Barcelona may be stumbling through La Liga this season but when it comes to the Champions League, the current holders look in ominous form.
Wednesday night’s 7-1 decapitation of a serviceable Bayer Leverkusen side sent the Catalonian outfit into the last eight and consolidated their position as favourites to take home the trophy for the third time in four years. To achieve such a feat would be a fitting reward for a side that have dominated Europe so comprehensively over the last few years.
While top-flight managers may pay lip service to their country’s domestic competition, the Champions League remains the ultimate test for any side. Within the tournament, teams fear drawing Barcelona more than any other as to be paired with the Spanish champions has virtually guaranteed elimination in recent seasons.
In the past teams have been put forward as potential challengers to Barca’s dominance. Manchester United were supposed to pose the sternest possible test at Wembley in last year’s final but they were no match and were stylishly brushed aside. No other team in recent memory has played with such fluency, the result of having a midfield stacked with World and European champions.
This year’s competition remains Barca’s to lose, whatever Real Madrid may be doing in the league. Mourinho’s men currently enjoy a 10-point advantage over Barca, who have struggled uncharacteristically at times this season. Madrid are closer than ever before to matching their nearest rivals but Barca still dominate head-to-head matches in the El Clasico encounters. Were they to meet in the Champions League, the sensible money would be placed on the Catalonian outfit.
A new poll conducted by GiveMeFootball shows that fans can’t see past Barcelona when picking a winner for this year’s Champions League. More than 125,000 votes were cast, with 44% predicting that Xavi and co will be hoisting the trophy aloft in Munich this May. Even at this early stage in the knockout rounds almost half of voters feel that Champions League will be heading back to the Nou Camp for another season.
If not Barca, then most believe the Spanish dominance of European football will continue, with Real Madrid receiving 31% of votes. Mourinho has history in the competition and perhaps most importantly knows how what it takes to get a result in the Nou Camp. With their last-16 tie finally poised at 1-1, the first order of business for Madrid will be to see of CSKA Moscow.
Perhaps optimistically 13% of votes were cast for a Chelsea side supposedly in crisis. For the Londoners to succeed Roberto Di Matteo must first negotiate Napoli and a steep 3-1 deficit but were they to get through they would become one of the favourites once again.
Serie A leaders AC Milan, fresh from their Emirates escape, received just 4% of the vote, although the figure would surely be much higher had they not collapsed so spectacularly in the first half of their second leg against Arsenal. But with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho up front they retain a threat and it would not be such a shock were they to make it to the final.
There seems to be little prospect of any team other than these four taking home the trophy according to the poll results. Bayern and Napoli received 2% and although both sides posses great attacking talent, their defensive frailties may ultimately prevent them from progressing into the later rounds.
Inter Milan, winners only two years ago, are struggling under Claudio Ranieri and, barring a miraculous run, should exit the competition in the next round if Marseille don’t finish the job next week.
Most think Barca will win though and it is difficult to look past any side containing Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas, let alone multiple Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi. The Argentinean’s demolition of Leverkusen sparked a debate over whether he was now the best player ever. In this year’s competition, a team containing the “football’s greatest player” and a supporting cast of such brilliance should win.
It seems only the presence of Mourinho’s Madrid prevents UEFA from handing the Champions League over right now.