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

Spanish hopefuls.

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

play.

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

defense.

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

thought.

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

games.

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

are due.

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.