surprisingly, have never played at Wembley, old or new, having not featured in the venue's eight European finals. Their coach, however, knows Wembley well, having led Chelsea to win the 2007 FA Cup final, the first at the rebuilt stadium.

Jose Mourinho long ago ceded La Liga to Barcelona to focus on the Champions League, in which he aims to become the first coach to win it at three different clubs. Real are equally obsessed, having last won the trophy they are so associated with in 2002.

Beaten by Barcelona and Bayern at this stage in the last two seasons, Real are as reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo, the tournament's top scorer with 11 goals, as Barcelona are on Messi. In part because of his pace, Real prefer to counter-attack – as Angel di Maria's five assists, the competition's best, underline.

Alvaro Arbeloa will be banned for the semi-final's first leg after his daft dismissal in Istanbul but Xabi Alonso, back, like Sergio Ramos, after a convenient suspension, will direct play. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, the one survivor from 2002, is back after injury, not that Mourinho is guaranteed to select his captain.

Bayern Munich

Coach Jupp Heyneckes (July 2011)

Winners 4

Last five years: DNQ – QF – F – 2R – F

Runaway Bundesliga winners, Bayern have responded impressively to losing last season's final in such devastating circumstances (on penalties, on their home ground, to a Chelsea team they had dominated and led with seconds remaining). Winning in Chelsea's backyard would be an apt riposte and the comfortable quarter-final victory over Juventus marks them out as the form team, even if Arsenal showed they can be vulnerable.

Arguably the best-balanced of the last four with excellence and experience in all areas of the pitch. Brazilian centre-back Dante, Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic and Spain's Javi Martinez have been added to the squad since last May, increasing Jupp Heynckes' options as he aims to leave incoming coach Pep Guardiola with a daunting benchmark. Key men like Franck Ribéry, Phillip Lahm and Bastien Schweinsteiger remain.

The injured Toni Kroos will be missed, and banned Mandzukic misses the first leg. Thomas Müller is a fine replacement for Kroos while Heynckes, who led Real Madrid to the trophy in 1998, has Mario Gomez or Claudio Pizarro to fill in up front.

Borussia Dortmund

Coach Jurgen Klopp (May 2008)

Winners 1

Last five years: DNQ - DNQ - DNQ - DNQ – Gp

The outsiders historically in this heavyweight quartet, having only once before reached the final. That was in 1997 and there is a link with this team. Lars Ricken, who scored within 16 seconds of coming on in that final, is now head of a youth academy which has produced Mario Gotze, Nuri Sahin and Marco Reus (who left at 17 and cost £13m to buy back).

Having been back-to-back champions, Dortmund surrendered the Bundesliga title to Bayern this week, trailing by 20 points. However, they are the only unbeaten club in the Champions League, albeit only just after their amazing recovery against Malaga on Tuesday.

Coach Jürgen Klopp admitted his team were nervous against Malaga, which may be an indication of their relative inexperience at this level, but could well have been because of the burden of expectation. That will not apply now, as Dortmund will be underdogs in the draw.

Dortmund are a high-tempo, attacking team, who have played some of this season's best football. This may also be their best shot at success as Reus, Gotze and Robert Lewandowski are much-fancied elsewhere.

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