The Champions League returns to last 16 knock-out action on Tuesday when Spurs and Schalke travel to Milan and Valencia respectively for their first leg ties. It’s this stage of the competition that puts the world’s best football players and managers up against each other, it’s as good as football gets in terms of quality and excitement. The road to a Wembley final starts here.
I’m not a fan of the group stages in the Champions League or even the World Cup for that matter, I prefer the old format of two legged knock-out ties straight from the word go. It cuts out all the mundane fixtures in the first half of the season, with second string sides flying out to the other side of Europe and then playing for a draw. Nevertheless lets have a look at what’s in store over the next month of fixtures.
There’s no other place to start than Arsenal vs. Barcelona, the rematch from last year’s quarter-final is the stand out tie. Lionel Messi separated the two teams last year with a four goal haul at the Nou Camp and with an incredible forty goals in thirty four games this season already, it would be no surprise if history repeated itself. There is no doubt that Barcelona is the team to beat in this years competition. Arsenal on the other hand are in much better shape now than they were this time last year. Cesc Fabregas is fully fit and in good form having missed the tie at the Nou Camp, as did Robin Van Persie who himself is in great goal scoring form with ten goals in his last eight starts. Arguably the two best footballing sides in Europe, the winner will be strong favourites to reach Wembley. A north London final would be a dream for Gunners’ fans and Wembley Stadium is where Barca’s dream team of 1992 lifted the European Cup, led by a certain Pep Guardiola.
Last year’s finalists Inter Milan and Bayern Munich will also lock horns again, this time over two legs. The holders Inter are a far cry from the team that lifted the trophy at the Bernabeau in May. Rafa Benitez has since come and gone, the former AC Milan player Leonardo is at the helm now. Although Leonardo has managed to steady the ship, for me that ageing Inter side have hit it’s peak, some critics even say their exploits last season were more down to Jose Mourinho’s tactical nouse rather than the talents of their players. However Sniejder, Eto’o and Milito are a front three that can match anyone on their day. Although veterans who have lead the side such as Zanetti, Cambiasso and Lucio have had their best days and players like Coutinho and Biabiany aren’t quite ready for such responsibility. Bayern have failed to live up to the expectation from last year themselves, but any team which can boast talent like Robben, Ribery and Schweinsteiger have a chance. Having said that the German’s defense is worryingly fragile, even more so after losing midfield general Van Bommel to AC Milan in January.
Real Madrid vs. Lyon is yet another a rematch from the same stage last year, it was the Ligue 1 side that progressed thanks to a Pjanic strike at the Bernabeu. However Los Blancos come equipped with double Champions League winning coach Jose Mourinho who knows how build a winning side. Its remarkable that the most successful team in European football hasn’t been able to reach the quarter-final stage in their last six attempts. They have an excess of Champions League experience in the team, Iker Casillas, Ricardo Carvalho, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Xabi Alonso have all played in two finals. It’s difficult to see pass a Real Madrid win in this tie but stranger things have happened.
Tottenham return to the San Siro to face AC Milan but will be without hat-trick hero Gareth Bale for at least the first leg. The surprise element which came with Spurs’ early success in the competition might have faded, the rest of Europe should be familiar with the threats that they pose by now. AC Milan are a mixed bag, on their day the likes of Alexandre Pato, Ibrahimovic and Robinho can cut teams to shreds while just as often these same players can flatter to deceive. The Italians will be without their own influential midfield man Andrea Pirlo, his creativity and range of passing will be missed. I fancy Spurs to turn Milan over at White Hart Lane so it’s all about keeping it tight in the first leg.
Chelsea and Man United should in all reality coast into the next round, with all due respect to FC Copenhagen and Marseille. Chelsea will see the Champions League as the main target for silverware as the Premier League title is well beyond their reach. Fernando Torres will be itching to line up with his new teammates and listen to the iconic anthem for the first time in two years following his £50m January transfer. Man United on the other hand are going from strength to strength while their opponents are struggling for goals. Summer signings Andre Pierre Gignac and Loic Remy have failed to strike up a partnership good enough to justify the money spent on them. These two ties could be over in the first leg.
The remaining fixtures see Valencia take on Schalke and Roma versus Shakhtar Dhonetsk. Both ties will be eagerly contested but in my opinion none of the teams involved can harbor any real ambitions to win the competition. If I was a betting man my money would be on big summer spenders Schalke to get through along with Shakhtar who impressed in finishing above Arsenal in the group phase.
Let battle commence.