The Champions League returns to action tomorrow as the Round of 16 kicks-off. Most of the usual suspects have made it this far
Tuesday February 17
Manchester City v Barcelona
Manchester City arrive at the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the first time after finishing second in their groups level on 15 points with holders Bayern Munich.
The Sky Blues have only lost once in this season’s campaign, going down 3-1 at home to holder Bayern Munich. However, they avenged that defeat with a 3-2 win in Munich and would actually have finished top of the group if they had scored one more goal.
Barcelona finished top of their group on 13 points to make it to the round of 16 for the eighth year in row. The four-times European champions have only won once away from home in this year’s competition, losing away to Ajax and drawing in Milan, but still managed to finish four points above Milan in group H.
The Ivorian International joined City from Barcelona back in 2010 and has become a talismanic figure ever since. Blessed with strength, pace and skill, Toure is a classic box-to-box midfielder, and if he can get in full-flow he could run the Barca midfield ragged.
Messi has had a disrupted campaign with injury and recently spent two-months out of action with a hamstring injury. Remarkably questions were raised recently about the Argentinean maestro when he failed to score in his first three games back from injury, but he has now scored 8 goals in his last five games and looks close to his best again.
This is undoubtedly the most anticipated encounter of the round of 16, as both teams like to play expansive attacking soccer.
City have been immense at home failing to win just two of all their 20 games at the Etihad this season and scoring four or more in 12 of those matches.
Barcelona on the other hand have only won once away from home this season, and only three times away from home since 2008, which suggests the Blaugrana could be there for the taking. However, Barca have still managed to progress to at least the semi-finals and win the trophy twice during that time, suggesting they are also immense on their home patch. Therefore, I think it is imperative that City go for a win, as the prospect of heading to the Camp Nou needing a result are not bright.
Barcelona will play their usually tiki-taka possession style and try to boss the game by monopolizing possession of the ball. However, I expect City to take the game to their opponents and use their pace and power to ruffle the feathers of the Barca midfield.
The key to victory for City could be in the wide areas, and if they can get crosses into the box the striking duo of Negrado and Dzecko could profit. However, whether or not they will be able to keep Messi from creating or scoring at the other end remains to be seen.
Bayer Leverkusen v Paris Saint Germain
Bayer Leverkusen finished second behind Manchester United in group H to progress to the round of 16 for the first time since 2012. Leverkusen, who currently sit second in the Budesliga, are aiming to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, when they were beaten 2-1 in the final by Real Madrid.
PSG finished comfortable winners of Groups C, scoring an impressive 16 goals in the Process. The French Ligue 1 champions are hoping to reach the last-eight for the second successive years—PSG were quarter-finalists last term for the first time since 1994/95.
Leno became the youngest keeper ever to play in the Champions League when he featured for Leverkusen against Chelsea in 2011 at the tender age of just 19 years and 193 days. Now 21, Leno has become one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe and he will have to be at his best to keep Imrahimovic and company at bay.
The Maverick Swede has scored an incredible 32 goals in 34 games for PSG this season, including 8 goals in the Champions League. Strong, Skillful and good in the air, Ibrahimovic is the full package and is the only player to have scored for six different clubs in the Champions League.
After making a good start to the season Leverkusen’s form has dropped of late and they have won twice in their last seven games.
It’s no coincidence that their poor form has coincided with a spate of injuries to key players and Leverkusen now head into Tuesday’s game without midfielder Emre Can due to suspension, strikers Eren Derdiyok (foot) and Robbie Kruse (knee), while Stefan Reinartz (foot) is a doubt.
Meanwhile, PSG have injury worries of there own with summer signing Edinson Cavani out with an injury picked up against Boudreaux last month. The Uruguayan forward has scored 20 goals since joining from Napoli, and will be missed. However, PSG have a wealth of other talent to call upon, including star player Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is the second top scorer in the competition this season with 8 goals.
I expect Bayer to give PSG a good game, but PSG’s greater guile and skill should see them take a slender lead back home.
Wednesday February 18
Arsenal v Bayern Munich
Arsenal finished runners-up in Group F level on 12 points with group winners Borussia Dortmund and third place Napoli, with results between the clubs deciding their positions.
Bayern Munich Cruised through winning all but one game. Nevertheless, the reigning Champions League holders almost finished runners-up in their group as Manchester City beat them 3-2 in the last group game. Luckily for Bayern the City manager, Manuel Pellegrini, got his calculations wrong and didn’t realize a single goal would take them top.
The French midfielder moved back to Arsenal from AC Milan during the summer and has been integral to their good run in the EPL and Champions League this season. Flamini is not the prettiest of players, but he provides cover for the defense and helps to organize the Arsenal midfield, which will be vital against arguably the best team in Europe at the moment.
Having spent the last 10-years as being one of the world’s best full-backs, Lahm was moved to the defensive midfield position by new Bayern coach Pep Guardiola at the beginning of the season and has taken to it like a duck to water. Poised on the ball and intelligent off it, Lahm has become a Beckenbauer-esq figure in the Bayern midfield, starting and directing most of their plays, and if he starts to get a grip on the game on Wednesday Arsenal could be in for a long night.
These two clubs meet at the same phase in last year’s competition with Bayern Munich edging through via the away goals rule.
Arsenal showed their German counterparts too much respect in the first leg game in London and lost 3-1. However, they played with more belief in the second game and won by 2-0.
Bayern Munich are the holders of the competition and will be favorites to progress. Both these teams play technical attacking soccer, however, I think this game will be tight and I expect Arsenal to probably play a bit more reserved and cautiously than they have mostly done at home this season.
Munich will press high and try to boss possession, which could leave them vulnerable to counter-attacks, but I don’t think they will be overly adventurous and I think this game will end in score draw.
AC Milan v Atletico Madrid
AC Milan finished second in group H on 9 points behind group winner Barcelona. Milan are having a poor season and currently sit 10th in Seria A, but they have faired well in the Champions League and have only lost once this campaign—a 3-1 defeat away to Barcelona.
Atlectico are having one their best seasons in a long time and currently joint-top of La Liga on 60-points with Barcelona and Real Madrid. Atletico comfortably won their group finishing 10-points above second place Porto. Rojiblancos are only one of three sides yet to be beaten in this year’s campaign and aiming for their first quarterfinal appearance since 1997.
The mercurial striker, like his team, has not been in the best of form this season, however, he has the talent to score goals from nothing—as he demonstrated on Valentines Day with a thunderbolt from the blue against Bologna. Tall, strong, and fast, Balotelli combines athletic prowess with great skill making him a scary figure for opposing defenders,
Spain and Brazil were recently involved in a tug of war for striker and it is easy to see why, with Costa already scoring 26 goals for Atletico this term. Nicknamed ‘El Cholo’ or the beast, Costa is known for his incredible body strength and ability in the air.
These two sides are at the opposite ends of the spectrum with Milan having one or their worst seasons in recent memory, while Atletico are enjoying one of their best seasons.
Based on current form Atlectico are probably slight favorites, but Milan do have European pedigree that could aid them in this tie. Usually I wouldn’t expect Milan to play cautiously and with discipline, but new boss Clarence Seedorf has promised to make them attack. Atletico have won plaudits for their high intensity pressing game this season, but against Milan they will probably be happy to sit back and hit on the counter.
This game should be close, but I’ll back Milan to just edge it.