A humbling and hollow week for the Italians; Chelsea hail old guard and new heroes; and Real Madrid have reason to believe
It has been a chastening couple of weeks for the Italians. Looking at the way the ties were poised ahead of the second legs, it was not unreasonable to imagine three Italian clubs hurdling through to the quarter-finals. Although Milan made it – but not without an embarrassing scare – Internazionale and Napoli underperformed and paid a heavy price.
Inter actually won their laborious match with Marseille, tumbling out of the competition on away goals, but the term "hollow victory" is an understatement. Inter looked light years away from the Champions League-winning team forged by José Mourinho two years ago, despite the presence of so many from that era. The late Brandão goal which finished them off saw the combined defensive nous of Lúcio, Walter Samuel and Júlio César outmanoeuvred by a straightforward hoof upfield.
Interesting that André Villas-Boas has been hotly linked with the coaching position at Inter for next season, given his experience in refreshing a team of old stalwarts. Inter went out to a team who have looked pretty awful themselves lately. It took some doing. "I think we were great," enthused a mightily relieved Didier Deschamps. "We were a bit shy offensively, but we hurt them in a similar fashion to the first leg – in an Italian style." Ouch.
Napoli's regrets are also partly self-inflicted. Although they have been praised back home for holding their heads up high, they don't need telling that they chose a terrible moment to drop down from the lofty standards they have set. Christian Maggio's departure clearly damaged the team's balance, and the front three struggled to click thereafter. Trying to limit the damage, though, is not their game. Just what Napoli didn't need was too much emphasis on defenders who had that look of panic in their eyes. "There were naive mistakes due to our lack of experience. We had almost everything to lose and it was understandable to make errors in this fiery atmosphere," lamented Walter Mazzarri.
Rightly, he was quick to applaud his team's efforts overall in the Champions League. The challenge, to come back stronger, is an intriguing one.
Given the names on the scoresheet which took this game into extra time, and the classically strong-willed body language which ensured a vintage Chelsea performance, it was no surprise the old guard were the toast of Stamford Bridge. But notably, this was also a performance where a number of the new guard underlined their worth. David Luiz and Ramires both stamped their authority on the game in impressive fashion. Good luck to anyone who wishes to argue that John Terry or Frank Lampard were any more determined in their efforts than Chelsea's Brazilians, which just goes to prove that character has nothing to do with nationality, and everything to do with personality.
Another who excelled in that regard (as he has for most of the season actually, even when those around him were being questioned) is Branislav Ivanovic. He is not exactly a new boy considering he is now in his fourth season at Chelsea, but nor is he on the pedestal reserved for the legendary spine of Terry-Lampard-Drogba. Ivanovic, in future, should be the kind of player Chelsea can depend upon as a link between the old school and the team that will eventually come out of this strange not-quite-rebuilding-yet-transition-on-hold period. Ivanovic is the kind of unsung hero all successful teams need, and his moment in the limelight is totally deserved.
A different kind of focus should be trained on Drogba's sneaky theatricals, which were exposed by the television cameras for all to see. Uefa's disciplinary committee should be looking to outlaw acts of unmistakable cheating using restrospective punishments where necessary. With his dastardly peek, as he relaxed his wounded expression for a moment to check on the referee's decision, Drogba undermined a superb performance, and he should not be let off the hook.
It is strange to recall that Real Madrid did not get beyond the last 16 of the Champions League for six consecutive seasons. They stalled at the first knockout stage every time between 2005 and 2010. Mourinho was quick to point out that the bad old days appear to be gone now that Real have skipped into the latter stages for the second consecutive season. "The team has been very balanced and this shows as we have got to the Champions League quarter-finals in two consecutive years," he said.
There is clearly much more purpose in Mourinho's Real, and although Cristiano Ronaldo was top dog again for scoring twice, this is a team with an abundance of players who can score regularly in this competition. With Gonzalo Higuaín and Karim Benzema also making their mark, and the cunning Mesut Ozil pulling the strings, they were able to see off CSKA Moscow without having to sweat too much.
They have reason to think they can go further in this competition, and Mourinho claimed afterwards that he does not care who comes up in the draw. Doesn't care? Really? Pull the other one. There is one potential opponent he would surely wish to avoid like the plague. Here's a clue. This team are not from Italy, England, France, Germany, Portugal or Cyprus.
History would suggest not. Naturally, after a handsome 7-0 procession, Bayern's players and management had to field a few extra-pressure questions about how much they want to reach this particular final seeing as it takes place at their very own home sweet home. But the examples of a club winning Europe's major prize on their own turf are extremely rare. It has happened only twice, and the most recent occasion is almost half a century ago, when Inter beat Benfica at San Siro in 1965. Prior to that, in 1956, the second season of the European Cup, Real Madrid beat Fiorentina at the Bernabéu.
As it happens, the last time a team from the host venue's "home" country won a final, it was also Munich. In 1997, Borussia Dortmund won at the old Olympiastadion. So, Bayern are best just concentrating on playing their game and not worrying about where they may or may not end up. They certainly found their gears again against a Basel team who must have made Heiko Vogel wince at his pre-match prediction that he had "absolutely no fear that Bayern will score seven goals in one game". Mario Gomez naturally took the headlines with his collection of four, but the most reassuring sight for Bayern was the return to form of "Robbery", the wing combination of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. Both players were sensational, and brought renewed faith to a club whose conviction had been tested recently.
This has been an extraordinary round of Champions League football. With the exception of Barcelona's 10-2 aggregate rout of Bayer Leverkusen, all the other ties held some fascination in the second leg. Two were close enough to go to extra time, one went to penalties, and another was decided in stoppage time. There were comebacks all over the place, and the total goals scored in this round was up by 18 compared with the same stage last season (56, compared to 38 in 2011).
The seeding system, designed to give the group winners home advantage in the second leg, clearly had an effect. All eight ties in the second leg were won by the home team, with an aggregate scoreline of 30-4. What spectacles await in the next round? The draw takes place in Switzerland on Friday morning. While nobody would dream of suggesting some balls might be warmer than others, what are the chances of Marseille v Apoel in the quarter-finals?