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Magnificent Messi trumps all else

Barca will win despite PSG's glut of talent

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Friday's UEFA Champions League quarter-final draw produced four fascinating ties, three of which would seem to have an overwhelming favourite and another that includes the runaway leaders of the Bundesliga and Serie A -- the glamour matchup of the round.

As far as the event itself is concerned, it was far less a spectacle than the tedious, drawn-out affair that has become the Group Stage draw, something that no doubt pleased a North American audience that got up as early as 4 a.m. to watch it.

But if there was a moment of levity it came when UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino politely ribbed 2013 Wembley final ambassador Steve McManaman about the absence of English representation in the last eight.

And while many a pundit is sounding the death knell for English football because of a generally failed European campaign, it is nothing so complicated that it can't be explained by a few instances of bad luck and the individual decisions a handful of the country's biggest clubs have made.

In any event, the ties McManaman drew out of the pot are hardly lacking in either intrigue or narrative, English or no English. Following are brief rundowns of all four matchups, which will be contested between the first and second weeks of April. The semifinal draw will be held on April 12 in Nyon, Switzerland.

Malaga-Borrussia Dortmund

Given Malaga's tattered finances, the Andalusian side is the feel-good story of this season's Champions League. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has worked wonders with a side comprised of the big-money signings of an extravagant past and the loanees and castoffs acquired in a much more frugal present. Willy Caballero has provided otherworldly goalkeeping; young playmaker Isco continues to establish himself as a talent.

But Malaga's fairy tale run is likely to end here. Blocking their path to the final four is a Borussia Dortmund side with only the European Cup to play for between now and May. Winners of the last two Bundesliga titles, Dortmund are presently 20 points back of leaders Bayern Munich and are out of the domestic cup competition as well.

They targeted Champions League glory above all else when the season began, and with an attacking quartet fronted by Robert Lewandowski and organized by Mario Gotze, should be considered among the favourites to lift the trophy at Wembley this spring.

Prediction: Borussia Dortmund

Real Madrid-Galatasaray

This tie is rich in storylines, foremost among them being Madrid manager Jose Mourinho facing two of his former superstars.

Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder play their club football in Turkey with Galatasaray these days, but from 2004 to 2007 Drogba helped Mourinho to back-to-back Premier League titles at Chelsea and in 2010 Sneijder led Mourinho's Inter Milan side to a historic treble.

Now the two of them have joined forces at the suddenly big-spending Istanbul giants, and will be eager to test themselves against a Madrid side that has hit a rich vein of form at the most crucial point of the campaign.

Cristiano Ronaldo is the Spanish side's talisman and scored in both legs of Madrid's victory over Manchester United in the previous round.

Prediction: Real Madrid

Paris Saint-Germain-Barcelona

The only remaining English content in the Champions League can be found at PSG, where David Beckham will be playing his club football over the next few months. But at 37, Beckham's will likely be only a bit role against Barcelona, as Lucas Moura is PSG's first-choice right-winger and Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi are the established central midfielders.

Thiago Silva anchors an effective defence in front of world-class goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, and up front Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who is suspended for the first leg pending appeal) operates alongside Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Pastore.

Barcelona, however, has Lionel Messi.

The Catalan giants already have the La Liga pretty much wrapped up, and after a brief stumble that included successive defeats to Real Madrid are back to doing what they do best--dominating possession and all but walking the ball into the back of the net.

Messi scored twice in Barcelona's 4-0 destruction of AC Milan on Tuesday, and in the Argentine maestro, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, the Blaugrana have three of this generation's best players playing in the same team at the same time.

Prediction: Barcelona

Bayern Munich-Juventus

With a 20-point advantage on second-place Borussia Dortmund and only nine Bundesliga matches remaining, Bayern Munich are set to wrap up the domestic title in mid April. They're also one of the big favourites to win the 2012-13 Champions League, although Wednesday's 2-0 defeat to Arsenal (their first loss since October) will have surely come as a warning against complacency. If Bayern are to lift a first European Cup since 2001 they'll have to find another gear.

Juventus, who last won the Champions League in 1996, are also marching toward a domestic title and will provide free-scoring Bayern with a difficult, perhaps impassable, test.

Few sides keep as tidy a defensive line as the Bianconeri, who in eight Champions League matches this season have conceded just four goals. In Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio they also have a midfield trio rivalled only by that of Barcelona, and if there are concerns about their striking tandems they are tempered by the fact that seven different players have found the back of the net in the tournament so far.

Prediction: Juventus


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 C6

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