Champions League: 8 Clubs Remain, Draw on Tap

Lars Baron

There's a bunch of stuff to unpack from yesterday's unconvincing performance that saw Bayern advance to the CL quarterfinals. But first things first - let's survey the landscape as it stands, with 8 clubs remaining in the fight for club football's biggest prize.

For those who just start paying attention to the Champions League when it gets down to the quarters - welcome aboard, here are the 8 survivors:

FC Bayern Munich

FC Barcelona

Real Madrid

Juventus

Malaga

Galatasaray

Paris Saint-Germain

Borussia Dortmund

I guess there are a number of ways to analyze them. Let's consider the remaining field in comparison to Group Stage play, then in relation to their countries of origin, then as individuals. This is a long post, so if you need to run to the bathroom or make a sandwich, do it now.

* * * *

OK, good. Ready?

QUARTERFINALISTS BY GROUP

Group A of the prior stage nearly saw both of its teams in the Round of 16 advance to the quarters. Despite being looked at as one of the weakest groups (mostly because both of those Soviet-bloc teams really stunk it up), this group answered the bell in the knockout stage. PSG outlasted a decent Valencia side (hell, one that was good enough to take points from us). And Porto has nothing to feel ashamed of, barely losing out to Malaga. Nonetheless, their opportunity to advance Portugal's coefficient was sadly wasted, and PSG will be carrying the ball for Group A from here on out.

Group B was the only one to have neither of its advancing teams get to the quarters. I guess that's not a huge shock - Schalke and Arsenal (and even Olympiacos, who also played well in this group last stage) are seen as legitimate CL teams, but none was thought of as likely to win the tournament. Close losses for Arsenal and S04, but losses all the same. Those teams will have to focus on domestic league play (both are also eliminated from any cup tournaments), and Group B will go unrepresented.

Group C was one of the strangest groups to get a handle on in the fall: Malaga (playing well, but could they be for real? plus the looming suspension next year); Milan (traditional powers having a down year); Zenit St. Pete (new money trying to buy a way into the knockout stage); and Anderlecht (whose prayers for a 3d place group finish went unanswered). As it turns out - yes, Malaga is for real. And, as we saw, Milan - despite their exciting performance in the first leg - just aren't at a level where they can consistently beat the best in Europe. Now, next year, with Balotelli available, maybe it will be different. For now, Malaga is Group C's only hope.

Group D was seen as the Group of Death in the fall, and the idea was clearly justified: both clubs to advance from this stage also advanced to the quarters. And both Dortmund and Real have a legitimate shot to win the tournament. Enough said.

Group E had the crazy 3-way battle in the fall, with Chelsea falling out thanks to a deep tie-breaking procedure. Shakhtar, the beneficiaries of that tie-breaker, were no match for Dortmund. But Juventus looked dangerous in crushing Celtic. Depending upon the match-up, Juve has to be seen as a real threat to go to (and MAYBE win) the CL Final. Right now, the odds-makers have them as 5th-most likely, right behind Dortmund. Looking back at Group Stage play, I guess it makes sense: they went undefeated in 6 matches, and their obliteration of Chelsea in late November is what bought them a ticket to the next round. But they haven't played any truly great teams yet; next round will tell us a lot more about Juve.

Group F was Bayern's group, and another that saw the group winner (us) advance and the group runner-up (Valencia) barely fall short. Credit to Valencia for, overall, a credible CL campaign, but it's pretty obvious they were never on the same level as the real heavy-hitters of Europe. By the way, BATE got knocked out right away in the Europa League, so I guess it was just that one marvelous day that fooled people into thinking they were for real.

Group G was the "Barca and then a bunch of others" group. And once we got to the knockout stage, they looked like it.

Group H was the only group to have it's runner up advance to the quarters, but NOT its winner: Man U goes home (after, to be fair, a really tough draw for a group winner) and Galatasaray is already looking at their proudest season in a decade. If they get a favorable match-up now, this could be a big year for Turkey: no Turkish team has advanced to the semis of the CL under its current name/format/incarnation. And looking at it now ... yes, that group was actually not terrible.

QUARTERFINALISTS BY COUNTRY

For some background on what all this means, you can check out this post. I'm going to assume everyone knows a bit about the Champions League, what's at stake for individual countries, etc, so let's dive in ...

Spain (3 teams left) is the highest ranked FA in the world, and they have the most teams alive: 3, with the top 2 favorites to win the tournament. While neutral observers might not think much of Malaga, the fact is that every win or draw they pick up, and every round they advance, cement's Spain's status atop the UEFA totem pole. To have the 3d-best Spanish team advance further than any English side is (mathematically, if nothing else) a huge boost. The fact that they might be barred from CL play next year make's Malaga's run even more interesting. Can you imagine if they won the whole thing? What would UEFA do then - doesn't the prior year's champion always get an automatic spot?

Germany (2) has a pair of clubs in the last 8, and both are legitimate bets to go further. Dortmund is a tough place for visiting teams to play, then can compete with a variety of styles (defend/counter against the best teams, command the game against the weaker ones), and the Reus/Dowski/Goetze trio gives them a puncher's chance in any match. Everything depends upon the draw, of course, but I'd say there's a pretty decent chance (maybe 1 in 3?) that there are 2 German clubs in the semis.

England (0) sucks.

Italy (1) sucks a little less, but it would have been HUGE for them if Milan could have hung on against Barca. Not only would that have been a massive boost for their reputation and coefficient, but the entire field would be much more wide open right now. Instead, there's a feeling that Barcelona has gotten over its rough patch and is now rounding into shape, and every ball drawn is much more terrifying for the remaining teams (of which Italy has but one).

France (1) is relying on David Beckham to carry their Champions League torch. Let that sink in for a minute.

Portugal (0) was so close to really establishing themselves as one of Europe's powers. Porto's lead after the first leg made it a better-than-even bet that they could at least force extra time against Malaga, but they just couldn't make it happen. A good reality check, I guess, but they'll be back next year: the same trio (Porto, Benfica and Braga) sit atop the Portuguese Liga table right now, and Benfica tries to finish off Bordeaux in the Europa League tonight.

Turkey, (1) as mentioned above, is already happy with the situation. If Galatasaray can advance, they will go from "happy" to "ecstatic." Their country coefficient, surprisingly, is still below Greece and Belgium. But with Fenerbahce looking solid in Europa League play, and Galatasaray's win over Schalke, that could change at the time of the next recalculation. There's more money in Turkish football than there used to be, but some of the other issues (pitch quality, match-day safety) need to be addressed. They also are the only country on this list (up to this point) that's NOT on the Euro, which probably affects things in some way that would make my eyes glaze over.

Ukraine, Russia, and Netherlands (0) are all, to varying degrees, treading water. Ukraine is dependent upon whatever Shakhtar does every year, Russia is waiting for one of their big-money clubs to get it together at least to the extent that PSG has, and ... if I'm reading this right, Netherlands haven't had a team advance to the CL Round of 16 since the 2006-2007 season. Is that right? That can't be right.

Anyway, all of this ^ can change pretty quick - after the next round, Germany's status could be anywhere from "clear second best, starting to challenge Spain" to "nope, can't get it done," or anywhere in between. And Juve and PSG hold the hopes of their respective countries in their hands; it's doubtful that both of these guys get to the semis, so someone's going to be disappointed.

QUARTERFINALISTS AS A FIELD

Looking at the odds again, the situation is pretty clear. There are 3 clubs who are seen as the heavies, and who would be strongly favored against every club except each other: Bayern, Real Madrid, and Barcelona. But all are flawed to some extent. Real Madrid struggled for most of the fall and winter, and got a little lucky with the Nani red card last round (though they still had to perform in order to get those 2 goals, and that Modric shot was amazing). Barcelona famously struggled for most of the past month, losing the first leg in Milan and then twice to Real Madrid. Their recent 4-0 win at home, though, reestablished them as gamblers favorites. And then there's Bayern - yesterday's loss exposed some problems, but with Bastian and Ribery back, we're still a tough out. Incidentally, both Bayern (Javi Marts) and Barca (Pedro) are missing guys due to suspension next game, and all 3 of these teams are likely to have someone else forced to sit a game between now and the Final, should they get that far. Suspensions were a big story last year, and I have a hunch that might be the case again.

Behind those big 3, there are a subsequent 3 that have a shot, but that would require a lot of luck to win the tournament: Dortmund, Juventus and PSG. So much depends on the draw here. I could see any of these teams beating any of the heavies mentioned above. But could they do it back-to-back? In other words, could PSG beat Bayern, THEN Barca, THEN Real Madrid, in succession? Probably not. So even if they CAN advance past one of the heavies with a virtuoso performance, they'll need some luck as far as getting an easier opponent (one of each other, or one of the below pair) at least once.

At the bottom Galatasaray and Malaga are in the "happy to be here" set. But both boast a good home-field advantage, and Burak Yilmaz for Galatasaray is starting to make his name known. Between him, Sneijder and Drogs, I'd have to say they're a slightly tougher opponent, leaving Malaga as the ball everyone would love to draw.

The big question, as far as that draw goes, is whether any of the 3 biggest names will be drawn against each other. If so, that promises to be a quarterfinal for the ages (and the third of those big 3 - the one who didn't get such a draw - will have to be thrilled). If none of the trio of Barca, Real and Bayern play each other, then everyone's on "upset watch" - either an underdog will knock out one of the big boys, or all 3 will be in the semis (as all 3 of us were last year).

Any other angles or story-lines we're missing? As always, we welcome corrections or comments, which you can leave below or send to bayern.offside@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading.

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