Now that the Champions League group stage is over it's time for a look ahead. FC Barcelona won Group D and went undefeated in the process, taking 14 of a possible 18 points on offer. This is the first time Barcelona have gone undefeated in the group stage under Pep Guardiola (after the 3-2 loss to Shakhtar Donetsk on Dec 9, 2008 and 2-1 loss to Rubin Kazan on Oct 20, 2009). The knockout stage draw will take place on Friday, December 17th. Until then, let's have a look at the possible opponents.
Barca's potential opponents for the knockout stage include Inter Milan, Lyon, Roma, Marseille, AC Milan, and Arsenal. This is fantastic news for Barcelona fans as, while there are clearly quality teams in this pool, Barca will avoid teams like Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Chelsea. I truly believe Barca will win the Champions League this year, and to do so they must beat all teams that are put in front of them, but there is no reason to make the path to Wembley any more difficult than it already is. Even though Madrid, United, and Chelsea are all struggling recently, I expect them to be tough competition on European nights early in 2011. All three of those teams have managers who, just like Pep, have won the competition. By finishing first in Group D, Pep Guardiola's men have helped themselves avoid any real giants for their first knockout stage opponent.
Some might argue that facing Inter Milan, the defending champions as well as the team who knocked Barca out in the semifinals last year, would be an unfavorable draw. Anyone who has seen Inter play this year can clearly see this team is a shadow of what it was last season. As much as some Barca supporters maintain a certain distain for Jose Mourinho, he is a truly great manager. Last year he had Inter punching above their weight and inspired great performances from the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Maicon. Under new coach Rafa Benitez, formerly of Liverpool and Valencia, Inter look nothing like the team who hoisted the Champions League trophy at the Santiago Bernabeu on May 22nd of this year. Inter finished behind Tottenham in CL Group A and currently sit fifth in Serie A. I suppose Inter may have extra motivation for winning the trophy again this year, it may be the only way for them to qualify for the Champions League next year!
The other two potential opponents from Italy are AC Milan and Roma. Roma finished behind Bayern Munich in CL Group E and are eighth in their league while AC Milan finished behind Real Madrid in CL Group G and sit on top of the Serie A table. I see AC Milan as the most difficult opponent from Italy, not only for their strong league form but they played Madrid tough at home in the CL. The idea of playing against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ronaldinho is definitely enticing, but generally I like to avoid playing against teams with quality players looking for revenge against Barca. A very motivated Zlatan and Ronaldinho, combined with the talented Alexandre Pato, could be trouble. Barca can beat Milan, but I would certainly prefer a different opponent.
France gives us the potential opponents of Lyon and Marseille. Lyon finished second in Group B behind Schalke 04 and sit in fifth in Ligue 1 while Marseille finished second in group F behind Chelsea and sit fourth in their league. That's right, both of these teams would not automatically qualify for next years CL if it ended today. You know Schalke 04, the team that is sitting one position outside of relegation in the Bundesliga? A few years ago Ligue 1 was perhaps a top five league in the world. The Bundesliga has now pulled away from it and many other leagues are perhaps equal to it. You do have to give Lyon credit for getting rid of Karim Benzema. Not only did they get rid of him, they got money in return! There isn't much more to say about Ligue 1, Barca would completely destroy either of these teams.
Arsenal are dear to my heart because imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. They try so hard to play like Barca and we should respect them for it. I like the idea of facing Arsenal if only to beat Cesc Fabregas again in the CL and further strengthen his desire to return to Barca. This is not an attempt on my part to bring up the Cesc transfer again, I know everyone is sick of it, just sharing that I personally want Cesc back and knocking Arsenal out of the CL would cement his return to the Camp Nou in my opinion. Arsenal on an average day are similar to Barca on our worst day, lots of possession and chances but no goals. Arsenal finished second in their group behind Shakhtar Donestk and currently sit first in the English Premier League, in part due to having an extra game played over United. While Arsenal are to be respected for leading one of the two toughest leagues in the world, they haven't had their slump yet. Chelsea are having a terrible run right now and United did earlier in the year. I expect that right now Arsenal are playing their best football of the year and I also expect them to have cooled off by early next year.
Overall, I think Barca fans should be absolutely thrilled if we draw Lyon, Marseille, or Roma. We should still be confident and content if we draw Inter Milan or Arsenal. I know it may sound crazy but I want nothing to do with AC Milan right now, primarily for the reasons I listed above. Zlatan and Ronaldinho would potentially be as motivated for victory as they have ever been in the careers. I do think Barcelona would beat AC Milan but I'd like to avoid them in the round of 16 if we can.
Let's hear what you think! I am certain many of you will think I am too worried about AC Milan. Am I dismissing Inter too easily? Too hard on the French teams? Have your say in the comments section below.