UCL Quarter-Finals: Bayern Munich v. Juventus profile

Bayern Munich finished last season without a single trophy, despite reaching the finals of both the DFB Pokal and the Champions League. They’ve rebounded this season with a vengeance, beating out Borussia Dortmund for the German Super Cup and going on to dominate the league while staying alive in both the DFB Pokal and the Champions League. However, while their league form has been emphatic, they’ve struggled in the Champions League, conceding more goals than any quarter-finalist but Real Madrid and moving on from the Round of 16 only on the away goals rule. It’s difficult to figure out how to judge Bayern Munich right now; on one hand, they’re still among the favorites, but on the other, it’s not really because they’ve been so convincing in this particular competition this season.

Juventus, on the other hand, have also had strong league form this season and reached the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia before being knocked out by Lazio. They also have a much more impressive Champions League record so far: they’re undefeated in the competition this season (the only quarter-finalist besides Borussia Dortmund that’s true for), and have conceded just four goals. Celtic were certainly one of the easier runners up from the group stage, but that doesn’t diminish Juventus’s accomplishments, particularly considering that they were in one of the tougher groups.

By the numbers:

Bayern Munich Juvenus
Record 5-1-2 5-3-0
Average Possession 58% 49%
Goals Scored 17 17
Shots (on target) 136 (50) 144 (48)
Conversion rate 12.5% 11.8%
Goals Conceded 10 4
Saves 12 28
Clean Sheets 1 5

The first leg of the tie is on April 2 at Munich. The second leg at Juventus will be played on April 10.

Bayern will be playing Hamburger, Eintracht Frankfurt, and Nurnberg around the two fixtures. All are reasonably solid teams, but they could be playing Borussia Dortmund all three times for all the good it would do Juventus. Bayern currently have 20 points on second-placed Dortmund. They could field youth players and lose all three games and still be assured of winning the title. If they need to rest players, they will.

Juventus, on the other hand, will be playing Inter, Pescara, and Lazio – Pescara currently sit in the relegation zone, but Inter and Lazio are both fighting hard for a place in Europe next season, and will be tough competition. Juventus also can’t afford to drop too many points – Napoli are nine points behind them, but that’s a cushion that could quickly evaporate if they end up with a couple draws and/or losses during the quarter-finals.

Objectively, Juventus should probably be regarded as favorites. They’ve been more impressive in the Champions League this season, and they’ve also had a strong showing in Serie A. On the other hand, Bayern have been dominating the Bundesliga – which is a stronger league – to an even greater extent, and while there have been some close calls, they’ve done enough to move on. They can also perhaps be forgiven for getting a bit complacent against Arsenal, and it’s a mistake I doubt they’ll make again.

This one is tough to call. I’m going to predict a Bayern win, though.

Advertisements

UCL Quarter-Finals: Paris Saint-Germain v. Barcelona profile

Surprisingly, given their status as favorites to win the competition, Barcelona have struggled at times to reach the quarter-finals. They were forced to come from behind twice in the group stage (when they hosted Spartak Moscow and Celtic), and in the Round of 16 they had one foot out of the competition before mounting a historic comeback at the Camp Nou. Despite these difficulties, they should not be underestimated, especially since their coach will be returning before the quarter finals after being absent for more than two months to receive cancer treatment in New York.

PSG have their own strengths, though, and shouldn’t be underestimated. They’ve put together one of the most expensive teams in Europe and have several major superstars, most notably ex-Barca man Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who may feel like he has a bit of a point to prove, especially after Barcelona dropped his Milan out of the competition last season. They’re favorites to win Ligue 1 this season, and have an impressive record in the Champions League thus far, including having the best shots-goals ratio of the last eight.

By the numbers:

Barcelona Paris St-Germain
Record 5-1-2 6-1-1
Average Possession 74% 48%
Goals Scored 15 17
Shots (on target) 121 (49) 102 (46)
Conversion rate 12.4% 16.7%
Goals Conceded 7 5
Saves 19 21
Clean Sheets 4 3

The first leg of the tie is on April 2 at PSG. The second leg at Barcelona will be played on April 10.

Barcelona will be playing relegation-threatened Celta Vigo, Mallorca, and Zaragoza around the two fixtures, and they have room to drop a couple points here and there if necessary without putting the league title in much danger.

PSG’s league title is far less assured – they only have four points on Lyon right now – and they’ll also be playing tougher opposition on paper. They face Montpelier ahead of the first match with Barcelona and Rennes in between the two quarter-final ties. Both teams are vying for a spot in Europe. Following the second match they’ll play relegation-threatened Troyes, who they probably won’t be too concerned about.

On paper, PSG actually look like they’ve got a decent shot. However, with Vilanova returning to the team, I think that many of Barcelona’s problems will resolve themselves, and as long as they don’t get complacent, they should be able to move on to the semi-finals once again.

UCL Quarter-Finals: Málaga v. Dortmund profile

There’s no doubting that Málaga have earned their place in the quarter-finals. They weren’t in a group of death like Borussia Dortmund, but they did have to see off two teams with much more experience in Europe, and did it in expert fashion to win their group. They were also matched up against Porto in the Round of 16, who were one of the strongest runners up. Not only did they get past Porto, but they did it by conceding the fewest goals of any other team in the Round of 16. Their domestic league form is a little more suspect, but they’ve still run a strong campaign so far and currently sit in fourth.

Borussia Dortmund have earned their place, too, probably in the most emphatic fashion of any team in the Champions League this season, entering the quarter-finals undefeated in the competition. They ended up in this year’s especially deadly group of death, and were so dominant that they beat out the Dutch, Spanish, and English champions to win the group with a game to spare. They also beat out Shakhtar Donetsk – another very strong runner up – with ease in the Round of 16. However, like Málaga, their league form hasn’t been great recently this season, and unlike Málaga, this is a team that has managed to win the Bundesliga for the past two seasons.

By the numbers:

Borussia Dortmund Málaga
Record 5-3-0 4-3-1
Average Possession 44% 48%
Goals Scored 16 14
Shot (on target) 123 (54) 85 (38)
Conversion rate 13% 16.5%
Goals Conceded 6 6
Saves 27 30
Clean Sheets 3 4

Their stats so far are quite similar, but it’s important to note that Dortmund have been doing it against tougher competition overall.

The first leg of the tie is on April 3 at Málaga. The second leg at Dortmund will be played on April 9.

Buffeting the fixtures for Dortmund are Bundesliga matches with Stuttgart (likely on March 29), Augsburg (April 6), and Greuther Furth (likely on April 13). All three are relegation-threatened teams, which toward the end of the season can be a bit of a wild card. Still, Dortmund can afford a few slip ups and still qualify for the Champions League next year through the league, and will probably take the opportunity to rest players.

Málaga, on the other hand, are very much in danger of not qualifying for the Champions League through the league this season (assuming their ban on playing in Europe next season is overturned). They also have a tougher run of fixtures leading up to the match: they play Rayo Vallecano (likely on March 30), Real Sociedad (likely on April 6), and Osasuna (April 14). Rayo and La Real are both battling for a spot in Europe, while Osasuna are battling relegation.

On paper, the reigning German champions look likely to win this one. There’s always the possibility of an upset, but I see them going through.

On Barcelona Losing and Bus Parking

So I’m not going to go through and rank the players or recap the match. I might do that later, but I’m not going to now.

What I’m going to do is say why I’m not willing to give Milan the praise a lot of other people are throwing their way.

I can give credit to teams that beat Barcelona. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I gave credit to Sociedad for their comeback last month. They deserved to win. I gave credit to Celtic, because they had a strategy and executed it cleanly and perfectly on a special night against a much more accomplished team. I even gave Real Madrid credit and wasn’t upset when they won the Spanish Super Cup, because I felt that in the second leg, Barcelona were just bad.

I can take a step back and acknowledge when the other team did well, even when the other team are my team’s biggest rivals.

But there are also instances where I don’t give credit to the other team. Chelsea are one instance. Milan tonight are now another.

Here’s the crux of the problem for me: my expectations of a team change depending on who the team is. For a team like Celtic, I look at a parked bus and say, “You know what? That makes sense. They’re doing what they have to do against a much more accomplished team, and they did it cleanly. They deserve credit for that.”

But for teams like Chelsea, or Milan – top teams in the four best leagues in the world who qualify for the Champions League year after year – the standards are higher. Some teams play more offensively, and some play more defensively – I prefer to watch teams that press, overall, but there’s nothing wrong with playing a more defensive game. It’s a legitimate approach that I respect.

However, there’s a difference between a strong defense and bus parking, and bus parking should be beneath teams that are ranked among the top 15 in Europe. Parking the bus doesn’t impress me when you’re one of the best teams in Europe. When you’re one of the best teams in Europe, you shouldn’t have to resort to something so unimaginative. Milan have a lot of players who are skilled at what they do. They have players who were in the final of the Euro last summer, and who got there playing attractive football. (Surprisingly, for Italy, but it happened.) For a team like that to park the bus…

I’m not going to heap praise on them. I’m not going to call them brave. And I’m certainly not going to say that they should be admired.

That said, Barcelona were god awful tonight, and probably didn’t really deserve to win. I just don’t think Milan deserves any praise for how they won.

No more Europa?

Apparently, there are talks going on about whether to scrap the Europa League and expand the Champions League. It’s one of the worst ideas UEFA has managed to come up with yet, and that’s saying something.

Their reasoning is that Europa doesn’t attract the same kinds of crowds and some clubs don’t try as hard for it as they do for the Champions League. That is a problem, but this is still not a good plan.

Five Reasons Why It’s a Terrible Idea

1) Right now, the Champions League is competitive while still allowing for a wide variety of teams and nations to participate. Expanding it would take away that competitive edge and add either a bunch of dead weight in earlier rounds that people still wouldn’t watch or force teams to play even more games. More games isn’t just a problem when it comes to player injury – it would also exacerbate the problems with competitiveness that is already widespread in major European leagues. Only the richest teams would have the depth necessary to routinely play a game every three days, and everyone else would see their form in both competitions suffer as a result.

2) As the season draws to a close, part of the excitement is Champions League qualification. Even in the top three leagues, which get four representatives, there are more good teams than there are Champions League spots, and the potential rewards for participating make the race every bit as heated as the title race or relegation. If it is expanded to more teams, that competitive edge will wear off.

3) The Champions League is exciting right now because there’s always the potential for an upset. Even things that seem like they should be straightforward aren’t always so – just this season, we’ve seen a lot of things that most people never would have predicted. Barcelona lost to Celtic. City lost to Ajax. The reason for that is that if you don’t come from a strong league/place high enough in your league to begin with, you have to go through playoffs to get into the group stage. Expand it, and there will be fewer upsets and less intrigue.

4) There’s something to be said for what Europa offers: the chance for smaller but still talented clubs to gain international recognition. Once you reach the knock out rounds of Europa it gets quite competitive and entertaining. The Europa Leagues gives teams like Atlético Madrid – who have talent and drive but not the financial resources to really challenge for the Champions League title – something else to aim for, similar to domestic cups. It’s also good practice for the Champions League, which most clubs in Europa can reasonably aspire to.

5) The Europa League is an excellent way to judge league depth. Look at Spain: a lot of people dismiss La Liga as a boring, two-team league. However, if that’s all they were, Spanish teams wouldn’t also be dominating Europa. Expand the Champions League, and any understanding of any league beyond the title contenders would go out the window.

So how do you fix it?

1) Give out Champions League spots for performance in Europa. Both finalists should automatically get a berth, and if you’re really serious about it, give the Europa winner a place in the first pot, whatever their coefficient is. That would make it a lot more attractive.

2) Give out more money for participation. That would, at the moment, probably mean siphoning a little money away from the Champions League, but that’s okay. I’m not talking about the same kind of money, just enough that there’s some incentive.

3) Make it smaller. 12 groups is just too many, and letting everyone who doesn’t get through to the Champions League in is a bit ridiculous. I don’t mind letting them parachute down, but make them work for it. For example, the groups could be reduced to 8, and then the 4 worst runners up could have to play off against the 4 best third-placed CL teams. 1 leg, at home to the Europa runner up. If the CL reject gets through, they’ll actually deserve it.