- Pep Guardiola will be defined by the Champions League, not his domestic record
- PSG’s absences make Barcelona hot favourites to progress to the last four
- Atletico Madrid are fully capable of beating Real, but the law of averages must soon apply
Forget winning the Bundesliga. Given the financial advantage that Bayern enjoys over the rest of the league, that was always a basic for Pep Guardiola, the world’s most famous coach. Ditto the DFB-Pokal, despite the unpredictable nature of cup football. No, these are mere trinkets in the greater scheme of things. After all, Felix Magath won two doubles during his tenure at Bayern, and nobody ranks his achievements with those of Ottmar Hitzfeld or Jupp Heynckes. No, Pep knows that only the Champions League will determine whether or not he – a “genius” (copyright Karl-Heinz Rummenigge) – has been a success in Bavaria, and whether his reputation as the most significant manager of the century survives intact.
This is what makes April and May such compelling months in European football. They herald the acid test, the truth, the time when the great and the good get found out. Guardiola, dismissed contemptuously as a “philosopher” by a spurned Zlatan Ibrahimovic, can lean on his Barcelona legacy for only so long. The Emperor must reveal his new clothes over the next month – and he’d better hope his modesty is adequately protected.
Porto over two legs won’t be easy, but Bayern should, in all likelihood, jump that particular hurdle with something to spare. It was not to lose to the admirable but comparatively modest Portuguese that Pep was lured to Munich. No, the quarter-final is an expected win. The real tests lie ahead in Iberia.
Though Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Franck Ribery, and Arjen Robben are all out of selection contention due to injury, Thiago Alcantara is back after a year out. His return is central to Guardiola’s ball-playing blueprint. Robert Lewandowski seems to be finding form at just the right time, and the Catalan can always call on the wily Thomas Müller when all else fails. In comparison, Porto just don’t have the ammunition.
The real threats to Bayern come from Spain. Unlike Porto, Barcelona should be able to take advantage of an opponents’ selection difficulties when they face a PSG diminished by the first leg absences of Ibrahimovic, Thiago Motta, David Luiz, and, most crucially of all, the busy Italian schemer Marco Verratti. The glorious attacking triumvirate of Luis Suarez, Neymar, and Lionel Messi are a threat to any defence – and should be too strong for the Parisian mercenaries.
The most fascinating tie will be in Madrid where holders Real face Spanish champions Atletico for the seventh time since last season’s Champions League final. Atletico have proved themselves the better side over those encounters, winning the Spanish Super Cup, both league meetings, and a two-legged Copa Del Rey encounter against their much-vaunted city rivals. Frankly, they should have won in Lisbon last May, too, but conceded at precisely the worst-possible moment and, understandably, crumbled in extra time.
Still, there are only so many times you can beat the same side – and surely fewer times you can best the richest club in the world. The evidence of the last few seasons suggests Diego Simeone’s side have more than enough to win, but the law of averages suggest that this may not be Carlo Ancelotti’s last hurrah quite yet.
This time last year, Juventus went into their Europa League quarter-final as favorites to continue progression to the subsequent final in their own stadium. They blew it. This week, they face Monaco with few predicting anything other than an Italian win. Yet, they meet a team who can defend every bit as well as vintage Azzurri rearguards – and offer no little threat on the break. Carlos Tevez relocated his European scoring touch in the last round, but the sadly eroded Borussia Dortmund are little match for half the Bundesliga these days, let alone Italy’s champions. The underdogs tag suits Monaco perfectly and there is a lot less between these sides than tradition and reputation implies.