Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea may have all qualified for this season’s Champions League knockout stages but that’s where the similarities end for the teams. United have a favourable draw against Olympiakos, Chelsea a heated clash against Galatasary, whilst Man City take on Barcelona and Arsenal find themselves up against the might of current champions Bayern Munich.
Last season’s competition wasn’t a happy hunting ground for English clubs; none made the last eight, a dramatic example of the drop in quality of what was, for a short period epitomised by the all English final of 2008, a zenith of Anglo-Saxon dominance in Europe’s premier club competition.
So how can the English clubs buck the trends of a year ago and progress through to the quarters? How can Arsenal score another unlikely triumph against the Bavarian giants of Bayern in the mould of last season’s plucky 2-0 win at the Allianz Arena? What do Man City have to do to edge past the most successful club side of the last decade in Barca? And what about both Man United’s and Chelsea’s chances? Read on to find out...
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich
Arguably the tie of the round, pitting the teams against each other in the same stage of the competition for two years in a row. A straightforward 3-1 win in the first leg for Bayern last season made their place in the quarters look guaranteed before a spirited Arsenal display in the second leg, already mentioned, ensured the Gunners went out only on away goals at 3-3.
That 2-0 win in snowy Munich on March 13th of this year was launched into life by a lively Theo Walcott performance as the England international set up the first goal for Olivier Giroud within two minutes. After grabbing a goal in Saturday’s disappointing 6-3 loss to Man City, Arsenal fans have to hope that Walcott carries that sort of form into the knockout stages of the Champions League if they’re once again to spring a surprise against the Germans.
When Arsenal lined up against Munich on that night, they’d achieved only one clean sheet in their previous seven games against continental competition but this season, their defensive solidity has been reminiscent of the 1997-98 Double-winning side. It’s vital that the Gunners recover from uncharacteristically letting in six goals at the weekend because, despite that 2-0 win against Bayern in March, the Germans actually had three times as many shots on target during that game. The blossoming partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny will have to be at its steeliest to repel a Bayern side which has scored 42 goals in 16 Bundesliga games this season.
Manchester City vs. Barcelona
Another potentially riveting tie; City, who as everyone knows could have topped their group had Manuel Pellegrini and his assistants bothered to use a calculator against Bayern Munich in their last group game, have demonstrated from their home form that they can be potentially unplayable. However, the most impressive element of that triumph against Bayern was that it came in the Germans’ own backyard, recovering from two goals down to snatch a tremendous victory.
Man City’s squad is simply outstanding but perhaps their most powerful advantage is the immense array of attacking players they have. Sergio Aguero’s calf injury looks set to keep him out until late January, meaning that he could come into the first leg tie against the Catalans under-fit and not match-sharp. However, considering the consistent brilliance of the diminutive Argentine, he may defy such predictions. Edin Dzeko is a superb deputy and a player who would walk into the starting XI of most European teams; Alvaro Negredo has slotted in seamlessly and City’s midfielders are all in a rich vein of form. Silva, Nasri, Toure and Fernandinho have been excellent as of late.
Barca’s core weakness is in defence where, due to injuries to Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol amongst others over the last couple of years, they have sometimes struggled against teams who’ve managed to break up their midfield possession. Marc Bartra, currently starting at centre-back for Barcelona, is relatively inexperienced and at 6’0 tall not especially intimidating for a central defender. He’s the type of player a Negredo or, to a bigger extent, Dzeko would be able to harass and bully. The way that Barca cope with City’s attacking riches will be incredibly intriguing come the first leg, especially if the Sky Blues begin to assert their dominance in the Premier League.
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Manchester United vs. Olympiakos
What would seem a dream tie for United fans, as the Red Devils line up against what would appear as the weakest of the sixteen teams in the pot.
Nevertheless, don’t be fooled; the Greek champions have 43 points from a maximum 45 in their domestic league thus far and whilst the standard of the Greek Super League is questionable, the dominance of Olympiakos isn’t.
Former United keeper Roy Carroll is in goal for the Greeks (be interesting to see if anyone tries a Pedro Mendes lob on him from the halfway line), but the undoubted star of the team is former Barcelona and Real Madrid forward Javier Saviola. He’s been scoring regularly this season but for a player once labelled as ‘the new Maradona’, which should be taken with a pinch of salt unless directed to anyone other than a certain Senor Messi, the Man United defence will be less hospitable than those on show in Greece.
I’m not going to go into the travails of United this season under David Moyes because even someone living in a cave in Afghanistan has probably heard all about it. Their European form has been good, the highlight of the last few months being a comprehensive dismantling in the Bay Arena of Bayer Leverkusen. Olympiakos should be a comfortable tie for them; RvP will be back from injury and, if United can string together a good run of wins before February and start to climb back up the table, their place in the last eight is pretty assured.
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Chelsea vs. Galatasary
Anyone fancy a cosy little trip away to Hell, as it was once self-proclaimed? Galatasary may have a swanky new stadium these days but that demonic, flare-throwing, drum-beating atmosphere of old still lives on. An away tie against the most successful Turkish team of all time is not one that any player in their right mind would fancy. Unless you’re a hard nutter in the Duncan Ferguson mould, in which case good luck to you.
This Galatasary team laboured into the knockout stages unexpectedly, predominantly due to the ineptitude of a Juventus side which finished third on six points. Galatasary’s total of seven points was five less than Napoli’s, who crashed out of the competition.
Domestically, Galatasary lie sixth in the table, 14 games played, 24 points collected. They’ve been in mediocre form since the season started but reaching the Champions League Last 16 should at least provide a distraction for disgruntled supporters.
For a team with some serious A-grade talent (Drogba, Sneijder, Felipe Melo and Burak Yilmaz being the pick of the bunch), they have the ability to cause Chelsea genuine difficulties. Alas, Roberto Mancini has struggled to get a cohesive team unit going, something which is quite surprising for an Italian coach with a focus on discipline.
Much will depend on how consistent Chelsea are between now and February. Jose Mourinho has bemoaned the fact that his team’s performances have been about as up-and-down as Katie Price’s wedding day nightie but if Chelsea can rediscover the metronomic, week-after-week winning mentality which characterised Mourinho’s first two seasons in charge between 2004 and 2006, they should have too much for the Turks.
That said, if Sneijder and the returning Drogba defy their ageing bodies and produce performances worthy of their heights of a few years ago, anything is possible.
In the other Last 16 fixtures, it’ll be interesting to see how AC Milan, one of the competition’s historic giants, cope against the imposing threat of an Atletico Madrid team that is second only to Barcelona on goal difference in La Liga. Diego Simeone’s team are threatening to break the Barca-Real hegemony in Spain and Milan, who are currently labouring in the bottom half of Serie A, may get a hiding from the emerging Atletico. Kaka was brilliant in the last group match and the Rossoneri will need their Brazilian legend on top form to give themselves a good chance of progressing.
Dortmund have stuttered in the Bundesliga but last season’s finalists should rediscover their form. An away trip to Russia is never easy but they should beat Zenit over two legs, whilst Real Madrid, second favourites for the competition, will ease past Schalke. PSG, enjoying a fruitful season at home in Ligue 1, should also have too much for Bayer Leverkusen. With the unique and mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the line, ably assisted by Edinson Cavani, they could be worth an outside bet to go all the way.
Regardless, bring on February for what’s a top round of Last 16 fixtures; both Man United and Chelsea should reach the quarters and, as for Man City and Arsenal, who knows? But what cracking games to look forward to.