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.