Friday, 12 February 2010

Champions League Knock-Out Stages Preview – will the Galaticos be crowned Kings of Europe in their home city?

The UEFA Champions League, following its annual winter hiatus, will return this coming Tuesday with the sixteen teams remaining in the competition set to battle it out for a place in the final in Madrid, on May 22nd. Following the group stages, which included one or two shocks, or not depending on your views on the respective clubs, the majority of the usual suspects remain and have been pitted together against each other in a number of intriguing ties. Despite their obvious short-comings and lacklustre performance in the Premier League so far this season, Liverpool’s failure to qualify from the group stages was a surprise for most observers, given their recent predominance over the latter stages of the tournament. Another notable absentee is Juventus, with the somewhat lesser, given recent events, Italian giants failing to get the better of an ultra-efficient Bordeaux side and knockout phase mainstays Bayern Munich. In terms of the most intriguing ties, undoubtedly the match which has to this date generated the most hype and anticipation is the clash between Chelsea and Inter Milan, managed of course by former Blues boss Jose Mourinho. Given Inter’s Champions League stage-fright and utter inability to deliver in the tournament over the past few years, a win for the Nerazzurri is unlikely, but with the self-titled ‘Special One’ at the helm, it cannot be ruled out completely. Since parting company with Mourinho in 2007, Chelsea are yet to find a manager able to live up to his sizeable reputation, and he quite clearly still casts a significant shadow over Stamford Bridge. In terms of the tie itself, Chelsea have the added advantage of the second leg being at home, a phenomenon sometimes over-hyped by commentators, but if the score were to be 1-1 or 0-0 from the first leg the Blues would surely be confident of progressing. In terms of the tournament as a whole, Chelsea ought to feel confident of progressing to at least the semi-finals, and providing that the dreaded clash with FC Barcelona is avoided, have a strong chance of reaching the final, possibly even fulfilling owner Roman Abramovich’s overriding desire by winning the tournament.

For the remaining English sides, Manchester United and Arsenal, progress to the latter stages is by no means guaranteed, but the Gunners should have the easier time of it, facing Porto. The Portuguese champions, having lost star striker Lisandro Lopez to Lyon, will likely pose less of a threat than they once did, but with Arsenal lacking the inspiration of Robin van Persie up front, whether or not Eduardo will be able to step up remains to be seen. Meanwhile United face an AC Milan side no longer, at least to a certain extent, the geriatric institution it has been labelled in the past. Whilst by no means a young, vibrant side, Milan have been revitalised to some extent by the signings of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Ronaldinho and Mathieu Flamini in the past couple of years, as well as the development of Pato. With Milan having been hamstrung by poor league form in their efforts to reach the Champions League, and generally not the force they once were in Europe, one would expect United to go through, providing Rooney retains both his fitness and form, which have been so crucial to his side’s success this season. An additional factor worth mentioning is the fact that both United and Arsenal, like Chelsea, will play the second leg at home, affording them an advantage that ought not to be underestimated.

In terms of the most likely candidates to progress from outside these shores, the names of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, for very different reasons, immediately spring to mind. On winning the competition last year as part of a spectacular treble in manager Pep Guardiola’s first season, Barcelona were rightly hailed as the best team in Europe, and one of the greatest footballing outfits ever assembled. VFB Stuttgart, the Catalans’ opponents in the last sixteen, are unlikely to provide a stiff test of what has always been Barcelona’s weakest area, defence. However Los Cules may come unstuck against stronger opposition at the quarter and semi-final stages, but given the club’s not insignificant outlay on players last summer, particularly the marquee signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Barcelona are strong contenders to achieve the remarkable feat of back-to-back Champions League titles. Real Madrid meanwhile, the envy of the entire footballing world due to the signings of Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka to name but a few, have an awful lot to live up to. Currently five points behind Barcelona in La Liga, and yet to live up to their undoubted potential, Madrid will be expected to be able to defeat with consummate ease Europe’s best and brightest. Obviously it takes time to forge a successful team, and merge extraordinarily high-profile and expensive footballers into a team and a league to which they are unaccustomed, but with the final in Madrid the pressure from fans on the players will be extraordinary, and the cost of failure dramatic. In Lyon, Real Madrid should certainly face two tricky encounters. Having taken care of Liverpool in the group stages, and featuring a number of highly talented players of their own, including Miralem Pjanic, Kim Kallstrom, Lisandro Lopez and Jeremy Toulalan, Lyon have a chance to achieve what would be a shock result, by overcoming the new Galaticos. However with Cristiano Ronaldo, the current leading scorer in the Champions League, expect Madrid to have enough to go through, and progress to at least the quarter final stage, where their prowess will be severely tested.

The final three match-ups see former European giants Bayern Munich taking on Fiorentina, Russian side CSKA Moscow facing Sevilla, and finally Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux against Greek champions Olympiakos. Given Bordeaux’s imperious record in the group stages of five wins and a solitary defeat, Olympiakos’ European participation looks as though it will be coming to an end, however the other two games are neatly poised and could produce intriguing outcomes. Bayern Munich are a Champions League mainstay and often the only representative of German football to make it through to the latter stages, and one would imagine that this year will be no different. However Fiorentina, having finished above both Lyon and Liverpool in Group E, will be no pushovers and Munich’s progression is by no means assured. With a talented strike force of Jovetic, Mutu and Gilardino, Fiorentina were able to score the second highest number of goals in the Group Stages, whilst Bayern’s tendency to rely on superb playmaker Franck Ribery could be their undoing. Meanwhile, in terms of the clash between CSKA and Sevilla, throughout the history of European football away ties in the East, especially wintery Russia, have been feared by clubs from Western Europe. Whilst this fear has diminished in recent years, it could still be a factor, however with the Spanish side at home in the second leg, they would appear to be the most likely to progress.

Given the slight inaccuracy of my predictions at the tournament’s commencement in September, I am forced to conclude that predicting a tournament such as the Champions League is both difficult, and best left to experts. However, I firmly expect Chelsea and Manchester United to be occupying two of the semi-final places, and to complete the duopoly, Barcelona and Real Madrid to join them. Predicting the winner is far more difficult, as each side has the potential to win the tournament, as well as obvious shortcomings which provide strong arguments as to why they won’t. I can’t help feeling that Manchester United are far less of a threat due to the sale of Ronaldo, and that their excessive reliance on Wayne Rooney could prove a disastrous mistake if any injury were to befall the England man. Despite this Real Madrid do not yet appear to be a coherent outfit capable of taking on the best that Europe has to offer, and their dismal recent record in the competition only increases my willingness to think as such. As for Barcelona, they most certainly have a chance to achieve back-to-back titles, but I would have to place my money on Chelsea to triumph in the Santiago Bernabeu, despite their weaknesses from set pieces, and do what they’ve been threatening to for the past five years.

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