It's business time in Europe again
Two games a day, two legs, and one winner.
The knockout Round of 16 continues today live on FSC, with all eyes toward the final in Madrid on May 22.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17
Porto v Arsenal (FSC, 2:30 pm ET)
PORTO: Superliga, 3rd place, 40 pts (12-4-3) Last game: 0-0 draw with Leixoes (Group Stage: 2nd in group D. 4-0-2 +5. Lost twice 1-0 to Chelsea)
ARSENAL: BPL, 3rd place, 52pts (16-4-6) Last game: 1-0 win over Liverpool.
(Group stage: 1st in group H. 4-1-1 +7. Lone loss: 1-0 to Olympiakos)
HEAD TO HEAD: Arsenal hold the edge with a 2-1-1 record.
This is a critical game for Arsenal, a team which seems destined for yet another third place finish in England, and yet another year without a piece of silverware.
The Gunners enter the game after two humbling losses to title-chasers Manchester United and Chelsea, and an awful FA Cup loss to Stoke to exit that competition.
To be fair, they are injured. Out for Arsenal are Andrei Arshavin, Robin van Persie, Johan Djourou and probably another three or four guys by the time the plane touches down. Playing hobbled are Samir Nasri, Thomas Vermaelen, Alex Song and Eduardo, who has never really recovered from breaking his leg.
But the team’s true problem is a critical lack of spine. This is threatening to turn what once looked like a grand experiment in attacking, youthful football into a footnote. Anything less than a finals berth this year would be catastrophic — and probably mean the exit of their talismanic captain, Cesc Fabregas — but even that fine a showing may not stifle the howls coming from the Emirates.
If you’re an Arsenal fan, it’s a good thing Porto isn’t very good. How is it possible they are third in what is essentially a two-team league? That’s a head-scratcher, and it’s not Porto’s fault. The fact is all of Portuguese football has fallen on hard times, and even with the class and quality Porto’s roster does possess, it’s no longer enough. In fact, Portugal’s national team has ceded the role of overachieving, lovable underdogs — Simon Kuper has deftly, puncturingly demonstrated statistically that this handle now belongs to the English … which I’m sure they’re thrilled with.
Think about this: What does it mean for a player like Falcao to be the league’s leading scorer, when the league you’re scoring in has ten teams people wouldn’t cross the street to watch? What does it get Fucile to be one of the better defenders on a team that leaks goals? Must be better than being Arsenal’s goalkeeper, a thankless position that Manuel Almunia is neurotically frittering away.
Let’s be honest. Both these teams are punching above their weights, and both lack the real cash to compete on the world stage. And still, on the night, the edge still goes to the English. Arsenal may be second class to Manchester United and Chelsea, but they’re a powerhouses compared to a Porto side that should be running roughshod in their own country. Any result for Porto will be a victory, but don’t bet on that happening.
TRECKER’S PICK: Arsenal 2, Porto 0.
Bayern v Fiorentina (Setanta, 2:30 pm ET)
BAYERN MUNICH: Bundesliga, 2nd place, 48 points (14-6-2). Last game: 3-1 win over Dortmund (Group stage: 2nd in Group A, 3-1-2 +4. Lost twice to Bordeaux, 2-1 and 2-0)
FIORENTINA: Serie A. 11th place, 31 points (9-4-10). Last game: 2-0 loss to Sampdoria (Group Stage: 1st in group E, 5-0-1, +&. Lone loss: 1-0 to Lyon)
HEAD TO HEAD: Bayern holds the edge, with a win and a draw in their two meetings.
Where were you on December 8th? That was when Bayern roared into the knockout round with one of the most blistering takedowns of a team in recent memory, a 4-1 scorching of Juventus so comprehensive you almost wanted to give Gigi Buffon a hug. That game kicked off a ten-match win streak across all competitions, and now sees Bayern in second place in the Bundesliga only by virtue of goal difference.
Fiorentina comes into this game wounded, with key striker Adrian Mutu suspended worldwide for another doping failure. Also, they have never won in Germany. How did this team get into knockout stage, again? Oh, right, thanks Liverpool!
If that sounds harsh, consider that they are the only team entering the knockout rounds out of the top-ten in their league (yes, Stuttgart are just under the wire). And, they look awful. The last match they won was in the Italian Cup (3-2 in the quarterfinals against Roma, back in late January) and since then, they’ve lost four of their last five matches across all competitions. These guys are on life support.
By rights, Bayern’s 4-3-3 should eat Fiorentina alive. Munich’s three-pronged attack — Mario Gomez, Arjen Robben and Ivica Olic — is a handful for any defense and despite Sebastien Frey’s heroics in the nets for Fiorentina, it’s going to be tough to keep these guys from teeing off. Franck Ribery is in full throat at present, and containing him is going to be a tough task for Per Koldrup and Allessandro Gamberini, men who are capable, but not outstanding.
With Mutu out, Alberto Gilardino emerges as Fiorentina’s attacking option, but expect him to run alone up top with Ricardo Montolivo trying to pick him out. That’s not a recipe for success. In a perfect world, Fiorentina would prefer to divide the field and compress, but against the heft of Daniel Pranjic and Philipp Lahm at the wing-backs, it’s unlikely that’s going to happen. Of all the first-week matches, this one seems to be one the most-likely-to-be-a-blowout list.
TRECKER’S PICK: Bayern roll 3-0.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the Champions League and European football.