Champions League: Round of 16 preview

More than two months have passed since UEFA Champions League cut its field from 32 to 16. Next up is the knockout round, starting Feb. 14 as the first legs of two quarterfinal match ups take place in Lyon, France and Leverkusen, Germany.

The round of 16 may be as notable for the teams that aren’t there as those who are. Manchesters City and United bowed out at the group stage, relegated to Europa League. The champions of Germany (Borussia Dortmund), France (Lille), Portugal (Porto), Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk) and the Netherlands (Ajax) were all seen out.

Those absences leave more room for Cinderellas. APOEL (Cyrpus), Napoli (Italy) and Zenit (Russia) make their first appearances at this level of the competition, while the likes of Basel (Switzerland) and CSKA (Russia) add to the bracket’s underdog-rich feel.

APOEL vs. Lyon (Feb. 14 in France, Mar. 7 in Cyprus)

Slowly but surely, Ligue 1 power Lyon have found a stride of sorts. Early this season, OL battled bouts of inconsistency and needed some final-day magic to get through their Champions League group. Over the last two weeks, Lyonnais has posted a 4-1-0 record in all competitions, stacking up 14 goals.

APOEL, on the other hand, re-enter Champions League in much the same state as they left. They’re still fighting at the top of Cyrpus’ first division, and despite having won their Champions League group, few see them on even-footing with Lyon going into this tie.

Of course, perceptions of even-footing mean nothing. In fact, if APOEL gets a Lyon side that infers a benefit from its stature, they’re more likely to continue their remarkable story. Where APOEL has advanced based on discipline at the back and counter attacking soccer going forward, an over confident team plays into their hands.

Barcelona vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Feb. 14 in Germany, Mar. 7 in Spain)

Like APOEL, nobody is giving Leverkusen much of a chance, though that has less to do with the Germans being overlooked than reverence for Barcelona, the team nobody wanted to face.

Both teams will go into Tuesday’s match with injury problems. Barcelona could be without Sergi Busquets, Andres Iniesta and, of course, David Villa is a long term absence. Bayer will be without target man Eren Derdiyok as well as star midfielder Sidney Sam.

For many, this tie harkens back to Barcelona’s round of 16 draw two years ago against Stuttgart. Barcelona drew the first leg 1-1 before cruising to a 4-0 victory in the second leg.

Benfica vs. Zenit (Feb. 15 in Russia, Mar. 06 in Portugal)

Zenit, on winter break from the Russian Premier League’s season, will be without their best player, wiht Portuguese playmaker Danny having recently suffered a season-ending injury. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a team that hasn’t played a competitive match since December.

On Wednesday, they welcome to St. Petersburg a Benfica side that’s only lost once this season in all competitions. Having gotten road results in group stage at Manchester United and Basel, Portgual’s leaders have shown they can travel, even if the trip from Lisbon to St. Petersburg is one of the longest you’ll see at this stage of the tournament.

It remains to be seen how Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti approaches the tie. He’ll have to refactor his side in the absence of Danny, and given what we saw at Porto on the last day of group play, it’s not beyond Russia’s leaders to play very conservatively.

Arsenal vs. Milan (Feb. 15 in Italy, Mar. 06 in England)

The glamor tie of the round of 16 will see one of Europe’s finest left with a disappointingly early exit. Should that be Milan, it will be the fourth year in a row they’ve met their end at the feet and heads of English opposition. It will be particularly disappointing this season, as Milan has reason to think themselves the slight favorites coming into the tie.

Arsenal will go into Wednesday’s match struggling to position themselves for next year’s Champions League, and while their health situation is nowhere as bad as it was a month ago, they’ll still be without left back Andre dos Santos, midfielder Jack Wilshere, and midfielder Abou Diaby.

Milan’s most notably roster news is who will be eligible to play. Attack focal point Zlatan Ibrahimovic recently incurred a three-match league suspension for slapping an opponent. In Champions League, however, the Zlatan plays.

Real Madrid vs. CSKA (Feb. 21 in Russia, Mar. 14 in Spain)

Though many will focus on CSKA’s sale of Vagner Love (sold to Brazil’s Flamengo) as a reason to doubt them, the loss of the mercurial icon won’t hurt Leonid Slutsky’s side. The team will be better off relying on Ivorian goal machine Seydou Doumbia ahead of a five man midfield that will help protect a slightly lead-footed defense. With star goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev out, CSKA’s defense needs all the help it can get.

But even on their best day, CSKA would be hard-pressed to stop Real Madrid. Los Merengues were perfect through qualifying and, having exorcized their knockout round demons last year, will have to take an unexpected stumble to be troubled by CSKA. With a squad looking to be in excellent health ahead of their long trip east, El Real has few areas of weakness.

Chelsea vs. Napoli (Feb. 21 in Italy, Mar. 14 in England)

It’s one of the more competitive ties, even if it features two teams that have disappointed during their domestic campaigns. However, when you have the likes of Cavani and Torres, Mata and Hamsik, Luiz and Cannavaro, as well as Di Sanctis and Cech, their star power could overshadow their struggles.

Napoli are struggling to lay claim to a European spot in Italy, but against Chelsea they have the personnel and approach to trouble a team that has had a tendency to look stoic in defense. Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi are as potent an attacking trio as Chelsea are likely to meet, while Napoli’s proficiency in transition increases the odds of taking advantage of the Blues’ weakness.

Chelsea, however, have proven over the last couple of years that valuable experience accumulated during the Mourinho years can often steer them through Champions League challenges, particularly against upstarts. The Blues responded against Valencia on match day six when a win was required, and the same kind of playing to stakes can be the difference against the inexperienced Azzurri.

Bayern Munich vs. Basel (Feb. 22 in Switzerland, Mar. 13 in Germany)

A layer of intrigue has been added to this tie with news Basel star midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri’s set to join FCB at season’s end. The 20-year-old Swiss international showed his potential as Basel took four points from Manchester United in group play, and with the likes of Alexander Frei, Marco Streller and Fabian Frei, further reinforcing the underdogs, you have a club positioned to take advantage of any slips the favorites incur.

And Bayern has had a couple of slips this season. The club’s slight downturn this fall came to mind as the team recorded only four points in three matches coming out of winter break, handing Germany’s lead to Borussia Dortmund. There is, however, little doubt Bayern will win should they get expected performances from their elite talents: striker Mario Gomez, wide attackers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

One of Bayern’s brightest stars is suddenly a doubt, however, with midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger likely to miss at least the first leg with an ankle injury.

Inter Milan vs. Marseille (Feb. 22 in France, Mar. 13 in Italy)

Marseille was one of the least convincing teams in group play, finishing second in a group where one of the quartet’s clubs looked particularly capable. They draw an Inter side who, since the end of group play, have at times looked like world beaters, at times disappointingly inept.

Coach Claudio Ranieri gets a boost, however. Wesley Sneijder is set to return (again) from injury, while Diego Forlan is also returning to health. Of course, the latter won’t help, being ineligible for Champions League, though his presence in league should ensure the likes of Diego Milito aren’t run into the ground during Inter’s battle for third in Italy.

Marseille, who have worked their way back into frame for third in France, will be without defender/midfielder Stephane Mbia while the Ayew brothers (Andre and Jordan) will be working their way back into the team after their time at the African Cup of Nations.

L’OM have not lost a match since the end of November, going 11-2-0 in all competitions since Olympiakos won at Stade Velodrome. With Inter carrying a 0-1-3 record through their last four, these are two clubs going in different directions.