This week will be the last of the first knockout stage of the Champions League. European giants AC Milan, FC Barcelona and SL Benfica have already secured their place in the last 8, as well as the sensational APOEL. The question is: who will occupy the four remaining spots? The answer will be known by the end of Wednesday.
Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan
March 13, 2012; 19:45 GMT
Football fans all over the world only ask one thing of this match: That it better be a lot more interesting than the first leg. At the Velodrome, Marseille and Inter played one of the most uneventful matches of the season, with Marseille getting a goal out of the blue in the final minutes, thus gaining an advantage ahead of the second leg, which might be crucial considering how evenly matched these two sides are.
Both Marseille and Inter are having pretty disastrous domestic seasons and they will probably not be back to the Champions League next season (unless they win the competition, of course), so a good Champions League campaign is pretty much the only thing that can save their season. Both teams’ recent form has been atrocious, but at least Inter have won their last match 2-0 at Catania, while Marseille are on a 4-match losing streak in the Ligue 1.
The pressure is on both managers, as the manager of the losing side might very well end up losing his job. Didier Deschamps will welcome his star striker Loic Rémy back and hope that he can get the all important away goal while Ranieri will expect Sneijder and Milito to summon their vintage 2010 form. This one is expected to be a very cagey affair, with the decision going right down to the wire.
TheHardTackle’s Prediction: Inter 1-0 Marseille (Marseille to advance on penalties)
Allianz Arena, Munich
March 13, 2012; 19:45 GMT
Basel have been surprising the football world this season. After negotiating their way out of one of the toughest groups in the Champions League group stage, sending last season’s finalists Manchester United packing, they went one step further and actually beat Bayern in the first leg in Switzerland 1-0, with the goal coming in the dying minutes of the match. Bayern remain the logical favorites, but after everything they’ve done this season in Europe, Basel have got nothing to lose and they will fancy their chances to cause yet another upset. Their 17-match undefeated streak in their league will further boost their confidence for this match. Xherdan Shaqiri will surely be eager to impress in the home of his future employers; he might be a Bayern player next season, but for now his allegiances lie with Basel and he is the main danger for Bayern.
The Bavarians have been in awful form ever since the Bundesliga’s winter break. After being winter champions, they suddenly found themselves seven points below Borussia Dortmund. But they seem to have turned a corner this weekend; led by a Mario Gomez hattrick, Bayern beat Hoffenheim 7-1 at the Allianz Arena, thus reducing Dortmund’s lead to 5 points and renewing their title chances again.
With Schweinsteiger back from injury, Bayern will try to build on their weekend’s performance and advance to the last 8 of the Champions League. The importance of this game can’t be overstated; with the Champions League Final being played in their ground, this competition is the absolute priority of Bayern’s season.
TheHardTackle’s Prediction: Bayern 3-0 Basel
Stamford Bridge, London
March 14, 2012; 19:45 GMT
Chelsea are the only remaining English side in the Champions League, but their prospects aren’t particularly bright after a 3-1 defeat at San Paolo. With all the turmoil surrounding Villas-Boas’s sacking and Di Mateo’s appointment, Chelsea are not exactly in a great moment and a comeback doesn’t seem very likely, especially considering how dangerous Napoli are on the counter; a goal from Napoli could put the tie almost out of Chelsea’s reach.
However, Chelsea’s experience in this competition, and Napoli’s inexperience, can’t be underestimated. Chelsea’s players are a lot more used to these intense ties and that might play to their advantage. But so far Napoli have shown no signs of nerves in their first Champions League season and their domestic form has picked up as well; Diego Maradona’s former side has won their last six games, with Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani in irresistible form, a stark contrast with Chelsea’s very questionable performances of late.
Juan Mata’s goal at San Paolo gives Chelsea some hope, and an early goal would further boost their chances, but it’s hard to look past Napoli in this tie.
TheHardTackle’s Prediction: Chelsea 3-2 Napoli
Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid
March 14, 2012; 19:45 GMT
An unexpected last minute goal in Moscow gave CSKA a lifeline ahead of the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, but the odds are still stacked against them. The Russian side’s goal came from the only clear cut opportunity they created in that match, while Real Madrid were quite unlucky to have scored merely one goal. Keizuke Honda’s return might inspire CSKA to a better performance in this second leg, but José Mourinho’s all-star team are huge favorites in this one.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain have been in fantastic scoring form, as Real Madrid have been crushing every opponent in front of them in La Liga since the beginning of 2012. Considering the significant gap in talent, performances over the season, current form and home advantage, anything other than Madrid advancing to the last 8 would be a tremendous surprise, one of the biggest upsets in recent years in this competition.
TheHardTackle’s Prediction: Real Madrid 3-0 CSKA Moscow