Champions League Quarter Finals: Chelsea and United on the Brink
‘I believe and my players believe. That’s the most important thing.’
José Mourinho was in bullish mood in his pre-match press conference, hashtag fodder (#BELIEVE #CHAMPIONSOFEUROPE) spewing from the Portuguese before his side’s attempt to overturn a two-goal deficit against Paris Saint-Germain at Stamford Bridge tonight.
Confidence, of course, has never been a problem for José, even if it has been tempered this season by the improbable assertion, made when Chelsea sat atop the Premier League table, that they were out of the title race, or the weirdly public protestation that the strikers at his disposal were either aging (to the point of elderly), incompetent, or both. Perhaps Johan Cruijff was right when he told De Telegraaf this week, ‘It’s always the same with [Mourinho]. When things are going well, it’s the result of his good work, but the players are to blame when things are going badly.’
Chelsea to qualify – 3.20
PSG to qualify – 1.34
(All odds provided by GR88.com are accurate as of today and subject to change)
More often than not, though, that confidence is justified. And so while the task at hand is great, Chelsea fans, like their manager, do ‘believe’. In 2012, the year of their Champions League triumph, Chelsea faced Napoli in the last 16. Then, as now, they sank to a 3-1 defeat in the first leg. But a 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge followed, and Chelsea progressed. PSG will prove a sterner test—they can boast 11 straight wins and a strong European away record—and there is no Didier Drogba this time to drag the team through by sheer force of will. But the precedent is there.
Samuel Eto’o is in line for a return for Chelsea, injured soon after scoring in March’s 6-0 mauling of Arsenal, and much will depend on his sharpness. PSG, meanwhile, have their own missing striker; Zlatan Ibrahimović’s absence, however, is no disaster, allowing Edinson Cavani to move into a more central role and opening up a space for Lucas Moura in the starting lineup. Yohan Cabaye might also start in place of Marco Verratti, in part for his experience against English opposition, in part for his rugged handsomeness.
Even with a firing Eto’o, stopping such a side from scoring will be a big ask. Glorious (aggregate) defeat, then, is the most likely outcome, after which Cruijff might once more be proved right.
Manchester United, too, ‘believe’, or at least Patrice Evra does: ‘We always believe when you play for Manchester United,’ he said after a belief-boosting 4-0 win away at a Dan Gosling-‘inspired’ Newcastle side whose manager is still banned from the touchline after head butting a player. Heady days for both clubs.
What Evra ‘believes’ is that the seventh best team in England, two points behind Tim Sherwood’s Spurs, can beat the best team in the world, 20 points ahead of Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund. In Munich.
He’s not the only one, either. Bayern are technically on their worst run in years, losing to Augsburg at the weekend and drawing with Man United and Hoffenheim the week before. Jeff Stelling and men of his ilk are crowing about how all the ‘momentum’ is with David Moyes’s side, as if the Augsburg defeat wasn’t Bayern’s only one in 53 league games, or as if they hadn’t won the title by March, or as if Marouane Fellaini’s flailing limbs (mostly elbows) really were a match for Philipp Lahm’s actual footballing ability.
Which is not to say they have no chance. Bayern’s ‘poor form’ does count for something, though not as much as some are making out. As does Man United’s ‘good form’, with the same caveat. The absence of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez, both through suspension, is a boost for the away team. But the midfield they face will still be better than the black hole that is their own, Lahm holding expertly and Toni Kroos playing with a point to prove.
Man United have absentees of their own, of course, with Robin van Persie definitely out, Juan Mata cup tied, and Wayne Rooney struggling. Rooney, however, looks as if he will play, despite not being 100% fit (because that’s worked so well for England in the past – ed.). Moyes has revealed how staff have ‘worked him hard… in the swimming pool’, managing to distract him from the water slides and wave machines for just long enough to do some aerobic work. But even if he does start, their chances of victory are slim at best.
We have, at least, moved past the stage where Man United losing every week is considered comedy gold. Everyone by now is used to their weakness, and, in a way, this stands them in good stead. It means that Moyes can set up as he did at Old Trafford without any negative reaction, limiting Bayern to long shots and harmless possession in the first two thirds of the pitch. It means that anything but a comfortable Bayern win can be considered a success for the manager and his players. And it means, for once, that the majority of football fans will be supporting Man United tomorrow night. For that would be the real comedy gold: an Alexander Büttner winner at the Allianz Arena. #BELIEVE.
Betting Instinct Tip – With United likely to set out in a defensive formation, we suggest backing Bayern to win to nil at 2.08 with GR88.com
KIERAN DODDS (kierandodds) is a history student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others.