Knockout stage a medley of magical matchups
The stage is set for the knockout round of the UEFA Champions
League, with at least three mouth-watering pairings, pitting
historic rivals and coaches against each other other.
Top of the list has to be the Inter Milan-Chelsea clash,
which will see the return of former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho to
his old stamping grounds at Stamford Bridge.
AC Milan will face Manchester United in a battle of legends,
with United spoiling for revenge after being ejected from the 2007
semifinals at the Italian’s hands.
And then there is the wild card of Real Madrid facing
Olympique Lyon in what could prove to be a grueling test for the
Here’s a quick look at what to expect in each
two-legged knockout tie:
INTER MILAN vs. CHELSEA
Here in the States, it’s become a cliché – Despite
the fact that the guys in the ties don’t actually take the
field, games are always billed as “Dean Smith against Coach
K!” or some other such nonsense. And, so it is very hard for
those of us Great Unwashed to resist billing this matchup as Jose
vs. The Club That Sacked Him.
Unfortunately, as sexy as that all is, it would be utterly
missing the point. This is a matchup that has a great backstory
that glosses over a key fact – Inter squeaked through qualifying in
unimpressive fashion, while Chelsea is rolling over just about
everyone in its path. Inter needed a win on the last day against
Rubin Kazan to get here – and that was only its second win in group
Inter, like Chelsea, is cruising in its league, but that
dominance hasn’t been apparent in European play. Key men like
bulky defender and playmaker Maicon, creative Wesley Sneijder and
silky striker Samuel Eto’o have not risen above the chaff,
which is worrying considering that they were thought to progress
without much struggle out of Group F.
Chelsea, of course, has depth and talent everywhere, and
aside from the spare hiccup, the power of Didier Drogba, John
Terry, Ricardo Carvalho and ‘keeper Petr Cech have been too much
for anyone to handle. Michael Essien is having a breakout season,
which just adds to opponents’ headaches.
Bottom line: Talk about the coaches might be fun, but on the
field, take Chelsea to win this pairing.
AC MILAN vs. MANCHESTER UNITED
Here, the storyline will be David Beckham returning to face
his old club. That’s nice, but let’s talk about who
will actually win this pairing.
AC Milan didn’t impress in what admittedly was a very
competitive Group C, and it should be remembered that they were
pushed on the final day by FC Zurich, a team which no one would
confuse for a world-beater.
Yes, Milan have some talent – Dida, Pato, Ronaldinho and
Andrea Pirlo can all hurt you, but manager Leonardo hasn’t
seemed to figure out a way to get these guys all on the same page
in the same game.
Contrast that with Manchester United, a team that, by rights,
should be seeing the wheels fall off. After all, they lost
Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in the off-season, and Ryan
Giggs and Paul Scholes are, what, 70?
And yet, credit Sir Alex for having not only a keen eye, but
an incredible ability to get even the most limited squad players to
excel. Danny Welbeck? John O’Shea? Wes Brown (okay, maybe not
Brown, but you get the point)?
Bottom line here is that United is a fierce team with a
deadly attack and a solid defense (albeit currently banged up).
Yes, they can be flummoxed (ask Aston Villa) but on any day, they
can also beat you very badly (ask West Ham). Wayne Rooney is still
one of the best strikers out there, and Edwin van der Sar remains
nearly unbeatable. All things considered, you have to take
Manchester United to win this pairing.
All that said, it would be uncharitable (and incorrect) not
to note that Becks really did help AC Milan last year. If he can do
the same this time around, United may have more of a fight on their
hands than they expect.
FC PORTO vs. ARSENAL
There was little question that these two sides would emerge
from group play, with Porto having to brush aside the likes of the
awful Atletico Madrid and the weak APOEL Nicosia, while Arsenal was
lining up against Standard Liege and AZ Alkmaar.
The difference between the sides is slight: Porto is a team
with some key role players (Fucile, Hulk, Bruno Alves) but not a
lot of grit while Arsenal is an erratic, young side that lives and
dies on its offense.
Both teams prefer to play an upright, continental style – and
due to injury and an average height of about 4ft 9in, Arsenal have
to – and both teams can move the ball around well. The difference
here is in experience – Porto has it, Arsenal lacks it.
With Tomas Rosicky out and Cesc struggling under the weight,
Arsenal is vulnerable to any team that plays them body to body and
disrupts their passing game. In addition, Arsenal’s defense
is woeful because while its players love to attack, they do not
track back promptly, which opens up acres of space, which should
make for nice running for Hulk.
The funny thing, however, is that in spite of Arsenal’s
struggles in England this season, the European games have almost
seemed a respite. In England, teams just pack it in and chase hard,
knowing that Arsenal won’t shoot from beyond the 18-yard box.
Overseas, teams try to run with the Gunners, which is
foolish. And while this pairing should be competitive, I have to
give the edge to this flawed yet entertaining Arsenal side.
OLYMPIAKOS vs. BORDEAUX
This one looks like a cake-walk for the French, who get to
face an overly-cautious Greek side that lacks both spine and flair.
What they do have is an outstanding ‘keeper (Antonios Nikopolidis),
a gritty defender (Olof Mellberg) and a decent play-making pairing
in Dudu and Konstantinos Mitroglou.
What hampers Olympiakos is temperament, and there was no
clearer example of this than in their last game of the group stage,
a meaningless meeting for Arsenal. The Gunners fielded the
youngest-ever team to appear in a Champions League fixture – Not
even a “B” team, this was an academy side.
The Greeks could have played a wide-open game – which they
would have won – but instead palely sat back, eking out a 1-0 win.
Hardly the stuff of legend, that.
Bordeaux, in comparison, is a fast-break side that can blitz
you from the opening whistle. Arsenal target Marouane Chamakh has
been one of Ligue One’s top strikers, Jaroslav Plasil has
emerged as a key playmaker and Alou Diarra provides both leadership
and real danger in midfield. Take Bordeaux to win what could be a
grinding, low-scoring series.
OLYMPIQUE LYON vs. REAL MADRID
This is a marquee matchup, and could prove to be one of the
best pairings in the entire knockout round. Lyon – like Madrid – is
chafing at its position in the league. At time of writing, they sit
fourth and are desperate to move up the table.
There is no question they have the talent, but some early
confusion and a slow start hampered one of France’s
traditionally strong sides.
Key for Lyon is Lisando Lopez, the talismanic Argentine
striker whose darting runs bedevil defenses, setting up space for
partner Batefimbi Gomis. Miralem Pjanic has been the setup man
along side Sidney Govou, and Hugo Lloris has finally emerged as a
confident ‘keeper able to marshall what has been an erratic
Real Madrid, of course, boasts some of the top talent in the
world – not all of which has been firing smoothly under manager
Manuel Pellegrini. Iker Casillas remains a strong presence in the
nets, but getting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe, Kaka, Raul
and Gonzalo Higuain to gel has proved more complicated than
There’s no question that Madrid is one of the toughest
teams in Europe, but up against top-class opponents (like their
bitter rivals Barcelona) they have come off second best. Still,
take Real Madrid to progress.
VfB STUTTGART vs. FC BARCELONA
Barcelona have yet to lose a league game, and dropped only
one game in group play – a flukey loss to Rubin Kazan.
And yet, because of the difficulty of their group, arguably
the toughest of all, the holders almost went out, needing a big win
at Dynamo Kiev on the final day to guarantee their progress. Still,
it is almost inconceivable that a team with the talent of Barcelona
will not be able to handle what is, truthfully, a bottom-feeding
German side at present.
If you don’t know Barcelona’s lineup by now, then
you aren’t paying attention. On paper, it’s probably
the best in the world. Dani Alves, Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres
Iniesta don’t need any introduction or hype from here.
They should handle the mired-in-15th-place Stuttgart with
ease. The two players of note are the volatile and erratic Jens
Lehmann, and the unsettled Alexandr Hleb – who might be decamping
to England, anyway. Jan Simak and Thomas Hitzlsperger are
workmanlike, but hardly flashy, and the truth is that the Germans
got in because their group was wretched.
Take Barcelona to win this one, with some room to spare.
CSKA MOSCOW vs. SEVILLA
This is a pretty good matchup between two under-the-radar
sides. CSKA Moscow is best known of late for squeaking into the
knockout stage despite a doping scandal ensnaring Aleksei
Berezutskiy and Sergei Ignashevich, who tested positive for banned
stimulants (the substance was said by the club to be Sudafed). They
should not be underestimated, however.
For one, traveling to Moscow in February to play on a frozen
plastic pitch is no party. For another, CSKA boasts one of the best
goalkeepers around in Igor Akinfeev and a deadly midfield duo of
Mark Gonzalez and Milos Krasnic.
Czech international Tomas Necid has been a key marksman for
the Muscovites with midfielder Alan Dzagoev following along. The
team isn’t built on speed or passing, but on burly strength
and an ability to kill off games.
Sevilla made its name in the UEFA Cup, and got a bit of a
hand this campaign from the utter collapse of Glasgow Rangers. They
are a seasoned side that excels at possession football and cannot
be underestimated, even if they are overshadowed at home by the
likes of Real and Barcelona.
Andres Palop, Didier Zokora, Arouna Kone and Frederic Kanoute
form their attack-minded spine back to front, with Ivica
Dragutinovic lining up alongside Sebastien Squillaci in the heart
of the defense. This is an agile, able side that can score goals,
but there are question marks over how tough it is in physical
Of all the matchups, this is as close to a toss-up as you
get, but I’d pick CSKA Moscow to come through: The Russians
BAYERN MUNICH vs. FIORENTINA
Did anyone think Bayern Munich could emerge from the ashes
and qualify? Did anyone think that they would stomp all over
Juventus to get here in the first place? No, they didn’t.
Bayern’s revival is one of the key subplots running
through the knockout round. Despite an unsettled situation at the
club (which has run through five managers in as many years), Louis
van Gaal earned his paycheck that night in Torino as his side
produced a stellar show that pointed up both the weaknesses in
Serie A this season, and the unseen promise lurking in the likes of
Ivica Olic and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Yes, Franck Ribery may be headed to England, depriving Munich
of one of their most explosive talents, but Bayern look to be a
team that are finally shaking off the cloud that hung over them for
the past two seasons.
They have to be delighted to face Fiorentina, a team that
benefited mightily from Liverpool’s collapse. There’s
no question that La Viola have talent – Sebastien Frey is a
big-game ‘keeper, Alberto Gilardino would be welcome on any
club’s front-line and Cristiano Zanetti and Cesare Natali
provide a lot of bite down the center.
But they are hardly the kind of opponent one quakes over. So,
if the Germans can keep firing, then you have to assume that Bayern
Munich will come out of this pairing on top.