By Paolo Serpe
The final eight of the Champion’s League has been set. Friday morning in Nyon, Switzerland the quarter-final draw took place and fans can now prepare for what are sure to be four incredible match-ups.
Humber News caught up with Counterattack’s Richard Whittall to get his take on each game.
Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid
HN: What do you make of this match-up?
RW: It’s a really compelling match-up, at least on paper because you have Barcelona who’s in third place in La Liga, just a single point behind Atletico, and they’re only three points away from Real Madrid. So it’s a really tight race. The Champion’s League offers an interesting counterpoint to that.
There are questions around Barcelona’s manager Tata Martino; whether he’s able to inspire players to play the Barca way. It’ll be interesting to see if Messi and Xavi, all the stars can up their game. For all the attention on Atletico’s main striking star, Diego Costa, they’re actually really defensively solid.
It could be a tactical battle but it could also be really boring to the neutrals. Based on their history this season they could cancel each other out, but who knows we’ll see.
HN: Do you buy into the voices saying Messi is out of form this season? His injuries have affected him and his scoring record is still great but whenever he has more games played than goals everyone takes a second look.
RW: Ya, I think we may have taken for granted how incredible a year he had last season and we may have been naive to think that he would be able to sustain those insane numbers, historically unprecedented scoring numbers… He’s still one of the most potent strikers in Europe; he scored the record 370th goal for Barcelona just a few days ago and looked very much his old self. I think rumours of his decline are extremely exaggerated, I think what’s more likely is he just had an enormously, freakishly incredible year last year.
HN: Can Barcelona get through to another final playing a more direct style, or do they need to play that style that Guardiola employed?
RW: I think it’s whether or not the players are comfortable in those situations. I was a defender of Martino and using the long ball, just to give the team a few more options in Europe.
The problem with any possession-based side is there’s always the risk that, if you play too much in the build-up you leave yourself exposed on the counter depending on the team you’re facing. I don’t know if that’s a specific problem against Atletico, I’d argue it probably isn’t but I don’t think Martino’s going to change his tactics any time soon, so I think the idea of molding something more on Guardiola’s approach is a little unrealistic.
RW Prediction: If I’m being honest probably Barcelona, by a fairly narrow margin, but I said at the beginning of the season Atletico was a dark horse for progression to final, so I’m going to pick Atletico, I think it’s going to be very slim and it could come down to something as small as an away goal. So I’ll say Atletico.
Real Madrid vs Borussia Dortmund
HN: This is a rematch of last season’s semi-final, but Dortmund’s a little weaker this season; do you see them with a chance?
RW: That’s a tricky match, obviously Dortmund’s suffering from some pretty significant injury problems this year and they’re 22 points behind Bayern in the league. They sort of scraped through despite losing the second leg against Zenit Saint Petersburg. They’re facing a team that’s scored 29 goals in the Champion’s League this season, which I’m pretty sure is a record.
Real Madrid scored nine goals against Schalke, so I really think it’s going to be a tall order for Borussia Dortmund. I can see this tie being over by the first leg, however, Dortmund are capable of some surprises in Europe from time to time, so I think with the pressure on them to pull something out for this season, Jürgen Klopp might have a few surprises, but I just think that squad is so weak and as long as Bale and Ronaldo stay healthy, I just can’t see them getting past Real Madrid.
HN: Lewandowski is suspended for the first leg, can you see them getting an away goal?
RW: Ya, but it would be incredible to me, the defensive performance Borussia Dortmund had to do to stop Real Madrid from scoring at the rate they’re scoring right now. I don’t think their goal tally in the Champion’s League is a fluke, so that will be a huge problem for them. I
f you don’t have the production going you really, really need to be solid at the back so I definitely think Dortmund have an away goal in them. Whether or not it’s going to matter in terms of the overall aggregate I don’t know.
HN: How has Madrid changed this season under Ancelotti compared to last season? They picked up Bale and got rid of Ozil, what do you see tactically that’s different?
RW: They seem to be a little less rigid going forward. Whether or not it’s a stereotype that Mourinho’s, he likes his attacking players to defend as well and can sometimes offer a bit of tactical restraint on naturally attacking players, I think the addition of Bale clouds Ancelotti’s specific influence a little but he’s an experienced manager, he’s created a pretty attacking five, which is sort of like the AC Milan of the early 2000s so I think it’s just a little more relaxed than they were under Mourinho, the fact they don’t have the pressure they were under last season, with the press focusing on Mourinho’s relationship with the players. With that absence they’ve just hit a real stride
RW Prediction: I just think it’s fairly obvious Madrid are going to progress.
Paris Saint-Germain vs Chelsea
HN: Is Chelsea strong enough to hold off PSG?
RW: Ya I don’t know, I can’t tell either way, honestly I don’t know. It could be explosive. I can see PSG scoring a couple goals early on to surprise Chelsea, but it’s just so hard for me to tell, I think Chelsea might be the slight favourites just from their experience, and I think Mourinho’s a little more tactically-sophisticated, but sometimes he’s a little too careful and that can be a situation that PSG can take advantage of, but again to me this is a toss up.
HN: Do you see Verratti keeping his starting role because he’s a great, young player but isn’t tested deep in the Champion’s League?
RW: It’s a good question, it depends on what PSG is trying to do, and they might be a little more defensive-minded. It depends how Blanc wants to go for it. I don’t really think experience matters; I think it’s really about ability and form in these situations so if he’s been playing well there’s no reason to change things dramatically. That’s the thing about PSG, specifically PSG now, they have those options they didn’t have before.
HN: Schurrle has been playing well recently, can he make an impact, and will Hazard be playing for PSG next season?
RW: He was a bit weak coming off, but Mourinho has a few options so you can take the risk, obviously you want to pick the players who are playing well and if things don’t work you can play around with some options.
RW Prediction: I might give Chelsea a slight edge but PSG are a good bet to go a little further this season.
Manchester United vs Bayern Munich
HN: Do you see any possibility for Manchester to get a result at home and maybe get a draw or an away goal in Munich?
RW: I honestly can’t see that happening, obviously Moyes had an excellent result against Olympiakos at Old Trafford; that’s where you want to produce those big games but I think it will be fairly routine for Bayern. They’ve just been so unstoppable in Germany; they look so tactically adept in Europe. This is the mess I think Moyes will really be tested in in terms of proving himself in Europe.
That was always the question when he came on, whether an Everton manager with limited experience, or no experience in Europe, was really going to be able to lead Manchester in the Champion’s League and this is going to be the situation where he has to prove it.
That said, Manchester is just so inconsistent in quality and there’s so many weak spots in that team that I can’t imagine the quality of Bayern’s midfield having any trouble at all. I think things will have to go extremely well, perfectly for Moyes’ team and I think he’d have to get the benefit of luck as well, but I just really don’t see it happening.
HN: Do you see Manchester leaving the tournament with their pride intact or will Bayern just totally dominate?
RW: I don’t think it will be a blowout; I do think United will be pretty conservative. Their problem tactically this season has been, besides maybe defence, just being totally inept in attack, I think they space themselves too far up the pitch, players are isolated.
I think people have focused too much on that Rooney-RVP partnership and less on the fact that there’s just general tactical issues going forward, players aren’t given enough passing options. I think they will play a very conservative game, I just cant see them scoring the decisive goals and I think Bayern will just take advantage of that.
RW Predictions: I can definitely see a couple of 2-0 victories, at home and away.