Monday, December 18, 2006

Champions League last 16: early predictions

A lot can change between now and February, it's true, but the essential quality of a team who can win the Champions League shouldn't vary greatly from week to week anyway. So here are my early assessments, which I'll update as the ties get closer.

FC Barcelona-Liverpool FC

The pick of the bunch, for me, along with the next one down. There are obviously a lot of storylines surrounding the tie: the 05-06 holders versus the 04-05 winners; Garcia, Zenden and Reina returning to Catalonia, Rafa Benitez, Mark Gonzalez and Xabi Alonso trending familiar ground; and so on.

It's hard to predict a result, given the bumpy form of both teams (which suggest that neither are favourites to win the whole thing), although things seem to be looking up for Liverpool lately. A lot will depend on the injury situation and the fixture list, the latter of which will be a major disadvantage to Barca. It will be very difficult for the Spanish side, and I really doubt that the games will be great spectacles even if we do get through. Those who think otherwise need to check their expectations against the team's lack of consistency.

Real Madrid CF-FC Bayern Munich

A classic match-up between European giants. In a lot of ways, I think the sense of occasion surrounding this tie will be greater than the matches themselves. Real Madrid also lack a bit of consistency in their performances - sometimes they can actually produce pretty good football - but even when they play awful, negative stuff they can still get the result. Unfortunately Bayern aren't exactly the most exciting team to watch either, not to mention they are a diminished force this season with the personnel changes that have gone on. I think Real Madrid to go through, but not by a whole lot.

FC Internazionale Milano-Valencia CF

What kind of reward is Inter for topping your group? Poor Valencia. They do have an awful, awful record against Inter, including some big defeats at home. Plus, their situation in La Liga isn't very good right now, what with all the points they dropped when major players were injured. That said, they are looking much better now, and will probably have most of their players back by the time this game rolls around. It's hard to say what will happen, because both sides have a track record of letting a perfectly good thing implode on them.

Inter are expected to win Serie A this season, so they are under some pressure. Whether or not they will crack again this time is up in the air - the squad does seem to handle big occasions slightly better now. I'd still question Mancini's coaching skills, but what a squad he has at his disposal. But Valencia also have a large, high quality and - most impressively - very Spanish squad when they're not having an injury crisis. I have a feeling Valencia are getting tougher, just as Inter are. Another close one, I think. Valencia to give Inter some scares, but Inter to hold on -just - and go through.

AS Roma-Olympique Lyonnais

This should be interesting. Lyon are in great form despite having a very depleted forward line through injuries. In reality, they can replace almost anyone, even the excellent Fred, but as long as Juninho is there and firing they're okay. But if he gets injured they're going to struggle. Roma are notoriously poor travellers in Europe, but the home leg in Rome will provide a stiff test for Lyon's ambitions. The French champions have the advantage of not really having to think about their league, since they have a ridiculous lead there already, unlike Roma, who still dream of catching Inter and winning the title but have a bit of chasing to do. Lyon to go through pretty comfortably, as they always do at this stage.

Celtic FC-AC Milan

It depends on how much Milan want this. That seems like a ridiculous thing to say, but I can't really see what's preventing them from doing better, apart from desire. Even with injuries they should not be nearly this bad. Celtic are almost never to be beaten for their fierce desire and commitment in Europe, and their domestic situation is much better than Milan's.

Of course, if Milan can win the Champions League, they can stop worrying about securing 4th spot in Serie A. Let's face it, they shouldn't have been allowed into the competition this year at all, but they got a lifeline from UEFA, along with one of the easiest groups I've ever seen. Nice. If they don't win this tie it will be all their own fault.

Celtic are almost unbeatable at home, but Milan should really take the home leg, even if the injury problems persist. That said, right now Gila is the only one of their forwards actually scoring, which is not a good situation considering his record of 0 goals from the CL last season. Difficult one to call, as it depends on a lot of factors that can change very quickly, but for now I'll go for Milan to squeak through by a couple of late, late goals at home. As they always do.

FC Porto-Chelsea FC

Much as I would like Porto to pull off an upset - not for the reason you might suspect, but more because I would like on-form Argies Lucho Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez to advance in the Champions League - I don't think it's going to happen. The English champions are too well-organised, too strong mentally and physically and too resourceful. Their current injury concerns and problems at the back should be sorted by then, too. Whatever their players are saying about concentrating on the Premiership, make no mistake, they think this is their year to win the CL. Tournament favourites (yes they are, no matter what anyone tries to spin you with) Chelsea to go through easily.

PSV Eindhoven-Arsenal FC

I actually forgot about this tie at first when I was writing this post, so that tells you just how interested I am. Still, Arsenal should beware PSV, who can play in the style that the Gunners find most frustrating and do it quite efficiently. It may not be pretty, but it might just work. Ronald Koeman is a pretty smart coach who's only getting better at this CL business.

A lot depends on which Arsenal turns up for the games, but I think PSV have an outside chance of an upset here. Not because they might outplay Arsenal, you understand. If PSV do end up going through, Arsene ain't going to be happy, because it will probably be because they've just parked the bus and hit them either on the counter or with a set-piece. Not good for football, but very possible.

Lille OSC-Manchester United FC

This game might seem even more boring than the previous one mentioned, but at least it has a nice backstory to it. Lille got two good results against United last season during a horrible group stage in which they managed to finish bottom, below what many British pundits call 'the French minnows'. Personally, I'd like to remind them that those so-called minnows are regulars in the last 16, and are always there or thereabouts in the French league, finishing either second or third behind the giants Lyon.

(Side note: If you look at their record, United really are generally very poor away from home in Europe, aren't they? And I thought Barca have been wobbly away from home this season...)

Anyway, now that Barca have avoided drawing United, my fondest hope in this tie is for Larsson to come on, score - preferably the decider - and leave a hero. Why not? It seems to happen everywhere he goes.

But that's just my personal fancy. Realisticly, United need to beware the same things as Arsenal - Lille are fairly tight at the back, not to mention mentally tougher from their trials and tribulations in Europe for the last few years. Witness their defeat of - a very poor, it must be said - Milan on the last match-day. Barring an injury crisis, United to have too much attacking power for the French team - but only if Fergie remembers to stick to 4-4-2.


soccermad said...

Hey Linda, nice look at what in store for us come February. At this point, I'd have to say that the potential for a fixture pile-up falls at the feet of Liverpool. Having that cup game postponed really put them in a tough spot if they end up progressing to the semis and finals. Through in EPL and FA Cup matches and Benitez could be in trouble.

I think with the trip to Japan behind them, the return of the wounded, and a potential signing next month, Barca are in the driver's seat against Liverpool. Gerrard and Co. can be world beaters on their day, but they're way too inconsistent to keep Barca from scoring at Anfield and then going for a win at the Camp Nou.


Anonymous said...

Manchester United is playing some of the best Football in Europe right now. It will be payback against Lille and the bigger clubs will be fearing the Red Devils in the next round