The Champions League knockout Round of 16 kicks off Tuesday (LIVE on FSC), winnowing down the best of the best with an eye on the final in Madrid on May 22.
This year, the knockout rounds are spread out over four weeks, part of a concerted effort by UEFA to expand the majesty around what is already the world’s top club competition — and arguably, second overall only to the World Cup itself.
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TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16
Olympique Lyon v Real Madrid (FSC, 2:30 p.m. ET)
LYON: Ligue One, 4th place, 43 points (12-7-5). Last game: 1-0 win over Lens (Group Stage: 2nd in group E, 4-1-1 +9. Lone loss: 5-2 to Fiorentina) REAL MADRID: La Liga, 2nd place, 53 points (17-2-3). Last game: 3-0 win over Xerez (Group Stage: 1st in group C, 4-1-1 +8. Lone loss: 3-2 to AC Milan)
HEAD TO HEAD LAST FOUR: Lyon have the edge, winning twice and drawing twice since 2005
Real Madrid comes in looking to gain revenge on a Lyon side that has had its number over the mast five years. The Galacticos haven’t lost since a mid-January stumble to Bilbao, and closed the gap to two points on rivals Barcelona over the weekend. But they also haven’t beat Lyon in four tries — or progressed from the Round of 16 since 2003-04 — and so desperately need to get a result on the road at Stade Gerland.
They had a nice warm-up on the weekend, with Cristiano Ronaldo returning from suspension in style and combining with Kaka for two goals in a 3-0 rout of Xerez. And, Real get Karim Benzema — a former Lyon man — back from injury (still missing are Guti, Rafael van der Vaart and Christoph Metzelder).
Lyon enters the match in a bit of a slump. They’ve won only once in their last five matches, and at eight points out, look to have only the slimmest hopes for a league title this year. The French also emerged out of what proved to be one of the weakest Champions League groups, with expected contestants Liverpool self-destructing.
Lyon’s strength is in the back, with keeper Hugo Lloris keeping his side in matches they would otherwise toss away. Cris and Jean-Alan Boumsong line up in front of him, but the lack of a steady right back has hurt the French club in more than one game. That’s forced Aly Cissokho to steer away from his preferred role as the architect out of the back, and dampened the usually effective Sidney Govou in midfield.
However, Lyon can score goals. Lisandro Lopez and Miralem Pjanic have been deadly when given room to run, and Baftembi Gomis’ poaching has to be contained. But their strength has been on the counter, and smothering attacking sides. Real Madrid aren’t Debrecen (who Lyon twice hit for four) and are going to poke and prod down that right flank.
And no one needs convincing that Real can score goals, do they? They have arguably the best dead-ball artist in the game in Ronaldo, and while they have not been able to match Barcelona’s sublime brilliance this season, is it their fault the best team in the world game is their arch rival?
Bottom line is that the French have to hold serve. A draw does them little good. But that’s what they’ll get.
TRECKER’S PICK: Score draw.
AC Milan v Manchester United (Setanta, 2:30 p.m. ET)
AC MILAN: Serie A, 3rd place, 45 points (13-6-4). Last game: 3-2 win over Udinese (Group Stage: 2nd in group C, 2-3-1 +1. Lone loss: 1-0 to FC Zurich) MANCHESTER UNITED: BPL, 2nd place, 57 points (18-3-5). Last game: 1-1 draw with Aston Villa(Group Stage: 1st in group B, 4-1-1 +4. Lone loss: 1-0 to Besiktas)
HEAD TO HEAD LAST FOUR: Both teams are 2-0-2 in their last four meetings.
Manchester United enter this tie on a roll. Their last truly painful loss was back in early January to Leeds United in the FA Cup, but as has often been the case this season, even in defeat, United has benefited. That loss now looks fortuitous because it gave the team a rest this weekend.
United has been collecting scalps. In short order, they broke Arsenal, overcame a first-leg loss to down bitter rivals City in the Carling Cup, and have been scoring goals like mad – more than anyone else in the Prem, to be precise. They look like a squad in complete control.
The lone hitch is that key man Ryan Giggs is out for this leg with a fractured arm. Unsettled and injured back Nemanja Vidic has been left at home alongside Anderson, but Sir Alex Ferguson has plenty to choose from with a revitalized Wayne Rooney leading a pack of chargers that includes Nani, and a fit-again Rio Ferdinand in front of rock-solid Edwin van der Sar.
AC Milan has been less impressive. They’ve won only once in their last five games, including a 2-0 defeat to arch rivals Inter. But, Milan remains a tough challenge for United. Fact is, Milan is hard to beat at the San Siro. United knows this — because they’ve never done it.
Last time they met, the Red Devils came out on the short end of a 3-0 decision that saw them exit the 2007 edition in the semifinals.
Milan’s attacking trident of Ronaldinho, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Pato is as cool as ever, with the Duck making a return from injury to spell Mancini, likely to miss Tuesday’s clash.
But, AC Milan have some problems in the back. The central tandem of Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva did not impress on Friday against Udinese, but Milan doesn’t have much cover for them. Giuseppe Favalli still looks callow at left back, but he probably plays as Gianluca Zambrotta is not in the squad. There’s another question is on the right too as Ignazio Abate is having to cover far too much ground, and could be dropped for Massimo Oddo, who has been included in the roster after a long spell on the sidelines.
Also, in the midfield, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo are beginning to show signs of creakiness. So, could this be the game in which David Beckham is deployed against his own club? He’s in the lineup.
Bottom line? Look for Rooney and Nani to attack and exploit a Milan back line that can be caught out while United tries to move the line up and compress the field. And with United on a hot streak, even against an enemy they’ve never managed to topple on the road, this might be the game to pick the English.
TRECKER’S PICK: United win, 2-1.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the Champions League and European football.