The first two matchdays in the knock-out phase of the Champions League saw some incredible action that ensured the media had a field day. New entrants Tottenham Hotspur left the San Siro in stunned silence with a 1-0 victory over seven times European champions AC Milan. Spanish champions FC Barcelona were undone at the Emirates Stadium where hosts Arsenal registered a scintillating 2-1 come-from-behind victory. German underdogs FC Schalke 04 kept their hopes alive by securing a 1-1 away draw against Spanish contenders Valencia. In another mouth-watering clash in Italy, Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk narrowly beat AS Roma 3-2 at Stadio Olympico.
The third and fourth matchdays of the first leg promise to be no lesser on the intensity front either. Many of the traditional giants are raring to go reclaim glory in the European circuit and will be challenged by clubs that are fairly inexperienced but believe they can still punch above their weight.
The tournament has reached the stage where there are no pushovers left, just potential champions – each one of them. Here’s a quick look at the prospects of the teams that lock horns over the next two days.
1. FC Internazionale (Italy) vs. FC Bayern Munich (Germany):
Telecast Details: 24th February, 2011; Ten Sports, 12:30 am, IST.
If Gattuso’s post-match violence was the moment that made you cringe, be prepared for more. Franck Ribery meets Thiago Motta. In a repeat of last season’s final played at Bernabeu, the Italian champions welcome the German champions at the San Siro. Inter outplayed Louis van Gaal’s side at Bernabeu under the tutelage of Madrid-bound Mourinho and this could be the perfect occasion for the Bavarians to exact revenge. Bayern have experienced a topsy-turvy season so far which has invited a fair amount of criticism on the manager’s part but have lately transformed into a better composed unit. The timely comeback of two inspirational figures in Ribery and Arjen Robben has strengthened the squad and considerably enhanced its resolve.
The defending Serie A champions hit their all time low form of the season under then manager Rafa Benitez. Since the Spaniard’s departure, a certain Leonardo took over the reins and the ship appears to have been steadied. The winter acquisitions have already proven their worth and have thus cemented their spot in the starting XI.
The home advantage will definitely work in the Nerazzurri’s favour as the surface and the ambience is much unbeknownst to the visitors. Inter have lately maintained a winning habit in the league and they would definitely love to translate the momentum in the continental competition.
The key agenda for the manager of the Milanese unit is to guard both the flanks. Bayern are most likely to field both Robben and Ribery on both the flanks and a single instance of poor defending will cause Inter massive collateral damage. Javier Zanetti has won it all with his team but he seems high on motivation and hunger. He will assume his duties and will need to put in a Herculean effort to man the same flank Ribery will operate on. Motta – an ex Barcelona player – who understands Robben’s game well will need to be extra cautious as his artistic brilliance aside, the Dutch winger is a genius at getting defenders booked for fun – Michel Bastos, anyone?
Bayern’s defence will face a stern test of character to stop an omnipotent looking Inter frontline that poses a nightmare for most clubs – Samuel Eto’o ably allied by the exciting young Italian forward Giampaolo Pazzini. Bayern skipper Philippe Lahm will need to lead by example and stretch his role in the centre to keep Wesley Sneijder silent. Along with that, Lahm will be the key man to offer width to the defence as Robben is unlikely to shoulder any defensive duty on the right flank.
In the absence of ex-captain Mark van Bommel who parted ways with the club during the winter, Bastian Schweinsteiger will command the midfield and attempt to execute build ups with his innovative vision for a through ball. The natural winger that he is, Schweinsteiger will have to settle for a withdrawn role, creating chances for his advanced teammates rather than advancing his own position up front.
Bayern have been phenomenal in the attacking third during the past one month and Mario Gomez dictates terms to the defenders. With Thomas Mueller supporting Gomez’s cause, Inter’s defence will have to play out of their skins to make sure they do not concede a priceless away goal to the four time European champions. This is the perfect stage for Andrea Ranocchia to showcase his mettle.
Key players: Wesley Sneijder, Javier Zanetti, Samuel Eto’o (Internazionale)
Philippe Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben (Bayern)
Prediction: Inter 1-1 Bayern.
2. Olympique Lyon (France) vs. Real Madrid (Spain):
Telecast Details: 23rd February, 2011; Ten Action Plus, 12:30 am, IST.
A sense of déjà vu prevails around Madrid as their usual party-poopers once again stand between them and their quest for European glory. The last year the two sides met, Lyon shocked the Spanish giants with a 1-0 victory at home. Though the score line reads like a modest result, the Madrid team were tactically outwitted and frustrated by the French outfit. In the return leg too, Madrid had their hopes dashed as their early one-goal lead was neutralized and they were eventually ousted in the shock of the season at the Bernabeu. This year however, the story appears different. In the second edition of the ‘Galacticos era’, club president Florentino Perez has reached new heights by signing arguably the best manager in the world in Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese tactician has signed an array of talented players post his arrival and so far all have been par-excellence.
The round of sixteen has a thorn in the flesh for Real Madrid as they have been ousted by various oppositions from this stage in the last six seasons; that should only add to Mourinho’s motivation to break the long-running jinx. Last year’s Ligue 1 runner-up, Lyon have slipped to fourth position in the league table currently but are coming into this game after registering back-to-back victories scoring no less than eight goals in the process. Both the team’s primary marksmen Lisandro Lopez and Bafetimbi Gomis are in sublime touch and a talent of Yoann Gourcuff’s class only adds dimensions to the squad.
Against an attack of Madrid’s quality, the French team’s primary objective shall remain not to concede one too many away goals and let the game decide in Madrid’s favour even before the Bernabeu tie happens. Much like last year, they would play to constrain Madrid and try to hit on counter. Madrid have been extremely vulnerable against rapidly staged counter attacks and their incompetence in offering width in defence is no secret to Claude Puel. While Madrid are outright favourites to win this tie given the potency in their attack, Lyon have all the attributes in their armory to frustrate the Spanish giants.
Striking issues have haunted Madrid’s title aspirations this season and it remains to be seen whom Mourinho would prefer to field across the two wingers. Karim Benzema would definitely fancy a chance to play in front of the home crowd of his former club.
Key players: Hugo Lloris, Michel Bastos, Yoann Gourcuff (Lyon).
Iker Casillas, Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid).
Prediction: Lyon 1-2 Real Madrid.
3. Olympique de Marseille (France) vs. Manchester United (England):
Telecast Details: 24th February, 2011; Ten Action Plus, 12:30 am, IST.
The reigning French champions welcome Sir Alex Ferguson’s men at their den. Their league campaign hasn’t gone exactly as planned and they find themselves in third place on the table trailing leaders Lille by three points. Manchester United’s season has been a roller coaster ride to say the least. They have experienced their worst away form in some years and yet have managed to seal a comfortable spot at the top in the league table thanks to a woeful lack of consistency shown by the other title contenders.
In the European scene however, Manchester United have enjoyed a very rich run of form lately with three times sealing a semi-final spot in last four years – winning the tournament once while finishing runner-up on another occasion.The Red Devils are playing into the 25th year of Sir Alex’s tenure and would love to present the gaffer with the most coveted trophy in European football. As they enter the Velodrome, their sole aim should be to score at least one away goal against the French side. Their talismanic striker Wayne Rooney has lately shown some signs of recapturing his lost form and a goal at this stage would not hurt the team’s cause.
Alex Ferguson is known for lining up unorthodox formations at knock-out stages in competition and with years of experience at his helm, he has survived everything thrown at him.
Marseille coach Didier Deschamps is a World Cup winning captain himself and knows what it takes to excel in the big tournaments. His side has secured two successive victories in the league and hence are high on confidence. They have already gone past Chelsea at home and the prospect of carrying the trend forward by ruining the plans of another English team would excite the manager and the players alike.Gabriel Heinze will cherish the prospect to play against his former teammates and he would be keen to make a statement against a team he failed to succeed at.
Key players: Lucho Gonzales, Gabriel Heinze, Andre Ayew (Marseille).
Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Wayne Rooney (Manchester United).
Prediction: Marseille 1-1 Manchester United.
4. FC Copenhagen (Denmark) vs. Chelsea FC (England):
Telecast Details: 23rd February, 2011; Ten Sports, 12:30 am, IST.
The Danish champions are entering the knock-out round of Europe’s most elite competition for the first time in the club’s history since its inception in 1993. Fairly new in the European circuit, they have not failed to impress. Outclassing the old horses Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos, the Danish have already left an impression and pull off the nothing-to-lose attitude quite well. The icing on the cake in their Champions League campaign came when they held Spanish giants Barcelona for 1-1 draw.
In top form in the domestic circuit too, this Copenhagen outfit is certainly a team to watch out for and with a run of luck in their favour they are potential dark horses. Their lack of experience would probably hurt their chances of progress but this has been a truly eventful season thus far regardless of the outcome.They set a date with English league title holders Chelsea FC who have, under their Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti, encountered arguably their worst run of form during the season. A thin squad, deemed sufficient at the very beginning of the season, has undone any chances of a late-season revival.
An exit from the FA Cup courtesy Merseyside team Everton, means the Champions League is the only piece of silverware the Blues could hope for, given the sorry state of affairs their league campaign is in. Defence, midfield and attack are all potential areas of problems for Chelsea and an away Champions League fixture could not have come at a worse time. The fact they covet the title is the only parameter that might work in the Blues’ favour at this point in time and the Danes cannot ask for a better opportunity to beat one of the Europe’s biggest names.
During the 2006-07 season ‘The Lions’ as they are fondly known, stunned the world by beating Manchester United 1-0. The draw that they managed against Barca will be alarming enough for Ancelotti to keep him on his toes during this trip to Denmark. An upset remains very much on the cards.
Key players: Zdenek Pospech, Martin Vingaard, Dame N’Doye (Copenhagen).
John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba (Chelsea).
Prediction: Copenhagen 2-1 Chelsea.
- Parth Pandya