FC Barcelona: UEFA Champions League Scout Report

Chelsea's home form is impressive, but is David Luiz a possible weak-link?

After last night’s victories for Chelsea and Real Madrid, the line-up for this year’s UEFA Champions League quarter-finals is complete, and just like last year, I have broken down each team’s strengths, weaknesses, managers/tactics and their route to the quarter-final stage. Hopefully this will be useful for gauging what exactly awaits the Blaugrana in the next round, whoever the draw pairs Barcelona with tomorrow.

APOEL Nicosia

Route to the Quarter-Finals:

APOEL have certainly been the surprise package of this year’s competition, and perhaps in the all-time history of the UEFA Champions League. The Cypriots weren’t even expected to progress into the group stages, but they fought their way through three qualifying rounds which culminated in a tie with Polish side Wisla Krakow. Having lost the first leg by a solitary goal, APOEL needed a win at home to qualify for the group stages for only the second year in their 84 year existence. APOEL raced into a two goal lead courtesy of an own goal, and a strike from Brazilian forward Ailton, but Wisla grabbed what could have been a vital away goal with 20 minutes remaining. APOEL needed a goal from somewhere, and time was running out, until Ailton saved the day with his second of the evening off a superb turn with just three minutes of regulation time left.

Even then, APOEL were written off by many, how could this little club survive in a group that contained reigning Europa League Champions FC Porto, Ukranian Champions Shakhtar Donetsk and Russian Champions Zenit St. Petersburg? It looked a lost cause, but APOEL proved they were no pushovers as they managed to stay unbeaten away from home, only losing on the final matchday after qualification was secured. Even then, no-one expected APOEL to progress any further. Paired with Lyon in the round of sixteen, APOEL lost the first leg 1-0, but reversed that deficit in the second leg before securing their place in the quarter-finals after a penalty shoot-out. Once again, no-one expects APOEL to really pose a threat, although write them off at your own peril.

Strengths:

First off, despite what may have been expected, APOEL can boast one of the meanest defences in the competition. Admittedly, there were tougher groups, but the Cypriots have only conceded seven goals thus far (excluding the qualifiers), which works out at less than one per game. In addition to that, APOEL are also one of the more clinical teams left in the competition, scoring one in every three shots on target. Also, you cannot underestimate their reputation being a major factor; how many of you think that APOEL would be an easy game? Barcelona have had a problem with complacency this season, would I really be happy if we drew APOEL? The Cypriots have everything to gain and nothing to lose; that’s a dangerous combination.

Weaknesses:

Well, where do we start? None of the squad have any experience at this level, they almost certainly lack that extra gear that the truly great teams find around this stage and they tend to allow the opposition to monopolise possession. If that wasn’t enough, they tend to foul the opposition a great deal as well. If the Cypriots drew Barcelona, one could expect possession figures in excess of 75%, with the vast majority of that 75% being in APOEL’s defensive third. Personally, I think that none of the teams they have faced in their route to the quarter-finals are particularly good, and while they did beat Lyon, the French side should have never got to the knockout stages either. How would they react to a "real" test?

Manager:

Ivan Jovanovic never excelled as a player, but he has been excellent as manager of APOEL. During his two spells in charge of the Cypriots he has led them to eight league titles, as well as their only two appearances in the Champions League. Furthermore, Jovanovic is the latest winner of the Serbian coach of the Year award, which has been previously held by former Barca coach Radomir Antic and Milovan Rajevac who led Ghana to the World Cup semi-finals. During the course of APOEL’s historic campaign he has favoured a modern-favourite in the 4-2-3-1, which has brought the best out of Ailton and Gustavo Manduca. Like most Eastern-bloc coaches, Jovanovic’s side is well-drilled and difficult to beat, although I think that Barcelona have probably faced a tougher test in both BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen.

Marseille

Route to the Quarter-Finals:

The French runners-up progressed in second place from Group F, which came as a surprise as some. However, compared to Dortmund, Marseille were the far more consistent side, and I think everyone will agree that Marseille are better than Olympiacos. Marseille won both of their opening games to claim top spot in the group, but a loss to Arsenal nearly destabilised their campaign. The French side then stumbled to an unimpressive draw in the return match against the Gunners, and a loss to Olympiacos meant that they needed a win on the final day against the German Champions. They did leave it late, but a superb strike from Mathieu Valbuena sealed a superb comeback win.

The round of sixteen paired Marseille with struggling Inter Milan, in one of the less glamorous ties of the round, which curiously produced some of the most dramatic scenes with three of the four goals being scored in injury time. The football on show though was pretty average, until the closing stages that is, and even though Inter Milan have been poor all season, Marseille still needed two great performances from Steve Mandanda to secure qualification. Forget APOEL, I consider Marseille the weakest team remaining in the draw.

Strengths:

Looking back on recent highlights, it’s hard to find anything Marseille have done particularly well. Since their first leg win at home to Inter, Marseille have lost their last five matches, scoring just a solitary goal in the process. However, that goal from Brandao did send them to this stage, so I guess I should lay off them a little. They possess a lot of pace, with Loic Remy, Andre Ayew, Mathieu Valbuena the obvious threats, while Steve Mandanda is a superb keeper. I’m a fan of their right-back, former Osasuna man Cesar Azpilicueta, but aside from that, I really don’t see too many significant strengths.

Weaknesses:

Like with APOEL, where do I start? Their domestic form is appalling for a club in the Champions League quarter-finals, even worse than Inter’s in fact. Currently L’OM sit in eighth place, in what I consider Europe’s sixth best league; whatever the case, they are not doing well at all. Their inability to score goals is a major concern, although I do understand that leading-scorer Loic Remy has been injured in recent weeks. Marseille need to buck up their ideas if they are to have any chance of retaining their Champions League place, and while getting to the quarter-final is a superb achievement, I believe that Didier Deschamps will place a higher importance on the league, especially if the draw was to pair Marseille with Barcelona.

Manager/Tactics:

Didier Deschamps has enjoyed a successful managerial career to date with Monaco, Juventus (albeit back in Serie B) and of course, Marseille. Deschamps has won at least one trophy in every full season he has completed as a manger, including leading Marseille to the Ligue Un title back in 2009/10. This is also Marseille’s first appearance in the UCL quarter-finals since 1993, when he was part of the team that eventually won the competition. As with most managers these days, he mostly opts for the good ol’ 4-2-3-1, and like most teams, that 4-2-3-1 changes to a 4-3-3 or a 4-5-1 depending on the situation. Marseille are a solid defensive outfit that keep possession well, as you might expect when Deschamps was such a quality holding midfielder, but one would expect that if they drew Barcelona, the onus would be on the counter attack. The pace of Remy and co could cause problems for Carles Puyol, and as Eric Abidal has been so tragically sidelined, Adriano would have to curb his offensive runs so as to not leave a gap for the wingers to exploit. Other than that, a tie with Marseille would be pretty straight-forward for a side of the Blaugrana’s quality.

Benfica

Route to the Quarter-Finals:

Remember Manchester United? Well, Benfica topped the group containing the reigning English Champions, and deservedly so. They were unlucky not to beat United in the opening match of that group, and from there, they never looked back, remaining unbeaten throughout the group stage. However, while they topped the group, they didn’t truly impress me, especially as two of their three wins were against whipping boys Otelul Galati. When they were paired with Zenit in the Round of Sixteen, I expected the Russians to progress, but Benfica thoroughly deserved to qualify over the two legs. Losing 3-2 in the first leg could be attributed to the weather (and poor keeping) as much as anything, but their second leg win was comfortable for the most part as Zenit never really looked like stopping the Portuguese side.

Strengths:

Benfica boast a wealth of attacking talent, that includes ex-Barca winger Nolito, reported Manchester United target Nicolas Gaitan and star striker Oscar Cardozo. The Paraguayan has 23 goals from 31 matches to match his total from last season, with over two months left to improve upon that tally. He boasts a wicked left foot, and his physical presence could certainly pose any defense problems. However, he is not the quickest, which is where Nolito and Gaitan come in. They both offer pace and guile on the wings, with Pablo Aimar pulling the strings in the number 10 position. Basically, Benfica are a fluid attacking side, but are they good enough to attack Barcelona?

Weaknesses:

With regards to that question, I doubt it. While they possess great attacking players, their defense is a little suspect to say the least. I mean, come on, four South Americans in defense!?!? I’m stereotyping a whole lot there, but honestly, a central defensive pairing of ex-Real Madrid defender Ezequiel Garay and Luisao wouldn’t fill me with confidence if I were to face Barcelona. Not only is Luisao a little slow, but Garay struggle for pace as well, and when you combine that with two attack-minded full-backs, there could be a lot of space for Barca to exploit. My only concern would be Cardozo’s strength, although even then, I doubt Gerard Pique or Javier Mascherano would struggle too much in a one-on-one with the striker.

Manager/Tactics:

Jorge Jesus has been in charge of Benfica since 2009, when he took over from Quique Sanchez Flores. Jesus did bring the league title back to Lisbon in his first season in charge, but he had no answer for Andre Villas-Boas’ Porto last season, and looks set to finish second again this year. Unsurprisingly, Benfica mostly operate out of a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel the two midfield enforcers. Nolito and Gaitan provide work-rate on the wings, but they are let down by the occasionally lazy Aimar and Cardozo who often leave the defensive work to the rest of the XI. If drawn against Barcelona, I struggle to see how Jesus could change his set-up to counter-act the Blaugrana, but I doubt that they could "out-attack" Barcelona either. Of all the teams left in the competition, I think Benfica would play the most "open" game, but whether or not that is a good thing or not is up for debate.

Chelsea

Route to the Quarter-Finals:

In a word: inconsistent. Chelsea’s season has fast spiralled out of control in recent weeks with Andre Villas-Boas getting the sack, and Roberto Di Matteo taking temporary charge. However, the players have regrouped enough to secure a spot in tomorrow’s draw with an impressive 4-1 win over Napoli. No-one really gave them a chance of qualifying after the first leg defeat, myself included, but I was pleasantly surprised with their recovery. The group stage was relatively straight-forward for the Blues, as they topped the pile ahead of Valencia and Bayer Leverkusen. On the other hand, as I mentioned, consistency has been a problem. For example, they beat Genk 5-0 before drawing with them 1-1, as well as losing to Bayer Leverkusen after beating them comfortably at home. Chelsea may look a little vulnerable, but make no mistake, they remain a difficult opposition.

Strengths:

Despite the media furore around this Chelsea squad, they remain a determined bunch. Sure, they might have lacked in effort under AVB, but that 4-1 win over Napoli was just like vintage Chelsea at times. At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea have won all four UCL matches, with an aggregate score of 14-1. I don’t care about Fernando Torres misfiring, or the age of their squad, that is one hell of a record. Valencia were such a difficult opponent for the Blaugrana, but they were brushed aside 3-0 at the Bridge. Napoli are a great side, but they went down 4-1 after extra time. Barcelona’s record against Chelsea doesn’t make for great reading anyway, so I would prefer if we avoided London’s latest "crisis club".

Weaknesses:

If their home form is so good, why aren’t Chelsea being taken seriously? Well, their away form is pretty dire. As mentioned earlier, they drew away from home with Genk. Based on that, how would they fare at the Camp Nou? Defensively, Chelsea have been suspect to say the least with David Luiz and now Gary Cahill often venturing forward a little too often. Factor in Ashley Cole on the left, and possibly Jose Bosingwa on the right, and that defense is ripe for exploitation by Xavi et al. Just imagine Xavi, Cesc and Iniesta tormenting the Chelsea high line with endless through balls toward Lionel Messi. It is a mouth-watering prospect. Even if Terry and Ivanovic come into defense instead, that gives them a problem with pace so guys like Pedro and Cristian Tello could easily wreak havoc. Chelsea may be good at home, but the damage could be irreparable if the first leg is at the Camp Nou.

Manager/Tactics:

Poor Andre Villas-Boas. Hired in the summer, he was given a pretty small budget (by Chelsea’s standards) and was expected to complete a long-term project in eight or so months. Add in Fernando Torres and AVB was destined for the sack. Di Matteo has taken over until the end of the season, and like AVB, he seems to favour the 4-2-3-1. Didier Drogba remains the main man in attack, but Juan Mata has been a revelation since his summer move (as if we were surprised). The whole side lacks pace though, and also struggle to create chances unless Mata drops deeper to pick up possession. Barcelona would easily monopolise possession, but I am unsure whether they could break down the Blues, provided they sit back as in previous encounters.

AC Milan

Route to the Quarter-Finals:

Do I really need to tell you? Obviously, Milan were put in our group, and put up a decent fight over our two games, but ultimately, it wasn’t enough. They did grab second spot though, in the process setting up a tie with Arsenal. The first leg was played at the San Siro on a sub-par pitch, and I AM ZLATAN Ibrahimovic scored twice in a 4-0 win. However, the second leg saw a spirited Arsenal comeback, thanks mostly to the injury crisis for the Italians, but Milan held on for a 4-3 aggregate win.

Strengths:

It seems odd after they lost 3-0 to Arsenal, but Milan’s defense is clearly their strong point. Thiago Silva is a colossus in the heart of defense, and when fit, Alessandro Nesta remains one of the best centre-backs in world football. Between them, they did well to limit Lionel Messi’s influence in the first match between the two teams, but as we know, if you stop Leo from scoring, he generally gets an assist instead. Kevin-Prince Boateng is a superb midfielder, and he is excelling in Allegri’s system, but again, we already know that from his audacious goal against us in the group stage. Experience is another strength of the squad, but equally, Barca are no rookies either.

Weaknesses:

With experience comes age, and with age in football comes a decline in athletic ability. Milan are a slow side in general (with a few notable exceptions like Pato), and their overall speed of play is also pretty slow. Usually teams have to attack quickly to trouble Barcelona, and that could prove troublesome for Milan. Furthermore, they also tend to rely heavily on individual skill, like Pato’s super-quick goal, or Boateng’s ridiculous strike, or even Ibra’s skill. If those players are out injured (which they mostly are) or if they have an off-day, Milan are almost sterile. This would mean that all Barcelona would need to do is isolate the spark players, and the game would be basically won. Easier said than done of course...

Manager/Tactics:

Massimo Allegri has come in for a bit of stick from the Milan fans over his two years in charge, but he remains one of Europe’s most promising managers. At 44, he has done well to get to such a high-pressure job, and looks set to bring back the Scudetto to AC Milan this season. Getting to the quarter-finals is also a fine achievement, and depending on the how the draw goes for them, they are still in with a realistic chance of European success. Allegri has favoured a 4-3-1-2/a narrow 4-4-2 diamond in his time in charge, making him the only manager not to play a 4-2-3-1! If KPB and Ibra are fit, Milan will pose a threat to any side, but I don’t think they are good enough to lift the trophy this year at least.

Bayern Munich

Route to the Quarter-Finals:

Bayern Munich has been largely impressive this season in the UCL, topping the so-called Group of Death. Their easy win over Manchester City was an early marker for the competition, but the 7-0 demolition of Basel was even more impressive. The only blemishes on their record this year have been the loss to Basel and the loss to Manchester City, although the latter was because the German’s fielded a much-changed team after securing top spot in the group.

Strengths:

Just look at that team. Manuel Neuer, Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez; wherever you look Bayern Munich have world-class players. Well, maybe not at centre-back. However, that front four of Muller, Ribery, Robben and Gomez is amongst the best in the world. Muller and Gomez are two tremendous finishers, while Robben and Ribery are two players who can create something out of nothing. Like all great German sides, they are efficient with their chances, and superb on the counter-attack. The work-rate they display is 08/09 Barcelona-esque, although they are not quite as adept at keeping possession. With Neuer in goal, their defensive fragilities often do not matter, but they do exist.

Weaknesses:

Badstuber and Boateng are good defenders, but they are far from great, and what a European Cup winning side needs is a solid defense. Lahm is a world-class full-back, probably the best in the world along with Dani Alves, but he cannot do it all himself. In addition to that, Bayern have been a little inconsistent this season, but that could be as much of a strength as it could be a weakness. Who knows what Bayern Munich team would turn up? Lastly, as the final is being held at the Allianz Arena, the history books show that Bayern will not make the final, and if they draw Barcelona in the quarter-finals, they could be sent packing as history expects.

Manager/Tactics:

Juup Heynckes is currently in his third spell in charge of FC Hollywood, between which he has managed to win the Champions League with Real Madrid. However, he has not won any trophy since 2004 (and that was the Intertoto Cup...), and for that first trophy to be the UEFA Champions League would be a huge ask for the respected coach. Bayern are five points adrift of Dortmund in this season’s Bundesliga, so it could be a difficult choice for the experienced coach: does he go all in for the UCL or does he play more realistic and focus on the Bundesliga? Unsurprisingly, Bayern tend to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Schweinsteiger and Kroos as the two holding midfield players. As stated earlier though, while their attack is world-class, the defense remains shaky and relies heavily on Neuer’s shot-stopping in difficult matches. I think they would be tough, but beatable for the Blaugrana.

Real Madrid

Route to the Quarter-Finals:

Last but not least, we get to Real Madrid. The league leaders are looking superb in Jose Mourinho’s second season in charge, but I have yet to see them truly tested by a team other than Barcelona. Their group stage was a piece of cake, as Real notched up six wins from six, conceded just two goals as they went. The Round of Sixteen however did pose them a problem. The first leg in Moscow was difficult for the players, with the pitch and the weather playing their part they only drew 1-1, thanks to Pontus Wernbloom’s late equaliser. The second leg ended 4-1, but didn’t tell the whole tale of the match as CSKA had three good chances to score, but weren’t helped by nervous finishing and inadequate keeping from their second-choice keeper. I believe that if Keisuke Honda and Igor Akinfeev were fit to play in both legs, the tie could have ended very differently.

Strengths:

When a team has Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria, Kaka and Jose Callejon, you know that they can attack well. We know first-hand that Real boast a world-class attack, while outside of the Clasicos they keep possession incredibly well. They are strong defensively for the most part, and in Iker Casillas, they have a goalkeeper that can single-handedly change games. Really, we all know how good Real Madrid are.

Weaknesses:

First off, there is Real’s Clasico form, although I would be more concerned with the defense if I were Jose. Pepe is a liability, but actually the best defender they have and are willing to play. Sergio Ramos is also a liability; I counted three possible yellow card offenses for him yesterday (but I am biased, so swings and roundabouts!). Not only that, but the high-line was awfully reminiscent of the one that Jose implemented in the Camp Nou in November 2010. Yeah, in that match. Marcelo is another weak-link, defensively at least, and Arbeloa is not the greatest right-back in the world. If Barcelona can keep Real at bay at one end, I would back them 99 times out of 100 to put away their chances at the other. Simply put, I think Real Madrid are a superb team, but they are a team of athletes turned footballers, and - Xabi Alonso/Mesut Ozil aside - the team has yet to develop as good a football brain as Barcelona. I think that will count for a lot if it came to it.

Manager/Tactics:

What can I write about Jose Mourinho? He is one of football’s most successful coaches, and arguably the most famous of all-time. His reputation is only exceeded by his ego, but you cannot deny his results this season. All that is missing is a victory over FC Barcelona. Oh, and the Champions League. What odds for one leading to the other? What odds that this is Jose’s defining season? As much as I try to believe that Barcelona are still on top, there is a small part of my brain that thinks Real and Jose are on top. I could do with convincing otherwise, but do not want to be eliminated either. Real’s 4-2-3-1 is stacked with talent, and has improved in recent matches against Barcelona. Who knows whether they are at a stage where they can finally defeat Pep Guardiola? One thing is for sure though: the whole world wants to find out.

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