Let's take a look at what we learned (aside from "fear the rise of Germany") from four matches in which we certainly learned to fear the rise of Germany.
Life After Gotze
Borussia Dortmund midfielder (and soon to be Bayern Munich player) Mario Gotze was subbed off after less than 20 minutes of their second-leg match at the Bernabeu with a suspected hamstring tear. His removal had a rather negative effect. Kevin Grosskreutz, who by the standards of German midfielders is an elderly 24, came on for Gotze. Marco Reus, who started the match in a roving left winger role, shifted into a more central position, more advanced than where Gotze had been playing. Grosskreutz tucked in on the left.
While his positioning and tracking were acceptable, Grosskreutz's touch and decision-making were not. Too frequently play broke down as balls were funneled in his direction. Grosskreutz is a very good player to have as your first choice off the bench in the Bundesliga; he is not up to the standards of starting in the midfield for a Champions League finalist.
Gotze is a unique talent, but he will have to be replaced with someone capable of creating alongside Reus. Problem is, Dortmund already lost that player. His name is Shinji Kagawa and he plays for Manchester United now.
In Joe Posnanski's recent profile of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, there's a quote from Bob Spear, Pop's old coach from his playing days at Air Force: "A team could do anything as long as the players just kept moving." The theory is the same in football: create and exploit space through motion, disrupt another team through pressing. Can Borussia Dortmund move enough so as to level themselves with comparably trained sides who also have effectively unlimited bank rolls? Is there room for a working-class Champions League winner in modern football? Or will Real Madrid's well-funded talent prove to be too much in the Champions League semifinal?
We have reached the wonderful part of the UEFA Champions League where a truly elite team can be a heavy underdog. Juventus has dominated Serie A this season after cutting through it unbeaten last season. They lead their domestic league in goals scored and goals allowed. They have one of the best keepers in the world (still) in Gianluigi Buffon, and one of the stoutest spines in club football. Andrea Pirlo has spent the last two years proving AC Milan wrong for both club and country. They have history, experience, one of the world's largest supporters groups. They are without a doubt one of the top five clubs in the world both today, and historically. And they're in a lot of trouble.
How did Juventus get here?
Juventus reemerged from a half-decade of scandal last season, making an undefeated run through Serie A to secure their first Scudetto since 2003 (and Reggie Bush never won the Heisman, let's move on). The Old Lady then got to this point in the tournament by making an undefeated charge through a tricky group that included Shakhtar Donetsk and defending champion Chelsea. Juventus then got very lucky, drawing a relatively weak Celtic side, whom they dispatched with ease 5-0 on aggregate. Juventus then got relatively unlucky, drawing a very good Bayern Munich side, who quickly scored against the Italians, before adding a second-half goal to secure a 2-0 first-leg victory.
It's good to be the Emperor. Since reassuming control of the club where he played the bulk of his career, Fatih Terim, who is known in Turkey as the İmparator, has led Galatasaray to a level of success they haven't seen in more than a decade. With players who match Terim's attacking instincts, Gala, only two years removed from a disappointing eighth-place finish in the Turkish Süper Lig, is back in the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time since 2001. Its roster features big names like Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder and ex-Chelsea Champions League hero Didier Drogba. Terim's reputation, damaged by Turkey's failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2010, has been restored, so much so that he has been linked with the opening at Inter Milan. But the quarterfinal round of the Champions League is rarefied territory, and even an Emperor can find himself an underdog when he runs into the "Special One."
The UEFA Champions League is home to the highest caliber of football in the world. This is not about that. Welcome to the worst blunders of the round in the UEFA Champions League. Presented to you with animated GIFs.
4. The Card
Let's start with the most controversial decision of the round, referee Cuneyt Cakir's red card to Manchester United winger Nani for his high boot to the side of Real Madrid's Alvaro Arbeloa. Most believe Nani was too harshly penalized for what looked like unintentional contact. Others have said it was an obvious red card because of the height of the contact, and that Nani shouldn't have given Cakir the chance to book him at such a pivotal moment in the match.
The English Premier League is down to one team in the Champions League. It has been more than 15 years since no English team made the Champions League quarterfinals, but that is the most likely scenario after Tuesday's matches. Reigning champion Manchester City crashed out of the so-called "group of death," Chelsea was unable to defend its title, and Manchester United received a very un–Manchester United dose of luck when Nani was given a questionable second-half red card in the second leg of their tie against Real Madrid, allowing the Madristas to storm back from a one-goal deficit and eliminate the Reds. So all that's left for England is Arsenal. And Arsenal, your Champions League underdog of the week, is in a world of trouble.
By the standard of teams that perennially compete in Europe, Valencia has had a rough couple of years. The city of Valencia has been as hard hit by the European economic downturn as any city outside of Greece. The massive Nou Mestalla stadium being constructed to generate revenue that would allow Los Che to compete with La Liga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid remains half-built. Debt issues forced the team to sell off superstars Jordi Alba, David Silva, and Juan Mata, while poor internal evaluation led them to sell off blossoming star Isco (whom they replaced with the perpetually injured Sergio Canales). Argentine Mauricio Pellegrino, a stalwart defender for the team during its early 00's glory days, was hired and fired as manager over the course of half a season. The club has been so burdened by financial problems that the supporters organization set up to manage the franchise has defaulted, forcing the city itself to step in to prop up the club. Los Che currently sit in fifth place in La Liga, as close to 14th as third. And 90 minutes into their first leg against Paris Saint-Germain, they were staring down a 2-0 deficit against a team with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi.
The UEFA Champions League is home to the highest caliber of football in the world. This is not about that. Welcome to the worst blunders of the week in the UEFA Champions League.
Ball to Hand?
Let's start at the San Siro, where AC Milan upset Barcelona, 2-0. This was a fascinating match, where Barca was unable to accomplish anything resembling their typical incisive play, and Milan played wonderfully. Their second goal was an absolute stunner, a beautiful piece of teamwork where they strung together four incredibly difficult touches across the perimeter of the box, leading to a wonderful volley from Sulley Muntari. Milan's defensive effort was remarkable, limiting Barcelona to a handful of half chances. But the first goal …
What's going on here? Let's break it down. Riccardo Montolivo takes a shot on goal that appears to be heading just outside of the left post, at which point Cristian Zapata, summoning the spirit of his revolutionary namesake, lifts his hands in the air to signal "V for Viva," and bounce-passes the ball to Kevin-Prince Boateng, who calmly slots it past Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes. Goal? Goal. Really, we're going with goal? We're going with goal.
In European football, this is the era of the petro dollar. Manchester City was purchased by Sheikh Mansour, of the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates, and over the next two seasons acquired forwards Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, and prize jewel Carlos Tevez on the way to their first Premier League title in 44 years. Paris Saint-Germain's relatively new Qatari owners parlayed their wealth into superstars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, paying him enough that the French tax laws didn't sting too much. Chelsea, old hand at the having tons of oil money thing, won the Champions League even after blowing 50 million pounds on the withered husk of Fernando Torres. And Malaga, in a matter of two years, went from being a La Liga relegation candidate to making its first-ever appearance in the Champions League, thanks to the beneficence of Qatari Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani and the talents of Santi Cazorla, Isco, and the venerable Ruud van Nistelrooy. But what happens when the tap of oil money is suddenly and inexplicably turned off? We're seeing the results play out on the Spanish coast of the Mediterranean, and it's, well, strange.
If you're watching soccer on Wednesday, assuming you live outside of Donetsk and North Rhine-Westphalia (and if you are reading from one of those places, Pryvit or Guten Tag), you're going to be watching Real Madrid play Manchester United. I get it. I really do. Ronaldo, van Persie, Rooney, Ferguson, "the Special One." In terms of individual quality, history, and story lines, there's nothing better than a Champions League clash between Madrid and United. But the best match of the day will be played in Donetsk, Ukraine, between reigning German double-winners Borussia Dortmund and reigning Ukrainian double-winners (and your Champions League Underdog of the Week), Shakhtar Donetsk.
The first half of Real Madrid and Manchester City's Group D (is for "death") was not something you would tell your kids about. The second half? That was a reason to have kids, just to tell them about it, especially the last 10 minutes. If this is what bloated contracts, absurd transfer fees, and the tractor beaming of talent looks like, then I, for one, welcome our not-so-new, well-moneyed European football overlords.
Here is a photo of Fernando Torres holding the 2012 Champions League trophy and the 2012 FA Cup. Since 2008, Torres has won the European Championship (in '08), the World Cup (in '10) and these two trophies. Saturday, in Munich, he was on the field when Chelsea completed one of the most improbable Champions League runs — coming from 3-1 down against Napoli and defeating a heavily favored Barcelona in the semifinals — since Liverpool came from behind against A.C. Milan in 2005. He looks happy. So why does this 28-year-old with a full trophy cabinet sound so damn sad?
Chelsea have long been blamed for committing modern football’s original sin. Just replace the forbidden fruit with a soft drink.
As the story goes, in 2003, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich nearly took control of Tottenham Hotspur, but when a meeting to purchase the North London club fell through, Abramovich bought the West London team from Ken Bates over a Coca-Cola at London's Dorchester Hotel. He soon introduced an era of financial doping into European football, blowing traditional powerhouses like Liverpool and Arsenal out of the water when it came to transfer fees and player wages. Abramovich proved that everything had a price, even the Premier League title. It’s a recipe followed by the likes of Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City and screwed up by Bernie Ecclestone at Queens Park Rangers.
Ever since Abramovich took over Chelsea, the one thing he has coveted most is the Champions League trophy. It is a symbol, something that would establish his new-money-funded project with the old boys of Bayern, Barca, and Juve. And it is the one thing that has eluded him — cue the dramatic music — until now.