PARIS, France, March 15 – The prospect of yet another showdown between Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona looms large on the horizon ahead of Friday’s draw for the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the Champions League.
Both clubs have advanced to the last eight of the competition without really being tested and, given the size of the gap between them and the rest of the continent just now, it is hard to escape from the sensation that only the draw will prevent them from meeting in the final itself in Munich on May 19.
Twelve months ago, the Catalans won a bad-tempered semi-final against their great rivals before going on to lift the trophy and, as Madrid coach Jose Mourinho was eager to point out this week, the 2-0 loss in the first-leg of that tie remains the only Champions League game his side has lost since he moved to the Spanish capital in the summer of 2010.
Madrid are currently ten points clear of the Catalans at the top of La Liga and, while their recent record in the fixture is poor, defender Sergio Ramos insists Real have nothing to fear from another Clasico on the European stage.
“One of the best things in football is being able to see such incredible games,” he said after Madrid’s 5-2 aggregate win against CSKA.
“If they continue to advance and we keep playing well then we could meet in the final. But if we have to play them before that, in the quarters, that would not be a problem at all.”
Certainly, the other six clubs through to the quarter-finals would love them to meet at the earliest possible opportunity.
But can any of the rest stop Spain’s big two?
Bayern Munich would appear to be the best-equipped, and are on a high after overturning a 1-0 first-leg deficit against FC Basel by winning the return 7-0 in Bavaria.
But the truth is that Bayern’s best hope of winning the competition probably lies with them being kept apart from the Spanish giants until the final, when they would surely fancy their chances of winning a one-off game at their own stadium.
“It only starts for real now,” said Bayern president Uli Hoeness. “The likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan come at you now. There are truly great teams among them. If you’re not on top form when you meet them, you don’t stand a chance.”
Serie A leaders Milan have such a proud history in the competition that they certainly deserve the respect shown them by Hoeness, but they have not quite been good enough to beat either Spanish giant over the last 18 months.
Meanwhile, English interest in the competition is kept alive with the presence of Chelsea.
The Londoners have come agonisingly close to winning the Champions League on several occasions in recent years, but this is the weakest Chelsea team since before Mourinho’s time at Stamford Bridge.
With the Special One being linked to a return to his old club as Roman Abramovich searches for a successor to the sacked Andre Villas-Boas, a Real Madrid-Chelsea match-up would be another mouthwatering prospect.
“People can’t understand how much I love Chelsea and I know if I get them in the quarter-finals or the semi-finals, they would be great opponents,” said Mourinho.
“I’m happy Chelsea have got through, but I’d love to play them in the final.”
But is hard to see Chelsea as genuine contenders to win that elusive first Champions League crown this season, and veteran midfielder Frank Lampard admitted that the Blues are just relieved to have reached their seventh quarter-final in nine campaigns.
“We’re just happy to be in the hat,” he said.
“If we play with that ability and desire (as against Napoli), we can take on anybody.”
Benfica have impressed in this year’s competition, but are now very much among the outsiders, while Marseille are just delighted to be in the hat for the quarter-finals for the first time since 1993, when they lifted the trophy in Munich.
Meanwhile, the one team that everyone wants is APOEL, the Cypriot minnows who are the first club from the Mediterranean island ever to reach this stage of the Champions League.