‘The man who said I’d rather be lucky than good saw deeply into life’ . Thus said Chris Wilton, a tennis pro portrayed by Irish actor Jonathan Rhyes Meyres in the 2005 film ‘Match Point’ also starring the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson. Wilton – a talent deemed by many to have belonged to the league of top seeds, had things transpired a little differently from what they did – firmly believed that apart from all the effort one puts into it, there are factors out of one’s control that sometimes decide the fate.
That was tennis; this is Football. But the role that the element of luck plays does not differ with the size of the ball, especially when a tournament reaches a stage where there is no way back. The most elite competition in the European footballing circuit is therefore considered to be the highest test of character; unlike in the league competitions, you do not have a second chance to rectify what went wrong.
The stage is once again set, as the UEFA Champions League enters its first round of knock-out phase. Men have separated from boys, and are ready to leave no stone unturned to taste the most coveted glory. The teams will put all they have on the field and will wear their hearts on their sleeves, but beyond those untiring runs and those hustling tackles is something called ‘fortune’, which makes this competition the most followed and the most intense one. If you have even an ounce of a doubt on what luck may do, ask John Terry.
Come the 15th of February, and the best sixteen teams in Europe would begin their quest to grab the ultimate trophy. Once again the managers would roll their dices, design their tactics, field their best composition and then pray for things to betide in their favour. Joys will be spread over, champagnes will be uncorked and passions shall know no limits; at the same time hearts will be broken, dreams will be shattered and hopes will go for a toss. This one packages all the human emotions, encompassing its scope to reach all the hearts that beat for football.
Let us try and diagnose the state which eight of the sixteen remaining teams are in, heading into the first matchday of the first leg. The draws have been announced over a month ago by the UEFA, and the managers are therefore expected to have examined their opponents adequately. Below is a list of the brief previews of what each of the four matches has to offer the fans – both the fanatics and the neutrals.
1 trophy, 16 contenders.
AS ROMA (Italy) v SHAKHTAR DONETSK (Ukraine):
Few at the beginning of the group stages would have picked the Ukrainian outfit to reign supreme in a group where they shared space with English giants Arsenal, but boy they did! The unthinkable happened. Knocking on their doors at the next level are Claudio Ranieri’s AS Roma, who came second to German champions Bayern Munich.
Both teams are touted as underdogs at this point in tournament, and it is safe to say the neither could have in major likelihood gone any further, had they been drawn against any of the other active teams. But the fact that they are facing each other does add to the intensity of this clash, as both see a very promising chance for themselves to qualify for the final eight in the competition.
Ranieri’s men have been extremely unpredictable this season, and the form in the domestic league does not show any signs of recuperation of their woes. One match they play like the champions, only to throw away the momentum in the other.
On the contrary, the Ukrainian champions have been a no-nonsense team in the Champions League, and they clearly understand the importance of being into a fortunate pot of draws. Manager Mircea Lucescu is in a position to focus entirely on the clash with the Giallorossi, since the league title looks to be very much secured at this point in time.
With the first leg being played at Stadio Olympico, Roma will definitely start the more positive unit of the two and look onto clinch a lead that can be easily defended in the away leg to be played the next month.
The Ukrainians would primarily emphasis on meeting the net at least once, and not allow their opponents to take a decisive lead at the end of the leg, which becomes virtually impossible to overturn.
Daniele De Rossi, Marco Borrielo (AS Roma)
Eduardo da Silva, Luiz Adriano (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Prediction: AS Roma 2-1 Shakhtar Donetsk
VALENCIA (Spain) v SCHALKE 04 (Germany):
Despite losing two world cup winners in David Villa and his namesake David Silva, Valencia have not let down their fans, both in Spain and in Europe. With the draw again being kind to them, they are locking horns with German outfit Schalke 04, whose league campaign is going from bad to worse.
The acquisitions of Raul and Huntelaar haven’t exactly gone as planned, as the German side find themselves being doomed to be a lowly tenth position in the league table. However, their run during the group stages was a pretty inspiring one, having won four out of six matches and sharing points on another occasion. This form hasn’t exactly been on show lately, but Raul’s experience at this stage may prove handy.
Valencia, on the other hand, find themselves fourth in the league table and are currently in a rich vein of form. This contest provides them a great chance to reach to the final eight of the competition, after failing to do so for three consecutive seasons, and Unai Emery would be in no mood to let the opportunity go.
Though Schalke have an advantage of playing the return leg at home, Valencia are the outright favourites to progress from this tie.
Among other reasons, this game carries an importance of its own, since for the first time after switching leagues, Real Madrid legend Raul will return to his country to play a professional match.
Aritz Aduriz, Joaquin Sanchez (Valencia)
Raul, Klaas Jan-Huntelaar (Schalke 04)
Prediction: Valencia 3-1 Schalke 04
AC MILAN (Italy) v TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (England):
It does not take a rocket scientist to comprehend Milan’s discomfort at having been destined to face an English team for the third straight time at this stage in the competition, more so following their elimination script written by Arsenal and Manchester United respectively on two previous occasions.
Adriano Galliani’s tactful overhaul has immediately delivered results in the national league; however, at the continental level, the Rossoneri are yet to make a statement. Their opponents for this fixture are a new entrant in the competition and have so far not failed to entertain.
This clash promises to be an unending scoop of action and drama, as experience takes on energy and zeal. Both Massimiliano Allegri and Harry Redknapp will do their resume a good turn by furthering their campaign towards a trophy that is considered most relevant to judge a manager’s credentials.
After a sinusoidal start to the year 2011, with a few avoidable draws on their account, Milan have finally found the right combination in their makeshift squad. With Pirlo’s injury worsening during the training, there are no hopes for the maestro to return. A hopeful comeback of Kevin Prince Boetang will add potency to the midfield. The French prodigy Mathieu Flamini almost seems to have ascertained his position in the starting line-up after having a good game against Parma.
Milan’s midfield has been shaky in their positioning off the ball, and that has caught them disorganized while dealing with counter attacks. Allegri would therefore not mind playing three holding midfielders, with Robinho playing feeder to the diabolical pair of Pato and Ibrahimovic up front.
Milan have been highly promising of late, with their attacking combination gelling perfectly into Allegri’s system, but it is the defence that lets them down at crucial junctures. The well-documented problem with full backs is going to be a matter of concern for the Rossoneri as they set a date with Spurs’ highly imaginative force from either of the flanks.
Luka Modric’s injury could not have possibly come at a worse time for the Lilywhites, as his position is almost irreplaceable in the midfield. With Van Der Vaart and Bale also doubtful to start at San Siro, Spurs would be more than happy if they can keep Milan on equal terms at the end of 90 minutes. Allegri must be contemplating to exploit his opponents’ injury woes fully, which may add to Milan’s intentions to play an open attacking game and reach to the best possible margin to virtually nullify Spurs’ chances to progress.
‘Damage control’ should be Harry Redknapp’s mission at San Siro, and he could experiment with his structure in the potential absence of the key triumvirate.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho (AC Milan)
Jermaine Defoe, Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)
Prediction: AC Milan 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur
ARSENAL FC (England) v FC BARCELONA (Spain):
A sense of déjà vu immediately precipitates the air, as Arsene Wenger finds his team once again being poised against their long time nemesis. Since ending AC Milan’s run in the Champions League at the same stage during the 2007-08 season, Arsenal have hardly beaten a big team in Europe. While Wenger definitely wants to overcome this shackle, Barcelona would be the last team he would desire to meet.
The English brand of football is often ridiculed for the lack of tactical depth in the game. In this scenario, Arsenal are the only team from the Premier League who pass the ball on the pitch more than any other team in England and boast of a game that is as beautiful to watch as is Barcelona’s, if not better.
Over the last few years, the teams that could cause troubles to Barcelona did apply the 10-men-behind-the-ball plan, and use their stronger physical presence to frustrate the Barcelona players, who start to feel being undone the moment they are left devoid of the ball for a relatively longer period.
Wenger must be aware of this fact and will hence have to let go off his team’s natural free flowing approach in order to block the fluidity in the Barca passing. At the Emirates, Arsenal will look to minimize the damage to the maximum extent and would not mind even if they fail to score.
Cesc Fabregas has got a vital point to prove to the fans, as he may be playing ‘against’ the Catalans for one last time. The form of Samir Nasri is the X-factor Wenger is heavily relying on. The return of Van Persie has boosted team’s attacking prowess, but his demolishing form is yet to be tested against a defence as organised as Barcelona’s.
Pep Guardiola’s dream team hardly need to design special plans for this one. All they got to do is what they do week in and week out. An off day at El Molinon stadium was enough as a wake-up call to get their act together; with the first team returning to action, they would be raring to run riot at the Emirates, much like the last time they played there during the first half, which Guardiola describes as the most exciting 45 minutes of football he has ever seen.
Arsenal will miss French Right Back Bacary Sagna due to suspension whereas Barcelona skipper Carles Puyol is not in the best of shape. With an apparent similarity in the philosophy of the two teams, this one promises to be an enticing display of artistry – a definite treat to eyes.
Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri (Arsenal)
Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)
Prediction: Arsenal 1-3 Barcelona
– Parth Pandya