Here is a sentence that is true, yet still sounds ridiculous: When the draw for the quarterfinals of the Champions League takes place, seven of the teams involved will be hoping to play against Manchester United. That is, they will be hoping to play against the current champions of England, three-time winners of the biggest of the big-eared silver things, and by almost any measure one of the biggest clubs in the known universe.
This is only in part down to the fact that United have spent most of this season lurching between shambles and a joke. A wounded big beast is still a more dangerous proposition than a healthy rabbit, and actively wanting to play knockout football against Robin van Persie comes with a certain element of risk. But when it's David Moyes' United or one of Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and PSG, well, bring on Alexander Büttner.
It is, perhaps, the strongest quarterfinal lineup since the European Cup transmuted into the Champions League in 1992. The first few seasons were still played under the quaint notion that only national champions should be eligible for the Champions League, and so quarterfinal places were filled by teams like Gothenburg, Hajduk Split, and Legia Warsaw; teams that in today's bloated elite-fest would be considered group stage cannon fodder. Indeed, in 92/93 and 93/94 there weren't even any proper quarterfinals: The last eight played in two groups of four.
Since the tournament expanded, however, the general pattern of the last eight tends to be six or seven of the traditional continental aristocrats, plus one or two surprise packages. Last season's was Malaga, the season's before APOEL. Villarreal and Schalke have also filled that role on a couple of occasions in recent years. These sides are not identified as outliers because they were poor sides; they weren't. Malaga nearly embarrassed Dortmund last season, Villarreal and Schalke made it through to the semifinals in 05/06 and 10/11 respectively, and had Juan Roman Riquelme not taken one of the most miserable penalties of all time, the Yellow Submarine would have made it even further. But when set against the rest of the sides in the last eight, they were definitely the ones to hold out for.
One might have expected UEFA's ill-fated and unloved second group stage, which ran from 99/00 to 02/03, to have produced last-eight lineups of similar strength. That was part of the point after all: more games equals more money, and also equals less chance of any shocks. Former Manchester United chief executive David Gill even blamed the abolition of the second group stage for the 2004 final, which saw Porto beat Monaco and introduced Jose Mourinho to an adoring world. But still, Panathinaikos, Galatasaray and Lazio found their way through the overgrown fixture list and into the knockout stages.
The obvious candidate for outsider status in this year's last eight is Atlético Madrid, who were competing in the Europa League last season. Yet such has been their progress through the tournament, including a remarkable dismantling of AC Milan, and such has been their capacity for keeping up with the Spanish Old Firm at home at the same time, that treating them as plucky upstarts simply does not sit right. Similarly, while PSG might be another option from a traditional point of view, the money that's been spent and the quality of the players it's been spent on mean that they, too, have the right to consider themselves potentially anybody's equal. And that's before you even recall the fright they gave Barcelona last season.
Time will tell if Atlético and PSG are destined to slip back after a season or so. At a guess, PSG are establishing themselves firmly on a foundation of Qatari cash, while Atlético's excellence is more dependent on Diego Simeone's management and so contingent on when he decides to move on. But for the moment they are genuinely scary sides, more reminiscent of PSV in 04/05 and Dynamo Kyiv in 97/98 and 98/99 than anything approaching desirable opposition.
There are better teams than United not represented in the last eight: on this season's showing, Arsenal and Manchester City are both entitled to feel a touch aggrieved that they'll be having their midweeks off. One suspects Juventus are a better side as well, though their failure to get past a fairly ordinary Galatasaray side perhaps weighs against this. Whether this surplus of strength means that outsiders will become a less frequent sight in the future remains to be seen, though the concentration of the biggest money (and so the best footballers) at the pinnacle of the game suggests so.
For now, this is where we are. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are the two best sides on the continent. Barcelona have the best player in the world; Atlético Madrid are above them in La Liga. Chelsea are top of the Premier League and have Jose Mourinho in the dugout; PSG are top in France and have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Blaise Matuidi, whose name is really fun to say in a broad Scottish accent. Borussia Dortmund aren't quite as strong as they were last season, when they lost in the final, but they are still plenty dangerous. And then United, unfamiliar bearers of long odds, yet in theory possessed of enough on-field talent to make life difficult for anybody.
Here, then, are the quarterfinals that a neutral might be hoping for, arranged on the basis that close games are good games, and intra-national matchups should be avoided at all costs.
Bayern Munich vs. Atlético Madrid
To beat Bayern a team needs three things: a brilliant goalkeeper at one end, a lethal finisher at the other, and a lot of luck in between. Atlético definitely have the first two, in Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa, and also have the aggression and workrate to upset the Bavarian's passing. Maybe.
Real Madrid vs. Chelsea
On the basis that a narked Mourinho is a motivated Mourinho, and a motivated Mourinho has a chance against anyone. Add to that Ancelotti returning to Stamford Bridge, and Samuel Eto'o to the club that spurned him, and it's a tie filthy with subplots.
Barcelona vs. PSG
Last season, PSG only went out to Barca on away goals; this season, the French side are better, and the Catalans have lost none of their individual brilliance but have looked distinctly shaky at times. Plus, Ibrahimovic with a point to prove makes for excellent viewing.
Manchester United vs. Borussia Dortmund
Well, United are getting battered by anybody else bar Chelsea, and they're getting beaten comfortably and boringly there. Dortmund, though, are almost as defensively messy as Moyes' boys, so there'll be goals either way. Should United collapse, then a few giddy and angry fans can pretend the whole thing was an audition for Jurgen Klopp; should they win, then it's on ...