Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Champions League last 16: previews and predictions

I was discussing Champions League prospects with someone, and he bought up the idea that this year could see all four semi-finalists end up being Premiership teams. Personally, I would like at least one La Liga team to advance at least to the semi-finals, although none of the 3 have it easy, unlike all 4 Premiership teams.

Valencia CF - FC Internazionale Milano (2-2 agg)

Valencia is in the best position of all the Spanish clubs, but they also have arguably the most formidable opposition. No offense to any Reds out there, but you've got to admit Inter's form is pretty frightening. So it's a good thing Valencia has those 2 valuable away goals. If David Albelda weren't suspended I'd be confident of Valencia holding Inter to a 0-0 draw at home to go through, but they're a lot less solid without him. To balance this out, Patrick Vieira and Esteban Cambiasso are both unavaliable for Inter through injury, which is bad news for them since even a squad as large as theirs can't compensate completely for the loss of 2 players who perform similar functions in midfield.

(Optimistic) prediction: Valencia to squeak it. Nothing against Inter, in fact I rather like them because of the Argentineans, but I'd like to have at least one Spanish club in it for the long haul. And, you know, only two Spanish clubs have ever won the Champions League.

Chelsea FC - FC Porto (1-1 agg)

Porto are a good team, but they're no match for Chelsea. This was a very good draw for the Blues, and I don't expect them to throw anything away. If Porto somehow manage to scrape through, it would be a minor miracle, because on quality terms they really haven't got enough to compete against Chelsea, even without John Terry.

Prediction: Chelsea to go through. As they say, anything can and has happened in the Champions League, but the Blues are simply too solid.

Liverpool FC - FC Barcelona (2-1 agg)

This is it. The big one. I've seen Liverpool bloggers referring to this game as season-defining for them, in light of Premiership and Cup results, and while Barca are still in with a shout for both the League and the Copa del Rey a lot depends on how this game plays out for us too. We all know about Liverpool's strength at Anfield and their ability to defend solidly and counter with great effect.

Barca, on the other hand, have to go all out. Which isn't too different from our usual approach anyway, but as Rijkaard says we really don't have much to lose at this point. The trident of Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Messi might finally be reunited, and persumably Deco and Thuram will be restored to the starting line-up. I have a hunch that Zambrotta will be used as left-back with Oleguer on the right, since Gio and Belletti have been left out of the squad. As for the rest, it's anyone's guess. Like the Barca press keep saying, we need a miracle. Or just the whole team, playing at their best - no, beyond their best.

Barca have been through a lot of ups and downs this season - from the sublime to the ridiculous; injuries, slumps, in-fighting, disappointment as well as those moments of great football we all live for. Frankly, I'm a little emotionally wrung out by it all. But that's football. I'm not going to predict anything for this game. We all know what the obvious conclusion is. The odds are stacked against Barca - and I have to point out, due in large part to the team's performance at the Nou Camp. But nevermind all that. I'm not even demanding a result that allows us to go through.

Remember that epic game at Stamford Bridge? No, not the triumph of last season, but the heartbreak of 2 seasons ago. It's a bitter memory, but I can't complain about the spirit in which the team conducted themselves on the pitch.

The football journalist James Lawton, recalling Barca's game against Benfica in the European Cup final of 1961, wrote this:
They were betrayed by some catastrophic goalkeeping and trailed 2-1 at half-time. In the second half Barça, inspired by Suarez, played astonishing football, hitting the bar and the post five times. But only one goal went in, and Barça, perversely, lost 3-2. However, one consolation was huge: it was the knowledge that beaten teams and football men can define themselves in defeat as well as victory...
That last line has resonated with me ever since I first read it. A club like Barca, which prides itself on a tradition of attacking football come hell or high water, should always keep that in mind. We all like to idealize our club's image, it's true, (and some would claim that we preach image because we're not as successful) but that's a clear statement of the ideal as any I've ever read.

I just want the boys to do their best. As long as I can see that they put everything into it, that's enough.

Visca el Barca!

(On a less serious note, this game will see the return of the much loved - well, by me anyway - fluorescent yellow away shirts used last season, which serve as the third kits this season. Contrary to reports, they're not being used because they're 'lucky'. Both Barca's home and away kits have been deemed to clash with Liverpool's famous red home jersey.)

Olympique Lyonnais - As Roma (0-0 agg)

According to all reports the first leg was dreadfully dull. Hopefully this time at least one of the teams will come out and play like they actually want to win it. Both teams are hungry for Champions League success, Lyon because their domination of Ligue 1 is getting a bit boring, Roma because they have no chance of winning Serie A despite their best efforts.

Prediction: Lyon have more in the tank and Roma can be rather neurotic away from home in Europe. Lyon to go through.

Arsenal FC - PSV Eindhoven (0-1 agg)

Arsenal did not do themselves justice in front of goal in the first leg. On paper, this was a plum draw for them. But that's Arsenal for you this season. They're more than capable of pulling out a result at Ashburton Grove, of course, and PSV haven't exactly been having the greatest of times themselves.

Prediction: Hard to call, since PSV are difficult to break down and the Gunners have had trouble in the past with teams like them. I'll go for Arsenal, but it'll be close.

Manchester United FC - Lille OSC (1-1 agg)

This tie has come to have a surprising amount of bad blood associated with it over the last few seasons. Not quite on the level of Chelsea-Barca or Real-Bayern, but close enough, especially with the mayhem in the first leg. This was the best possible draw for Man Utd, so they really should go through easily. Anything else, and they'll know they've screwed up royally. Personally, I don't care either way, but a Larsson goal would be nice. Farewell present and all, even though Ferguson is busy insisting to anyone who will listen that they won't miss him once he's gone. Of course you will, Sir Alex. We all end up wishing he'd stay longer. (Besides, isn't poor Ole injured again?)

Prediction: Manchester United can walk it at Old Trafford, if they remember to stick to 4-4-2.

FC Bayern Munich - Real Madrid CF (2-3 agg)

Until Mark van Bommel scored that cracking goal, it was all looking so good for Real. Now they have to go to Germany, where they've traditionally not enjoyed themselves and suffer for 90 minutes. Make no mistake, Bayern may not be very good this season, but they're still good enough to give Real trouble. Especially since poor David Beckham's injured. (I kind of feel terrible for him - what a time to get injured! Just when things are going so well...and now he's going to miss his last Clasico as well.) Beckham's potential replacement Reyes also got injured in the same game, which means that several more Capello exiles might have to be dusted off for a run out. On the Bayern side, they're missing Bastian Schweinsteiger through suspension, which is a big loss for them.

Prediction: difficult one to call, given that both sides are weakened and showing wobbly form. I think Real will really miss Beckham, though. I'd like to see Real scrape through (the more Spanish teams, the merrier), but my gut feeling is that's not too likely. Bayern it is.

AC Milan - Celtic FC (0-0 agg)

Celtic have done very well to come this far and still be in with a shot at progressing, but I felt that their big chance to grab an advantage was at home in the first tie. Milan are very, very good at scoring late goals when they need to at home in European competition, and they're not nearly as crap as they were at the beginning of the season. Besides, Celtic are generally crap away from home in Europe.

Prediction: Milan's experience will come through in the end. Hopefully Celtic will at least fight the good fight (not literally) though.

Ahh, the intrigue of the Champions League. For me, the World Cup is only thing that surpasses it for pathos and excitement.

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