Last Friday the draw was made for the Final Sixteen of the UEFA Champions league. As always the sixteen teams are divided into two pots – one pot for the eight teams that won their group and one pot for the eight teams that came second in their group. Teams cannot be drawn against the side that also qualified from their group or any sides that come from the same national league. All Final Sixteen ties will be played over two legs, with the team that won their group playing at home in the second-leg. In a change, this year the Final Sixteen games will be spread out over four weeks with only four games played each week.
I’ll now run down the eight games and give my early predictions for how I see them going.
AC Milan v Man Utd
One of the biggest matches of the Final Sixteen will see David Beckham return to his former stomping ground of Old Trafford. While much attention will be lavished on the globetrotting LA Galaxy/AC Milan media star the real story is that Manchester United will be seeking to avenge the comprehensive defeats that Milan inflicted on them in 2005 and 2007. These are two of the most dominant teams in the past five years of Champions League with both having made two finals and winning one of them (Milan in 2007 and Manchester United in 2008). While both sides were weakened after selling their best player to Real Madrid, both are full of tried and tested Champions League veterans. They are however sides that seem to be in transition with Manchester United seemingly lacking something after the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo while time may finally be running out for Milan’s ageing side.
Domestically both Milan and Manchester United are currently second in their leagues despite suffering from stuttering form during the first half of the season. Milan suffered teething problems early on as new manager Leonardo struggled to impose himself while Manchester United’s form has been undermined by an injury crisis that has seen seven of their defenders ruled out with injury. However while their domestic form is similar their form in the group stage couldn’t have been more different. Manchester United romped home as runaway winners of their group, winning five out of their six games and being able to field B-Teams in their last two games. Milan on the other hand struggled, and had to rely on Real Madrid defeating Marseille after drawing with Zurich in their final game. While Manchester United’s group was easier they are surely the better side with younger players and a manager with experience of handling big match situations. While its always dangerous to go against a Milan side that has repeatedly defied not only the odds but the very passage of time, Manchester United should be too strong for them.
Prediction: Manchester United
Lyon v Real Madrid
Real Madrid were the big spenders of last summer, breaking the world transfer record on two separate occasions with multi-million purchases of Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo. As often happens when a team buys a lot of players in a short space of time it took Real Madrid awhile to gel the new players into a cohesive unit. Stuttering form in both the Champions League and in Spanish competitions (including an embarrassing defeat to lower league competition in the King’s Cup) had the knives out for the expensively constructed squad. Ironically a close defeat to bitter rivals Barcelona proved to be the turning point of their season, with Madrid taking the positives from an improved performance and scoring 13 goals en route to winning their following three games in La Liga. A key part of their improved performance is the return from injury of Cristiano Ronaldo, with the speed, strength and skill of the Portuguese star providing the spark that the team had been missing earlier in the season. By contrast, Lyon have not been in such a rich vein of form with the perennial French champions being ten points off the pace in Ligue Un. Having lost the title they had held for seven years to Bordeaux last season they are a team in transition and its unlikely they’ll be able to overcome the big spenders from the Bernabéu.
Prediction: Real Madrid
Bayern Munich v Fiorentina
You have to feel sorry for Fiorentina, after performing impressively against Champions’ League regulars Lyon and Liverpool en route to topping their group they get drawn against the toughest possible side. Bayern struggled early on this season with the players seemingly struggling to comprehend the methods of their new manager Louis Van Gaal, who despite his undoubted football genius is not the greatest man-manager in football. They entered their final group stage match with Juventus surrounded by rumors that Van Gaal was about to be sacked by an always demanding Bayern board. However after an astonishing 4-1 victory in Turin, Bayern seem to be hitting top gear with their past two victories in the Bundesliga bringing them eight goals. Fiorentina have not been in such a rich vein of form, with a run of three defeats in the last five games having left them in the bottom half of the Italian league. While Fiorentina’s European form has been better than their domestic form this season you get the feeling that after a shaky few months Louis Van Gaal is getting closer and closer to getting it right with Bayern. With creative superstars such as Robben, Gomez and Ribery they have the attacking talent to really put quality sides to the sword. By February Bayern Munich could be a pretty special side and should be the overwhelming favorites to qualify for the Quarter-Finals for the second successive season.
Prediction: Bayern Munich
FC Porto v Arsenal
Porto are a good side and will certainly push Arsenal but I really like the look of Arsenal this season. Although they are a young side and are short in a few key areas (defensive midfield and central defense in particularly) they’re one of the most entertaining teams in the history of club football with a push and move passing style that marries the pace of the English game with superior passing and movement. What has caused problems in the past few years is that Wenger has increasingly focused on developing young, small, creative players and has neglected to buy the superior athletes such as Patrick Viera that added intensity to the quality of Arsenal’s football. That said, the addition of Arshavin a year ago has given Arsenal a real cutting edge and their form over the past twelve months has been excellent. They should be too strong for a Porto side that still operates in the shadow of Jose Mourinho.
Olympiakos v Bordeaux
Bordeaux were the surprise team of the group stage not only qualifying from a tough group containing Bayern Munich and Juventus but qualifying with the most points (dropping only two) and scoring the most and conceding the fewest goals in the group stage. Not content with impressing in Europe, the French champions are doing a good job of defending their newly won crown being eight points clear at the top of Ligue Un. Unsurprisingly their manager Laurent Blanc has been showered with plaudits and there are growing rumors that he will replace Jose Mourinho at Inter in the summer. Olympiakos is a relatively easy draw for them, with the main challenge for Bordeaux to overcome being the always fiery Greek crowd.
VfB Stuttgart v Barcelona
Stuggart have struggled all season and after picking up only three wins all season are currently sitting only one place above the relegation zone. They have tried to turn around their fortunes with the hiring of Christian Gross but its unlikely they’ll have been able to pull away from the relegation battle and so will enter the Final Sixteen distracted by more pressing concerns at home. Which is bad news when they’re facing the reigning Spanish, European and (as of this weekend) World Champions who should be perfectly placed to pick apart a Stuggart side lacking in quality. There’s not really much more worth saying – this is as much a surefire, one-way bet as you can get from this draw.
CSKA Moscow v Sevilla
Sevilla are often overshadowed due to the high-profile of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but they’ve been a real force in European football for the past few years having won back-to-back UEFA Cups in 2005 and 2006 and being a permanent fixture in European competition since 2005. CSKA Moscow are one of the biggest club in Russia but have been overshadowed in the past few years with the rise of Zenit St. Petersburg and Rubin Kazan and in the recently concluded Russian season finished fifth. The main problem that CSKA will have is that this knock out stage will be in the Russian pre-season as the 2010 Russian league doesn’t begin until March and so they’ll lack the match readiness that Sevilla will have, especially as CSKA have a new manager and may be looking to rebuild after a disappointing season. Sevilla should be too much for a undercook CSKA Moscow side but may struggle in the first leg due to the always challenging conditions in Russia.
Inter v Chelsea
The clash between the two teams currently leading the Italian and English leagues by four points is overshadowed by the soap opera that is Jose Mourinho’s managerial career. The former Chelsea boss returns to the club that he led to two English titles in the midst of what seems to be the most public nervous breakdown in the history of sport. His always tense relationship with the Italian press has reached yet another new low and he seems to be intent on once again alienating the club owners. Inter have been the dominant side in Italy since the 2006 match-fixing scandal undermined the strength of Juventus and Milan but have repeatedly failed to perform on the Champions League stage, Mourinho (who famously won the Champions League in 2004 with FC Porto) was brought in with the objective of ending this failure and bring the Champions League trophy back to Inter. And the pressure is on after his side was knocked out by Manchester United at this stage of the tournament last year.
Stylistically Chelsea are a bad match-up for Inter. Chelsea are a side that plays a high-tempo, pressing game with an emphasis on physical fitness and (where necessary) brute force. Such an aggressive style doesn’t suit the Italians, who are used to playing the game at a slower tempo with players having more time on the ball. Sensibly former Milan coach Ancelotti
hasn’t tried to deviate from this style too much with his only innovation being allowing his full-backs to attack more and so provide his side with more width. He does have to grapple with an imbalanced squad that often forces him to play four centre midfielders while playing a centre-forward on the left-wing. Where he has been lucky is in the timing, with the first-leg being held on the second week of fixtures (February 23rd/24th) which we’ll give Chelsea’s many African stars such as Drogba and Essien an extra week to recover from January’s African Cup of Nations. And that could be the crucial difference in this tie, as Chelsea are a different side when they have Drogba and Essien firing on all cylinders. With over three weeks to recover from the African Cup of Nations, their target man and midfield enforcer should be able to lead them to victory against their old manager.
Tags: Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Champions League, Chelsea, Lyon, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Soccer, UEFA