Champions League resumes with tasty last-16 games
The Champions League resumes this week at the last-16 stage, with Arsenal and Barcelona ready to put on a show for the football purists and AC Milan in impressive shape ahead of the visit of injury-hit Tottenham.
Arsenal's Emirates Stadium will play host to arguably the two most easy-on-the-eye teams in European football, in a rematch of last season's quarterfinal that Barcelona won 6-3 on aggregate.
The Spanish giants, who have won the competition three times, are among the favorites to land the trophy again and will look to Lionel Messi, the team's leading scorer domestically and in Europe, to spark their potent attack on Wednesday.
"We play certainly the best team in the world next so it is important to go in strong psychologically," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said after a 2-0 win over Wolverhampton on Saturday that kept his team second in the Premier League behind Manchester United.
Tottenham is set to be without star winger Gareth Bale and playmaker Rafael van der Vaart on Tuesday when it returns to the San Siro, where the London side has already visited in this season's competition.
On that occasion, Spurs lost 4-3 to Inter Milan in a group match despite a stunning second-half hat trick by Bale, who has been sidelined recently with a back injury.
Milan, a seven-time European champion, consolidated its lead in the Italian league with a 4-0 thrashing of Parma at the weekend and is unbeaten in 10 games in all competitions.
"We will need courage, concentration and quality to get through," veteran Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf said. "This result (against Parma) means we are well prepared."
Valencia hosts Schalke and Shakhtar Donetsk visits Roma in this week's other first legs, with the other four two-legged series starting next week.
Arsenal was taught a lesson by Barca last season. Lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw from a thrilling first leg at home, the Gunners were smashed 4-1 in the return match - with Messi scoring all four goals in a sensational individual performance.
The Argentina playmaker has already scored six times in this season's competition, as well as 24 goals in the Spanish league.
"When you play a team like Barcelona, you need all 11 to be at their best," said Wenger, whose side lost 2-1 to the Catalans in the 2006 Champions League final.
"For us it is important we play with belief. We are not favorites in this game but I think we can do it."
Barcelona comes into the game off a 1-1 draw at Sporting Gijon, a result that ended the team's record of consecutive league wins at 16.
The champions had previously outscored their opponents 60-6 through the historic run. They had also won all their away games this season.
"Now we can see the merit of 16 consecutive wins," coach Pep Guardiola said. "Now we have to recover so we can play well in London."
Guardiola should have all his regular starters available after resting Spain midfielder Sergio Busquets and France left back Eric Abidal on Saturday. The only question mark is whether captain Carles Puyol recovers from a knee injury in time.
Milan is set to be without injured midfielders Kevin-Prince Boateng, Massimo Ambrosini and Andrea Pirlo against Spurs, so Brazil center back Thiago Silva may play out of position further upfield.
"Playing Thiago Silva in central midfield on Tuesday is a real possibility," Milan coach Massimo Allegri said.
Spurs have injury problems on their own, with central midfielders Luka Modric and Tom Huddlestone expected to miss out. The probable loss of Bale and Van der Vaart (calf) would hit the side the hardest, however.
Despite the caliber of the opposition, manager Harry Redknapp has faith in his team, which topped its group ahead of Inter on its debut in the competition and is fourth in the Premier League after three victories.
"Milan are a dangerous side. They have got some real quality players. The front three - Robinho, (Alexandre) Pato, (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic - have all got goals in them. They are top-class players," Redknapp said.
"It will be a big test, but I think we have got a big chance."
Two-time runner-up Valencia, which is in the Champions League positions in the Spanish league after seven wins in its last eight matches, may be without injured forward Juanma Mata for the first leg against Schalke.
Former Real Madrid striker Raul Gonzalez makes his first return to Spain after his move to Schalke last summer. Raul scored 12 goals against Valencia at the Mestalla stadium when he was with Madrid.
Defenders Philippe Mexes and Nicolas Burdisso are likely to return to Roma's starting lineup against Ukrainian champion Shakhtar after missing a 2-0 defeat by Napoli on Saturday through suspension.