Barcelona and Real Madrid red-hot Champions League favourites again after dream draw

Tito Vilanova’s team face Paris Saint-Germain in the last eight, while Jose Mourinho’s men meet Galatasaray. Malaga, meanwhile, avoided the Spanish sides, just as they had hoped

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

Everyone went home happy. Barcelona’s players had hoped to avoid Juventus in Friday’s Champions League draw, while Real Madrid were keen to steer clear of the two German teams and Malaga wanted to swerve the Spanish sides in the last eight. All got their wishes and with Barca and Madrid facing Paris Saint-Germain and Galatasaray, respectively, plus Bayern Munich and Juventus paired together in another of the quarter-final ties, Spain’s top two teams must now be favourites to claim the title at Wembley in May.

The Nyon lights lit up favourably for Tito Vilanova’s team and Jose Mourinho’s men on Friday. Barca’s tie with PSG will see a Camp Nou return for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, although the Sweden striker is suspended for the first leg, while Madrid’s meeting with Galatasaray represents a reunion with former playmaker Wesley Sneijder. Two players with an axe to grind against their former employers, but two ties which will be expected to be comfortably negotiated by Catalans and Castilians alike in early April.

Both Barca and Madrid had looked likely to go out of the Champions League at times during their respective last-16 ties, with Milan and Manchester United. The Catalans lost the first leg 2-0 at San Siro before overturning the deficit on a special night at Camp Nou last Tuesday, while Madrid trailed Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford (and 2-1 on aggregate) before Nani’s red card and a late comeback the week before. Having overcome those significant obstacles, the two Spanish sides have not only been handed dream draws for the last eight, but also seen two of their strongest rivals for the trophy – Bayern and Juventus – paired together in the last eight.

The other match-up sees Malaga meet Borussia Dortmund and the German side may be among the favourites as well after beating Madrid in the group stages and earning a draw at the Santiago Bernabeu. Whether they can go on and replicate those results in a semi-final scenario, however, is another matter.

Both Barca and Madrid advanced to the last four in the 2011-12 competition, before surprisingly bowing out. Pep Guardiola’s side lost to Chelsea in what turned out to be his last Champions League game as coach of the Catalan club, while Madrid succumbed on penalties to Bayern after both matches finished 2-1.

Bayern had looked ominously strong in the competition up until this week, but Wednesday night’s embarrassing 2-0 defeat at home to Arsenal proves they are much more vulnerable than anybody had thought. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the Gunners getting such joy at Camp Nou or the Bernabeu, and the Munich myth has quite possibly been debunked.

Time will tell, but first the Bavarians must face a resurgent Juventus team who will look to draw strength from Italy’s semi-final success against Germany at Euro 2012 and who will represent a tough opponent for any side left in this competition.

Malaga, meanwhile, have beaten Madrid in La Liga this term and also held Barca at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. Over two legs against their fellow Spanish sides, however, it is difficult to see the Andalusians beating their compatriots – even if they can get past a dynamic Dortmund in the quarter-finals.

So, assuming they advance, Barca and Madrid could end up meeting in the semi-finals, just as they did in 2010-11, or be kept apart in the last four, like last season. But given the nature of the competition and the fact that one of Bayern and Juventus will exit in the last eight, Spain’s top two teams must now be red-hot favourites to claim the Champions League crown in May. For Real Madrid it would be La Decima, a 10th title in Europe’s premier club competition; for Barca, a fifth trophy, a fourth since 2006 and a third at Wembley – almost their second home these days. One can stop the other or be halted along the way to Wembley, but it’s hard to see both being beaten now on the road to European football’s most prestigious prize.
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