Milan hosts Barcelona in what is certainly the ‘glamor tie’ of this round. Milan vs Barcelona conjures up a night of gladiators fighting it out for the ultimate glory in football, with both sides carrying history and pride by the truckloads. Both sides know the significance of this match at this juncture of their individual seasons and both teams will be hoping that luck favors them on the night. It has been decades since Milan defeated Barcelona in the 1994 final, but still to this day, that match is fondly remembered.
Barcelona have been the best side in the world for close to five years now – so much so, clubs around the world are changing their game-play to replicate whatever is being done at Barcelona. Supported by the famed La Masia, it looks like Barcelona will rule for the next five years if not more. Presently they are on top of La Liga and looks set for domestic triumph come the end of the season.
Milan, on the other hand, has had the most roller-coaster ride a team can have. From being champions two season back, they slipped last year and come this season, were fighting in the relegation zone! With Allegri at the helm, Milan has turned around their season and coupled with some fighting results, now sees themselves within touching distance of playing in Europe next season. Milan has had some memorable nights against Barcelona, notably last season at Camp Nou when the two Brazilians decided the outcome of the match inside the first and the last 30 seconds. This time around, both of those players have moved out and to add insult to injury, their most recent buy, Balotelli will also be unavailable due to previous participation with Manchester City.
Arsenal hosts Bayern in another blockbuster match with the home side in dire need of some sort of inspiration. Their most recent disappointment came in the FA Cup, where they lost to Blackburn Rovers by a 0-1 margin. The manner of the defeat left the team demoralized with Arsene Wenger even stating that Arsenal are ‘mentally fragile’. This kind of backing from any manager is hardly inspiring to say the least but the players will be looking to put the defeat at the back of their mind as they look to host the German powerhouse.
Bayern, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength this season. After being humiliated in last season’s UEFA Champions League final by the unfancied Chelsea, Bayern is leaving no stones unturned to claim the top prize. Domestically, they have crushed all before them and are presently 15 points clear of second-placed Dortmund. They have even rotated their squad quite often this season but the final outcome has not changed. In Mario Mandzukic, they have found a new goal-scorer who is currently leading their charge.
Hence we see two teams with totally contrasting fortunes lining up for the anthem at Anfield. While Arsenal is heading to another season without a trophy, Bayern are firm favorites to lift the Bundesliga crown. While Arsenal has leaked in goals quite often this season, Bayern are yet to concede this year, having scored 13 goals in the process. Although the match looks heavily tilted in favor of Bayern, Arsenal cannot and should not be counted out at any cost. Wilshere issued a rallying call to his teammates by saying that they should take inspiration from Chelsea’s triumph last time. Although such an event looks unlikely, what the fans can expect for is surely a cracker of a match.
Elsewhere, Galatasaray takes on Schalke at Türk Telekom Arena, hoping to extend their run and replicate Fenerbahce’s success five years ago. They received a timely boost in the January transfer window where they managed to capture the signature of Didier Drogba – a player who is no stranger to UEFA Champions League. It was his header which sent last year’s final into extra-time and Galatasaray will be hoping for some miracle of that form should they survive past this round. FIFA has apparently cleared Drogba to play in this year’s Champions League, paving the way for his return to the grandest stage of them all. Galatasaray’s home form has not been outstanding in this edition of UCL, but they did defeat Manchester United by a solitary goal in November. However, this time around the focus might solely lie on Drogba to deliver the goods.
Schalke, on the other hand has had to deal with their own internal turmoils this season. Hubb Stevens was replaced by Jens Keller during the winter break but that did not lead to any significant change to their fortunes as they still lost 4 out of 5 league games since then. Domestically, their campaign appears to be in tatters with injuries to key players. The least they can expect from this tie is a draw so that they can take home advantage into consideration during the return leg.
The last match of the night sees Porto taking on Malaga at the Estadio do Dragao. Porto are currently leading the charts in Portuguese Liga and they have lost only once so far in this year’s Champions League. In the group stages, they have scored 3 goals twice at home, which clearly shows that they play best in their own backyard. However, Malaga is no pushover and after qualifying through the play-offs, they have topped their group, which comprised of teams like Milan and Zenit, which is no mean feat in itself. They have never lost away from home this season and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues against Porto.