Through to the last eight; it has been a while since Real Madrid have been able to stake that claim in Europe’s top competition. Wednesday night, however, Madrid broke their six-year drought and overcame a Lyon side that had seen the Spanish giants off only a year before.
The first leg bore witness to a very inconsistent Madrid, but Los Blancos left little doubt at the Bernabeu, completely out playing their French opponents. The controversial Jose Mourinho continued his European success, advancing in a tournament in which many predecessors (in the last decade) had failed. A league victory against Hercules, combined with news from Sevillas' draw at the Sanchez Pizjuan had stolen two points from leaders Barcelona, have very quickly revitalized Madrid’s season in only a matter of days.
There is still a load of work to be done with Madrid still very far off from any sort of silverware; nevertheless, breaking a jinx and creeping closer to their Catalan rivals has optimism high in the Spanish Capital.
Conceding a late equalizer in Lyon was an ominous sign that Los Blancos` would be out again in the second round of the Champions League for a seventh year in a row. Seven points adrift from the top of the league, Mourinho’s side also seemed as if they were slowly dropping out of all competitions (with a very challenging Copa del Rey final against the infamous Barcelona being no cup of tea). Fortunes have turned, though a derbi madrileño on Saturday could very easily diminish Madrid’s faint league hopes, essentially sending Mourinho's first campaign back into a tailspin.
Madrid were the better side Wednesday night, and over the two legs, were certainly deserving of their spot in the last eight. The nine time European Champions await their quarterfinals fate from Friday's draw. Where will the next round take them (with some very intriguing potential match-ups)? Instead of highlighting Marcelo's brilliant performance (I heard the phrase "Brazilliant" throw around and he truly was just that. After months living in the shadow of Roberto Carlos, Marcelo was formed his own identity by playing with a quality reminiscent of his compatriot.), we can focus on the potential next round match-ups as Madrid push forward for football's most prestigious trophy. Watch the highlights from Wednesday night, there was little critique from the home side and too much to compliment. When Madrid are in form and firing on all cylinders, they are, indisputably, one of the top three teams in Europe. As for their potential opponents....
Barcelona: Does this even need a description? They will meet mid-April to contest the Spanish cup, they are top two Spanish sides. Throw in Barcelona's recent success, that little Argentine striker and the lingering provincial rivalries...A Clásico match-up in the Champions League, regardless of outcome, would be one of the most epic ties of tournament history. The clubs have met three times in the history of the European Cup/Champions League. Twice in the semi-finals, Madrid the victor in both scenarios; the latter occurring in 2002 when Los Blancos would continue on to be crowned continental champions.
Chelsea: The tag line for this one certainly will be Madrid's shot at revenge for their 2-1 defeat in Athens (European Cup Winner's Cup) to the London club in 1971, no? Okay, maybe the whole Jose Mourinho used to coach at Chelsea, is rumoured to want to go back to England, Chelsea may be sacking Ancelotti come season's end will steal the headlines, but I'm still bitter about Greece. For all the grief some pundits (me!) give Madrid for inconsistency, Chelsea seem to epitomize the word. Their start to the campaign had one wondering if they could ever be beaten; however, a poor run of form has the London outfit fighting for a place in Europe for next year. Beatable, very. Maybe even a preferable draw.
Inter Milan: The Jose Mourinho reunion tour continues. The Portuguese manager won the treble with the Italian outfit last year, of which included raising the Champions League trophy at the Bernabeu. Inter were pedestrian in the Group Stage, finishing second behind the below mentioned Tottenham Hotspur and were lucky to get through Bayern in the second round. Lucky may not be the right word, but they were certainly not deserving. Inter showed signs of being a top club, but their mistakes far outshone their quality. What a headline this would make: Mourinho leads Inter to treble and turns around to knock them out a year later. Brilliant.
Manchester United: Organized, experienced, methodical. Players continue aging yet United are atop the Premier League. Consider some of their fitness issues and Wayne Rooney sporadic form at points, and this becomes even more of an impressive fact. No team wants to draw the Red Devils, Madrid included.
Schalke: Football has to be rigged, right? Raul scores his record breaking European goal, on Spanish soil, and there now exists the potential of a reunion with his former club. Valencia outplayed the Germans in the first leg, but it was the latter club, coming from behind twice, who proved to be the better side. Raul is a Madrid icon. Number 7 in the white shirt will always be his kid, regardless of the superstar wearing it now (Ronaldo) or those that will surely pass through the Bernabeu in the coming years. He captained club and country (truly a shame he couldn't have been with the squad in South Africa last summer. Justifiably so but it’s tough not to feel for a man who exudes such class as not only a footballer but an individual) and will be given a king's welcome if he returns to capital as an opponent. That being said, if you had to pick a weakest side, this would be my choice.
Shakhtar Donetsk: Away fixtures are never an easy task, especially in Europe. Hostile crowds, volatile weather and just pure distance could be a very deadly formula for any club that draws Shakhtar in the next round (and nothing ill meant towards the Ukraine, I myself am very excited to visit next summer). Playing at Lyon has proven a difficult task for Los Blancos the past two seasons; that would be a cake walk compared to the southern Ukraine. Arsenal were victims this season as the Ukrainian outfit won their group. It is easy to point to a team from a league you may have never heard of as an ideal opponent; not in this case. No team is to be underestimated at this point, especially a strong side that have proven themselves in Europe before (2009 UEFA Cup Champions).
Tottenham Hotspur: The Champions League's darling club, no? Breaking up the top four in England after a spectacular campaign a year ago, only to go down three goals in 28 minutes in their Champions League playoff game away at Young Boys Bern. The London club are now one of the last eight in Europe and making their case for another top four English finish. Injuries asides, Harry Redknapp and the breath-taking Gareth Bale lead a Spurs side who are playing a very dangerous attacking style of football will approach the next round with a 'nothing to lose' attitude. Not to be underestimated. That being said, Spurs back line is the worst of the remaining clubs. Sure, they held Milan scoreless over two legs, and Michael Dawson has been superb in anchoring said line; however, who will partner with him at centre-back is a question most Spurs fans do not want to address.
It is the last eight of Europe, there is no easy draw; however, if Madrid can maintain their form from their second leg, I doubt any team is hoping for a date with the capital club in the quarters.
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