Champions League Preview
The heavy snows and generally unpleasant weather of the UK put a damper in this weeks soccer world, with most games being postponed. However, the lack of games put a little more attention on one of the overlooked gems of the soccer season, the Champions League knockout round draw. Like most years, the lack of drama in the round robin (aside from Ajax and Spartak Moscow’s challenge) and predictable outcome almost makes you forget that the competition is even happening. The only real surprise was that Shakhtar Donetsk managed to beat out Arsenal for top table position. But now comes the knockout stage that brings the competition to an elite level and makes it hard to wait for February to come. Let’s look at the matchups.
Tottenham vs. AC Milan is my favorite matchup in the draw. Tottenham has been on a completely different level than its Premier League form and proved it could hang with the giants by beating out Inter Milan to win the group. They will hope to keep their good form at the San Siro against Milan’s other team. AC Milan is currently on a tear, storming to the top of Serie A and making themselves one of the favorites to win the Cup this year. If there‘s an upset, it will be here, but not sure they are ready for what the Champions League competition is all about. Prediction: AC Milan 5-3 on aggregate.
Schalke 04 vs. Valencia presents a very even match up, as both teams will be looking to the Champions League for their trophy as domestic success will be hard to come by. Schalke has been challenged in the Bundesliga, but have looked excellent in this competition as their Champions veterans have shown up. Valencia has done well considering the loss of David Villa and David Silva to their squad, and earned their 2nd place finish in a tough group by holding off Rangers. Look for this one to be close with Schalke benefiting from 2nd leg being at their grounds. Prediction: Schalke 04 2-2 (Win in shootout).
Barcelona vs. Arsenal must be the most anticipated matchup of the first round, as it presents an opportunity for Arsenal to gain some vengeance, as well as replaying the 2006 Champions League Final. Messi was deity-like in last years match-up as he chiseled Arsenal’s defense on the way to is hat trick in the return leg. Arsenal have typically underperformed in Europe in recent years, and with Captain Cesc Fabregas admitting that the team is “scared” of the upcoming fixture, there’s not a lot of reason to see Arsenal pulling off an upset against the hottest team in Europe. Barca will seal it at the Nue Camp in the 2nd leg. Prediction: Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate.
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. AS Roma looks to be the game in which a European outsider could become poised to make a serious run at the title. Shakhtar has dominated its domestic league, and after winning its group, looks to be a real contender. Roma, on the other had, has been less inspired in this competition. They were the benefactors of a weak group and must count on good performances in Italy to prepare themselves for the Ukrainian super team. I see Shakhtar going for in the competition. Prediction: Shakhtar Donetsk 4-3 on aggregate.
FC Copenhagen vs. Chelsea is the one blowout in the making. The only thing that makes it interesting is Chelsea’s miserable for. If Chelsea can right itself in the next two months, this one will be over after the first game. Prediction: Chelsea 6-1 on aggregate.
Real Madrid vs. Lyon will feature Jose Mourinho on the hot seat. After all of the success he’s had in this competition, he will be expected to carry this latest bunch of Galacticos deep into the competition. Unfortunately, he will be going against a Lyon team that has done very well in the Champions League in recent past. The first leg will be crucial for both teams, and Lyon will be grateful it’s at their place. Look for the French to make life difficult for Real. Prediction: Real Madrid 3-2 on aggregate.
Bayern Munich vs. Inter Milan repeats last years final, though things couldn’t be more different for these teams. Both were coming off of historic domestic seasons with Inter becoming only the 6th team in history to win the European Treble. However, this year both teams are squandering in their domestic leagues, with Inter’s manager Rafa Benitez coming under a lot of scrutiny for his teams lack of success. Both teams are desperate, but Bayern is better, this time around. Prediction: Bayern Munich 4-2 on aggregate.
Manchester United vs. Marseille is the other less intriguing game in the knockout stage. At Man U, it’s been business as usual, going unbeaten in the Premier League. Marseille, on the other hand, started the season well, but have faltered under the strain of too many games in too competitions. And honestly, it’s a French vs. English matchup, and England hasn’t been undone by the French in the knockout stages in many, many years. Prediction: Manchester United 5-1 on aggregate.