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What Should Madrid Hope For in the Champions League Draw?

Having progressed to the last 8 for the first time since 2003-2004 (auspicious, given that Mourinho won his first Champions League with Porto that year), Real Madrid now awaits its fate in the draw.  Here are our preferences in order, with justifications:

1. Schalke
It is fairly clear that Schalke are the weakest team remaining in contention.  Given a relatively soft draw against Valencia in the octofinals, the German team put in a dominant performance to win the tie.  However, the team is in turmoil after the sacking of coach Felix Magath and sits in 10th place in the Bundesliga, only five points above the relegation zone.  Schalke should not, however, be underestimated in European competition.  Blancos legend Raúl is the top scorer in the history of European competition and cannot be ruled out, and Farfán and keeper Manuel Neuer are also classy players.  Still, most of the teams in the draw would be pleased to receive Schalke as an opponent in the next round.

2. Shakhtar
This was a difficult choice, as the Ukrainians can be extremely dangerous on their day.  Teams from Eastern Europe are often underestimated given the limited exposure audiences of most mainstream leagues have to their style of play.  Shakhtar have fantastic technique, are highly physically fit and organized, and defensively very disciplined.  They are a tough unit to break down, and showed their attacking verve by dismantling Roma in their octofinal as well as winning their group ahead of Arsenal.  However, defeating a Roma team in shambles that has decayed precipitously over the last few years is hardly the same as going toe to toe with Real Madrid.  In addition, an Arsenal side that is frankly rather mediocre in comparison to Madrid absolutely hammered Shakhtar in the Emirates, winning 5-1.  If Los Blancos can't make it past Shakhtar, they don't deserve to win the competition.

3. Inter Milan
This Inter side look very little like the disciplined, iron-willed team with impeccable defensive organization that Mourinho took to an unprecedented treble last season.  First of all, Leonardo is no José Mourinho, and the veteran tactician would look to exploit his rival's tactical naivete and inexperience in this tie.

Second, many of the key players from last term have experienced a sharp decline.  Eto'o is dangerous as always, but Sneijder has been experiencing a typical second-term slump, just as he did after his excellent debut season with Madrid.  Walter Samuel's season-ending injury destroyed the excellent defensive unit that Mourinho created, and without his presence Inter has relied on players like Ranocchia and the aging Materazzi; the former made several errors in the Bayern tie that showcase his inexperience, which Madrid's attackers would relish.  Chivu has looked unsteady, while Maicon's decline and humiliation by Gareth Bale has been well-noted in the press.  Zanetti is 37 already and Milito, so crucial for his side last term, has been out of form and is currently injured.  Julio César is a weak point, having made high-profile errors in a number of big games recently.

Still, the team have some dangerous players and a sense of self-belief that carried them through against the stuttering defense of Bayern Munich and will not lay down and allow Madrid to walk past them into the semis.

4. Manchester United
This was something of a tossup for me between United, Spurs and Chelsea for the next three spots, as each team has distinct advantages and weaknesses, and it is hard to see where each will be form-wise by the time the next tie comes around.  This United team is probably the worst I have ever seen in terms of quality, and although Ferguson has managed to keep them in the running in the Champions League and the league, they have been slipping as of late, losing games to both Chelsea and Liverpool and allowing Arsenal to encroach.  Their massive injury list, including both starting central defenders, Vidic and Ferdinand, has led the coach to play a number of stitched-together formations this season with varying success.  The once-impregnable United defense looks vulnerable, and indeed Marseille very nearly got past them in their octofinal.  If Marseilles had finished better (and United cannot expect the same leniency from Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Özil and company) they would be out of Europe.

If the United defense plays a high line, then the pace of di María and Ronaldo will look to get behind them, and the likes of Smalling and company are never going to be able to cope.  Özil is very good at dragging players out of position with his off-the-ball movement like Kuyt did in Liverpool's 3-1 win, where the Dutchman scored a hat-trick playing off of United's high line.  If United defend deep, as they did at Marseille, they leave too much space for Madrid's attackers on the flanks, and crosses into the box or delicate interplay and through passes will be the result if the inexperienced United backline fails to pressure Madrid's attacking players.

United are always dangerous, however, especially in a knock-out competition.  We should never count them out of it, and I would certainly prefer not to draw United.

5. Tottenham Hotspur
I put Spurs above United because I think they have the potential to be a real banana skin for a big team in the Champions League.  They have put in some quality performances in the group stage, notably against Inter, and managed to see off Milan in the octos.  They have some fantastic, experienced players as well as some rising stars (Van der Vaart, Bale, Gomes, Lennon, Corluka, Modric) and are well-organized, as shown by their mature 0-0 draw against Milan.

Spurs have a lot of pace on the counter and on the flanks, which can be dangerous.  A moment of defensive panic and a single mistake could see Spurs through in a quarterfinal.  However, I think they have not yet faced a side of real quality in Europe and that Madrid would see them off without too much trouble.

Milan and Inter are both shadows of the teams they once were, particularly the former.  Milan's defense is old and incredibly slow and they prefer to play three central midfielders, so they are vulnerable to pace on the flanks and counterattacks.  Madrid are one of the youngest and fittest sides in European football, and have dynamic wingers and fullbacks that should help to pin back the attacking runs of players like Bale, who will be forced to go up against di María and Ramos.  If Madrid play like they did against Lyon, who also prefer to counter down the flanks, playing cautiously and relatively deep to restrict space on the counter until going up and then sitting back and allowing their opponents to break themselves trying to get a goal, they will have little trouble with Spurs.

One must also remember that Spurs have looked very fragile at times in Europe, going 4-0 down to Inter in a matter of minutes in the group stages and only barely squeezing through in two legs against Milan, who Madrid relatively easily outplayed in their group.

6. Chelsea
I'm not sure if I'm giving Chelsea too much credit, given their domestic troubles recently, their decaying squad and the poor form of new signing Torres.  Chelsea have also had the easiest draw in the tournament, both in the group stage, which they breezed through without breaking a sweat, and in the octofinals, where they came up against a disappointing Copenhagen side, coasting through 2-0 at Stamford Bridge and only managing a weak 0-0 draw in Denmark.  It's tough to say based on these results how Chelsea will fare against top opposition in Europe, seeing as they haven't faced any.

However, Chelsea's squad is still the third strongest left in the competition, after the Spanish giants.  They have a strong, resilient defense with Cech, Alex, Ivanovic, Terry and Cole among others to choose from, a potent midfield with the likes of Essien, Lampard, Malouda and Ramires, and an evergreen attack with Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka.  This is a strong side, even given their problems in midfield, indifferent form and tactical issues.  José Mourinho got the better of Ancelotti in Italy, though, as well as rather effortlessly eliminating Chelsea last season with Inter, so he might not have much trouble with his old side here.

7. Barcelona
What can we say?  Barcelona are a class above the other possible opposition.  With this being almost certainly the best Barcelona side of all time, and with La Liga so much stronger than the other European leagues, we would much rather wait until later in the competition to face our eternal rivals.  Lionel Messi feels the same way, according to an article.  Such a match-up would also feel anti-climactic so early in the tournament.

Barcelona have easily the best squad in the competition on paper, with the possible exception of ours.  However, they have shown significant cracks in their play recently, along with a number of high-profile injuries, and teams like Sevilla have shown that they can be beaten with the right tactics.  In the earlier Clásico at the Camp Nou, Madrid played naively with a high line that Barcelona strolled through again and again.  This time, Madrid should play deep and hit Barcelona on the counter while taking the game to them physically.  Barcelona play high up the pitch and risk counterattacks against their weak defense, especially in the air, as their players are short.  With Eric Abidal out for the season (and possibly the rest of his career) with his tragic cancer diagnosis, Barcelona's injury worries in defense become compounded.  Piqué and Puyol have been injured of late, forcing Abidal into the center of defense.  Now that he is out, Barcelona may have to play Mascherano or Busquets there, making them more susceptible to error and hampering the ability of Barcelona to build attacks from the back.

Mourinho showed that the right tactics can defeat Barcelona with Inter last year, and this Barcelona side is significantly deteriorating, although they are still outstanding.  Xavi's fitness is an issue, Pedro is out for a spell, Messi hasn't looked quite on form since his knock during the Sevilla game, and teams in the intervening period will look at Sevilla's success with being very physical, so I would expect to see a lot more hard tackling in the next few weeks and we will see how Barcelona deal with that.  Clearly this is the worst-case scenario for the draw, but given the class of Madrid and Barcelona it is likely we will meet them at some point in the competition if we progress, so we should not fear to meet them now, when they are in their worst, most congested and most unfit part of their season. 

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