A year ago, at this stage in the Champions League, Louis van Gaal led Bayern Munich to the city of Florence in Italy in the return leg, hoping to protect the 2-1 lead procured at Allianz Arena. The 90 minute action against Fiorentina was not without nail biting moments, and a sublime finish by skipper Mark van Bommel followed by Arjen Robben’s breath taking strike was enough to see Bayern through to the next round. The German side never looked back from then on, prevailing in the domestic competitions and going as far as the Champions League final, eliminating Manchester United on the way.
Fast forward a year, and the Germans find themselves in a dire state of affairs. Retaining the domestic league is out of question, and there are strong chances that they might not even finish in top three, missing out on a Champions League berth for next season. The quest for silverware was dealt a blow, when the Bavarians were knocked out from the current edition of the DFB Pokal Cup. This makes the big-eared trophy the only possible testimonial takeaway they may hand over to Louis van Gaal, whom the board has asked to part ways with the club at the end of the season. To nurture the dream to emerge victorious in Europe, protecting the 2-1 lead against Italian champions Inter Milan is the first of many steps in the ladder. The clash of last year’s finalists is anticipated to be of much more intensity and might than the Cup final back in May 2010.
Along with these two teams, other big names in Europe are looking to restore and reassert their pride in Europe. For both Real Madrid and Manchester United, the ties are far from won, effecting only a stalemate in the away legs against French teams Lyon and Marseille respectively. Reigning English champions Chelsea put themselves in a position to dictate terms, having already scalped two away goals against unseasoned Danish outfit Copenhagen. We analyse the chances of the eight teams playing this week to progress to the quarterfinals, where Tottenham Hotspur, FC Barcelona, Schalke 04 and Shakhtar Donetsk already await them.
1. FC BAYERN MUNICH (Germany) v FC INTERNAZIONALE (Italy)
First leg result: INTER 0-1 BAYERN
All Mario Gomez needed to do was to tap the ball into the net, that ricocheted off Julio Cesar, after he failed to clear a fierce attempt on goal by Arjen Robben. The goal earned Bayern a crucial away goal advantage but it would cease to matter for anything the moment they concede at home as Inter too would register an away goal to their credit right then.
Louis van Gaal’s men must remember that the revenge of ‘that’ defeat at Bernabeu stadium has not been exacted yet, as the well earned lead is yet to be protected for 90 more minutes in front of home crowd. Since registering that thin win at San Siro, Bayern’s domestic campaign has gone from bad to worse, as has been well documented. The elimination from the domestic cup and the dangling league position makes Champions League the most significant of the competitions for the German giants and they must rise to the occasion. Star wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery appeared to have rediscovered their touch in the latest Bundesliga clash against Hamburg, as Robben scored a stunning hat-trick while the French provided three crucial assists along with registering a goal too against his name. Bastian Schweinsteiger has matured into a profound holding midfielder, under the tutelage of the Dutch manager and will play the role of the chief architect to connect the tiers of deep lying midfield and the advanced wingers on either flanks.
The five time Italian champions, Inter, face an acid test in Germany, after being held for a draw by the relegation threatened Brescia in their latest Serie A outing. With Derby de la Madonnina approaching, they must make sure the winning mentality is induced back at the earliest and an away win in Germany, securing a position in the last eight, could be just the perfect recipe to re-establish the momentum.
The ferocious Italian striker Giampaolo Pazzini shall remain unavailable, being cup-tied and thus Leonardo is expected to place Samuel Eto’o at the apex point in the attacking triangle with Wesley Sneijder and Dejan Stankovic positioning at the two other points feeding Eto’o. In the first leg clash, the Inter midfield, comprising club icon Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta, traded pretty deep in the field and thus the exchange of passes between them before moving the ball forward, allowed the Bayern midfield enough time to reshape and defend man for man behind the ball. Considering the equation where Inter must score on the night, Leonardo may change the shape in the midfield and place Cambiasso further up closer to Sneijder and Stankovic to reduce the time on an attacking build up.
To hold onto the lead – which is not the natural way Bayern play football – Phillipe Lahm will have to deliver a stellar performance coupling his defensive acumen with being an inspiring leader to alleviate the performance of his colleagues in the defence. For Inter to gain the sweeter outcome from the game, Sneijder must unleash his magic.
Bayern Munich – Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Phillipe Lahm
Internazionale – Javier Zanetti, Lucio, Samuel Eto’o
Prediction: Bayern 1-1 Inter
2. MANCHESTER UNITED (England) v OLYMPIQUE DE MARSEILLE (France)
First leg result: MARSEILLE 0-0 MANCHESTER UNITED
Goals from Wayne Rooney and Fabio da Silva took the Red Devils closer to the FA Cup glory, surpassing the threat from Arsenal over the weekend. An injury-plagued line-up, that comprised seven defence minded players, plenty of them playing out of their position, was enough to go past the Gunners. With unimpressive show lately in the league, owing much to the mishandled injuries and suspension of defensive rock Nemanja Vidic, this tie becomes of enhanced importance to rehash the damaged campaign. United were reckoned outright favourites to run away with the league a few weeks ago, which is no more the case, courtesy the turn of events in last three weeks.
Sir Alex Ferguson is fairly aware of his counterpart Didier Deschamps’ abilities to produce a result from the tie against a far from dominant United outfit. Darren Fletcher is likely to miss the tie but the press suggests both Nani and Carrick have been back to training. With veteran legs of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes expected to start in the midfield, Deschamps’ boys may dare take charge of the game to grab a decisive lead which would greatly turn tables in their favour. In the absence of Rio Ferdinand, the Scotsman has a tough decision to make to zero in on a candidate to pair along with skipper Vidic to form a solid centre back partnership.
Following a home loss to league leaders Lille, Marseille announced a strong revival, beating Rennes 2-0 and are going to the Old Trafford with winning momentum by their side. The former world cup winner himself, Deschamps, must be aware his team may no soon get a better chance to go past a troubled Manchester United and he would grab the opportunity with both hands. Expect Marseille to dominate possession and exploit United’s unimpressive form of late. An uncanny upset may well be the order of the day.
Manchester United – Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Edwin van Der Sar
Marseille – Lucho Gonzales, Andre Ayew, Mathieu Valbuena
Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Marseille
3. REAL MADRID (Spain) v OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS (France)
First leg result: LYON 1-1 REAL MADRID
After inviting his family and friends to catch him in action at the home ground of his former club, Karim Benzema fell out of favour and could enter the field only as a second half substitute. However, the prodigious youngster from France did not miss to steal the show, as his sublime touch that went past the net earned his team a priceless away goal which they can bank upon going into the reverse leg at their own den.
Madrid’s party poopers in their first ‘neo-Galacticos’ season are all set to reproduce the unimaginable, albeit they are aware this Madrid side is worlds apart from the one they were a year ago in terms of mentality and togetherness. Jose Mourinho has successfully induced the concept of institutionalization among his top players and it has so far delivered results. The Portuguese manager has expressed confidence over star winger Cristiano Ronaldo’s availability for the tie and the ‘Ace in the pack’ striker is much expected to find the back of the net for the capacity filled Santiago Bernabeu stadium. The lately discovered goal scoring habit of Karim Benzema may earn him a place preceding over the on-loan Togo marksman Emmanuel Adebayor.
With two back-to-back win to their credit, Lyon are now in touching distance to the league leader Lille. ‘Les Gones’ have been chiefly riding on the scoring prowess of Argentine striker Lisandro Lopez. French prodigy Bafetimbi Gomis too has shown enormous improvement as the season has progressed and Claude Puel’s men once again place heavy hopes on the striker to deny Real Madrid a straight seventh chance to progress to the Quarter Final round of the competition.
Real Madrid – Iker Casillas, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema
Lyon – Michel Bastos, Lisandro Lopez, Hugo Lloris
Prediction: Real Madrid 3-1 Lyon
4. CHELSEA (England) v FC COPENHAGEN (Denmark):
First leg result: COPENHAGEN 0-2 CHELSEA
The winter acquisition of Fernando Torres was deemed to bolster Chelsea’s haywire run for close to two months; but rather an unassuming, Sideshow Bob lookalike David Luiz from Brazil has stolen all the show. The ex-Benfica centre back, ever since arriving at Stamford Bridge, has injected back the true spirit of donning the blue shirt and has unequivocally been the most inspirational player for Ancelotti’s men. However, as much as it hurts the fans in West London, Luiz is not going to be in scheme of things as far as Europe outings are concerned, as he’s cup tied, having already represented Benfica in the tournament.
Before the first leg of the tie, Chelsea’s aspirations to defend the league title were all but over; but with Manchester United’s dip in form, the Blues are once again in contention. With important matches lining up at domestic level, a demolition of the Danish champions at Stamford Bridge would set the morale at an all time high in the season. Ancelotti very well understands and acknowledges Roman’s motive behind his signing. The whole set of Blues faithful expect the Italian to reproduce his glory days of Milan by winning the Blues the most coveted European cup for the first time in their history.
As far as the Danes are concerned, they have already overachieved in the tournament. A win over Panathinaikos and a stalemate managed over Barcelona are enough a testimony for their credentials and they must be content with the season they’ve enjoyed in Europe. Despite an exit at the hands of English champions, they’ve announced their arrival at this stage and will positively be a force to reckon with, sooner than most expect.
Chelsea – John Terry, Frank Lampard, Fernando Torres
Copenhagen – Zdenek Pospech, Martin Vingaard, Dame N’Doye
Prediction: Chelsea 3-0 Copenhagen
– Parth Pandya