They say, ‘Well begun is half done.’ What they do not say is ‘Only half done.’ While treading on the path to the ultimate glory, it becomes of prime importance to register an inspiring start. It ensures an unmitigated vibrancy by your side in ampleness while furthering on the mission. But at the same time, it is equally important not to get carried away with the momentary pleasures of a bright start and make it count for nothing by arousing complacency.
In the world of European football, winning the consecrated crown of Champions League is an accomplishment that is no match for any other honour. The players and the teams persevere over the years to structure a sustenance that may take them all the way down to the coveted stature. Given the pride at stake, it is extremely important to design a system that has the potential to determine the most deserving winner and one which to the maximum extent possible, discards the role fortune may play.
Therefore when the contest reaches the knock-out phase, where a slightest lapse in concentration or a momentary blow-up may shatter a team’s dreams, the format does offer both the parties a second chance – and the last one, not to mention – to rectify what went wrong during the first of the two battles and prove their mettle and a persistence in their character over the period of two legs. The format encompasses several variables, as both the teams get a chance to ply their trade in front of the home support. The apparent variation in ambience, conditions, nature of pitch and last but not the least the impact of the resounding presence of the fans offer everything to actualize on the better side of the two.
Much like every season, it is the time of the year when the first of the two legs in the first stage of the knock-out rounds has already been concluded and the sixteen remaining teams in the competition know just about exactly what do they need to do. Some need to overturn the tide; some merely need to stay put while for some there’s still everything to play for. The eight fixtures have been bracketed into a set of four matches each, which will in turn be played over two match days over a period two weeks. TheHardTackle dissects it into the four matches that are to be played over two separate days, during the midweek that is approaching.
1. FC Barcelona (Spain) v Arsenal FC (England)
First leg result: Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona
The world was left flabbergasted when Arsene Wenger’s men handed a beating to the best team in the world at the Emirates, a couple of weeks back. Contrary to the popular belief, Arsenal actually took the game to Barcelona in the second half, after being a goal down in the first and with enormous flair in their armoury, overturned the lead imposed by Pep Guardiola’s dream team. There were debates on the wrongly disallowed Lionel Messi goal, which was adjudged offside by the linesman. However, as per what the scorecard reads, before going in to Camp Nou, the Gunners only require holding their opponents to a stalemate of any scoreline.
It will not be a walk in the park for the North London side, as surviving on the field for over 90 minutes in front of close to 100,000 consigned Catalonians, is a herculean task in itself. Though Barcelona under Pep Guardiola have never managed to win away from home in the knock-out fixtures, they have ensured to treat their opponents with a peculiar brutality at their own den and nobody knows this better than the man himself – Arsene Wenger.
To the troubles of Le Professeur, his team’s talismanic marksman, Robin van Persie, is almost certain to miss the game whereas club’s iconic leader Cesc Fabregas too is struggling to start. Add to that Theo Walcott – one of the crucial Barca destroyers during the first leg – is highly likely to miss the trip to Spain. This brings Wenger’s nightmarish intuitions of déjà vu, where a year before at the same place, the Barca team had run riots at what could be termed as an injury-plagued second string Arsenal team.
However, this time injuries are not confined only to the English ambassadors as their Spanish counterparts too are to miss their first choice centre back pairing. Club captain and icon Carles Puyol has been declared unfit for the tie; whereas his ally in defence, the ever-promising and improving Gerard Pique will serve a suspension he ran into during the first leg. While Eric Abidal in all likelihood will assume the duties to lead the defence from the centre, it remains to be seen whether Pep employs an untested player to partner him. There are chances that Sergio Busquests will start from the centre back relinquishing his role for Javier Mascherano, who is an experienced customer and knows the English game probably more than anyone in the current Barcelona squad.
The attacking line of the Blaugrana has so far splintered the defences apart at Camp Nou and the fans expect the same flair and intensity from their front three on Tuesday to send the English packing. A nail-biting contest is on the cards that has everything to cater to a typical nerve ceasing Champions League battle. Should Wenger’s men manage to go past this Barcelona team, the fans should grant an immediate forgiveness for the turn of events at Wembley a week ago.
FC Barcelona – Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Eric Abidal
Arsenal – Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin
Prediction: Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal
2. Schalke 04 (Germany) v Valencia CF (Spain)
First leg result: Valencia 1-1 Schalke
Ahead of the first leg clash at the Mestalla, both the teams were deemed fortunate for having drawn each other, thus lengthening their chances to go further into the competition. The form meter tilted slightly in favour of Valencia but at the end of the contest, it was Felix Magath’s German side that came out the happier of the two units.
With a crucial away goal at their helm, Schalke will enter the return leg with added motivation sighting a realistic possibility for them to enter the last eight only for the second time in the club’s history after initially surpassing the feat in the 2007-08 edition of the competition.
The visitors have so far not disappointed their fans with their campaign in Europe after missing out on two back-to-back qualifications for the most elite of the tournaments. The last time they went past the barrier of the first knock-out round was way back in 2002-03 when they were eventually knocked-out from the Quarter-finals by the Italian giants Internazionale.
Rationality suggests, neither of the teams has got what it takes to challenge the traditional giants on the quest for the title but they will do their bit to strengthen the co-efficient of their respective leagues by surviving as long as they can in this competition.
There are no outright favourites to win this tie and quite frankly, neither of them have enough pride at stake to crumble under immense pressure. Therefore, it may turn out to be a visual delight for all the fans with players giving their all wearing the tag of ‘Nothing to lose’. Raul with his goal during the first leg superseded Milan legend Filippo Inzaghi as the top goal-scorer in the history of UEFA competitions. He may well hold a key again for the second leg for things to turn in his team’s favour or against them.
Post the first leg disappointment at home, Valencia have had a topsy-turvy ride in the league too with a draw and a loss at home to Sporting Gijon and Barcelona respectively while registering two away wins against Bilbao and Mallorca. Giving due consideration to their away form, ‘The Orange’ may well nail it – make no mistake; they are better of the two squads.
Schalke – Raul, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Manuel Neuer
Valencia – Aritz Aduriz, Joaquin, Juan Mata
Prediction: Schalke 1-2 Valencia
3. Tottenham Hotspur (England) v AC Milan (Italy)
First leg result: Milan 0-1 Tottenham
An acquisitional spree orchestrated by Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani ensured Milan meant business this season and looking at the Scudetto table, it just reflects the same. The similar run of form was much anticipated to be translated in Europe too and thereby re-establish the Rossoneri’s status as a European powerhouse. History testifies, Milan are the second most successful club in the UEFA competitions but have hardly done anything this season worthy of justifying the tag.
The winter additions to the squad comprised mainly of cuptied players which reasserted the fact that the prime target of the Big Daddy Berlusconi is the dominance in the domestic circuit. However, by no stretch of imagination, would Berlusconi be fine getting eliminated at the hands of a side that last featured into a European competition when he still was a good man.
Harry Redknapp’s team however, looks all set to let Berlusconi taste defeat at the hands of theirs, as Spurs welcome Milan at White Hart Lane with a crucial one-goal lead over the Italians. The Lilywhites expect a fully fit squad to field, with the newly emerged hero Gareth Bale too tipped to start from the bench.
Should Spurs manage to knock Milan out from this stage, it will loudly pronounce the ever increasing gulf between the leagues of the two countries which makes this clash a much more than a mere knock-out game for Massimiliano Allegri’s troop. The ex-Cagliari manager got it all wrong tactically in the first leg, when he started with tainted legs of Clarence Seedorf benching an extravaganza known as Alexandre Pato. There is hardly any scope to err this time around and Allegri must start his deadliest attacking trio to exact the goal difference.
Gattuso’s suspension, van Bommel’s ineligibility and Pirlo’s ill fitness will require Allegri to think out of box and device a tactical edge over Redknapp to counter the Luca Modric led midfield. Against Spurs’ energy and vigour is Milan’s experience and composure. This battle will by no means end before the referee calls it ends.
Tottenham – Luca Modric, Rafael van Der Vaart, Aaron Lennon
AC Milan – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexandre Pato, Thiago Silva
Prediction: Tottenham 2-2 Milan
4. Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) v AS Roma (Italy)
First leg result: Roma 2-3 Shakhtar
How does a 36-year old, expected to steady a sinking ship, with zilch knowledge of managing a big club usually begin his trade? Well, not always with an away win in the league. But the usual was not the case with Vincenzo Montella, when he took the reins from Claudio Ranieri, as his side embarked upon a crucial away win at Bologna.
With another win and a draw under their belt in the Montella regime, Roma do not exactly appear rejuvenated but certainly recharged. Post their home defeat in the first leg against the reigning Ukrainian champions, they suffered a heart-break, as they allowed a three goal lead to be overturned by Genoa, who eventually beat them 4-3. Following the horrendous defeat, Ranieri resigned and things went from bad to worse.
Post his appointment, Montella has definitely assured the ship is not destabilized any further; however, a lot more needs to be done before being adequately prepared to beat Shakhtar in Donetsk. Technically, any win with a two goal margin would suffice things for the Giallorossi; but of course, it is definitely easier said than done.
Roma have chiefly relied on Mirko Vucinic and Marco Borriello during the season on the poaching abilities, neither of whom is a prolific goal scorer. With a constant decline in club icon Francesco Totti’s form, there are chances Montella may start him from bench. To cater to any distant hope, fans may have preserved, Daniele De Rossi and Jeremy Menez have to have the best game of their life so far in Ukraine. Roma’s defence looks pretty disorganised and even with the intriguing presence of French international Phillipe Mexes, they are highly vulnerable to concede as many goals as they did at Stadio Olimpico, if not more.
‘The Miners’ – as they are fondly known – on the other hand, hardly need to change their gears. It is important for them to stay put, govern the control of the game, let the desperate opponents step out of their comfort zone and only hit on counter. Should Roma show enough intent and character to turn the tides in their favour, this will be a one of its kind game and another goals galore is well in reaches.
Shakhtar – Eduardo Da Silva, Fernandinho, Darijo Srna
AS Roma – Phillipe Mexes, Daniele De Rossi, Marco Borriello
Prediction: Shakhtar 3-2 Roma
– Parth Pandya