Russia on the agenda at Camp Nou
The stakes could hardly be higher, nor the margins tighter. But quite beyond how Barcelona-Chelsea, poised at 1-1, shapes the respective clubs’ seasons, with Barca targeting a treble and Chelsea suspecting they may need to win the Uefa Champions League to be in it next season, there are a number of individuals involved whose showings on Wednesday may have a significant bearing on how they spend their summer.
One of the most interested observers of the Camp Nou showdown will be Spain manager, Julen Lopetegui, who will two days later name his squad for the forthcoming World Cup preparation games against Germany and Argentina. His plans for Russia certainly include Barcelona’s Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, and Andres Iniesta, who is battling for fitness for Wednesday, while the fine form of Sergi Roberto, mainly at right-back, is pressing his case.
But what of the Premier League club with the highest concentration outside Spain of elite Spaniards? Chelsea became English champions last year thanks to vital contributions from a quintet of Spain players, but none of Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso, Cesc Fabregas or Pedro can feel certain of a place on the plane to Russia for the World Cup, while Alvaro Morata’s unsteady form and fitness since the turn of the year is a cause for concern for Loptegui, who sees how Diego Costa, the Brazil-born Spain centre-forward, has been thriving since rejoining Atletico Madrid, after Chelsea replaced him with Morata.
Fabregas, a World Cup winner in 2010, would need a series of very influential performances in the next six weeks to turn from outsider to candidate for a well-equipped Spain midfield, while Alonso seems a distance back in the queue to understudy Alba at left-back.
Pedro, another World Cup winner from 2010, knows his Spain arguments will look a tad stronger if he is included in the starting XI against his old club, Barcelona.
As for Azpilicueta, his versatility – he’s a right-back, left-back, or centre-back – make him hard to leave out of a 23-man World Cup party. But he knows that Sergi Roberto’s flexibility across full-back and midfield are similarly respected.
The Alexis Enigma
When Manchester United pounced for Alexis Sanchez in the January transfer window, Jose Mourinho lauded his vital role in the Champions League. Sanchez, said Mourinho, brings high-calibre experience in the competition to a squad where those qualities are not abundant. Sanchez then finished his United debut in Europe, the 0-0 first leg in Seville that leaves Tuesday’s return intriguingly poised, scrutinised for his tactical indiscipline.
Mourinho has since counselled his best football may only be seen next season. He has not been in compelling form lately, while others in United's attacking positions – notably Marcus Rashford - eclipsed him in Saturday's win over Liverpool.
Yet Sevillistas certainly fear Sanchez. In six matches against Sevilla he has never lost, and he scored vital goals in wins against the Andalusians in his last season at Barcelona, including an injury time winner and a rare header.
Full marks for observation to Roma manager Eusebio di Francesco, who after Saturday’s 3-0 win over Torino, looked bullishly forward to overcoming his club’s 2-1 deficit against Shakhtar Donetsk in Italy on Tuesday. “Shakhtar play far more like a Brazilian team than a Ukrainian one,” he said.
The flow of Brazilian players to the Donbass region has been heavy for over a decade, although this European campaign has really stressed the point. Eight of Shakhtar’s 11 Champions League goals this season have been scored by men born in Brazil; the other three belong to Facundo Ferreyra, the Argentine member of Shakhtar’s large South American diaspora.
The Managers’ League
One German, one Frenchman, one Spaniard, one Italian. Thus the managers already looking forward to the quarter-final draw on Friday. Who joins them?
While the Bundesliga may feel under-represented in the knockout stage of this Champions League, Germany should have a pair of native managers in the last eight, with Bayern Munich’s Jupp Heynckes, comfortably 5-0 up halfway through his tie against Besiktas, likely to join Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp.
There might yet be two Portuguese – Mourinho and Shakhtar’s Paulo Fonseca – and two Spaniards – if Barca’s Ernesto Valverde joins Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola.
Or even four Italians, with Sevilla’s Vincenzo Montella, Chelsea's Antonio Conte, and Roma’s Di Francesco hoping to join Juventus’s Max Allegri and maintain Italy’s high reputation as the top school of management.