Saturday, December 17, 2005

Giant soccer post: Champion's League Round of 16 preview

On Friday, the draw for the UEFA Champion’s League round of 16 took place, and it produced some very intriguing matchups. In this round, two matches are played between the teams, with the winner advancing on aggregate. In case of a tie, away goals are used as a first tiebreaker; extra time and shootout are the last resorts. Here are some capsules of the ties, which start in February:

Chelsea v. Barcelona
The only rematch from last year’s round of 16, except this time Barca have the homefield advantage. This tie will come down to whether Chelsea can hold Barca scoreless in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, because it is hard to believe any team, even Chelsea, could prevent Barca from scoring at least 2 in the Camp Nou. Barca’s defense is not the strongest, so the Blues can hope for snatching an away goal and a victory in the second leg, but my reckoning is that Barca’s attack will be just too strong. Chelsea will also be without the services of central midfielder Michael Essien, who is suspended for a horrible tackle against Liverpool in the group stages. Chelsea just don’t seem to be in the same attacking form as they were last year, and it will cost them.
Prediction: Barca wins 4-2 on aggregate

Real Madrid v. Arsenal
Madrid’s domestic and European form has been inconsistent all year, while Arsenal put together one of the best performances in the group stages, albeit against weak competition. Madrid’s star power is undeniable, especially in attack, with Ronaldo, Raul, Robinho and Julio Baptista, but their defense has looked vulnerable at times this year. Arsenal, meanwhile, have been bolstered by the return of Sol Campbell to the back line, but have been continually plagued with injuries and inconsistency in the midfield. Arsenal’s attack is undeniably world class, with Thierry Henry reasserting himself as the most dangerous striker in the world. Young Robin Van Persie has performed admirably as Henry’s complementary striker, stepping in for his aging compatriot Dennis Bergkamp. Real Madrid will also have to adjust to a new coach, with former skipper Vanderlei Luxembergo having been sacked due to poor domestic form. I think this will be a major factor in the tie, and I see a dramatic finish at Highbury, with Henry delivering the decisive goal. Though Arsenal are technically the higher seed, it will feel like an upset if they win.
Prediction: Arsenal wins 5-4 on aggregate

Werder Bremen v. Juventus
With the arrival of Patrick Viera, the return of Pavel Nedved, and the emergence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Juve have taken over the title of most well-rounded team in the world from AC Milan. There isn’t a weakness to be found in this squad, and while Bremen’s striker Miroslav Klose could give even Juve’s defense problems, Juve will simply outclass Bremen all over the field.
Prediction: Juve wins 4-1 on aggregate

Bayern München v. AC Milan
These clubs have lifted a combined 10 Champion’s League cups, making for yet another star-studded matchup. Milan has been out of sorts in Serie A this season, with age perhaps starting to show its effects. Bayern is cruising through the Bundesliga as usual, but are in a bit of turmoil regarding the status of star midfielder Michael Ballack, who is seeking a transfer. The teams match up very evenly in defense and midfield, but Milan have a bit more class up front, with Andriy Shevchenko, Alberto Gilardino, and Kaká. It should be a scintillating couple of games, and I feel homefield advantage will prove decisive for Milan.
Prediction: Milan wins 4-3 on aggregate

PSV Eindhoven v. Olympique Lyonnais
Yet another intriguing matchup between last year’s semifinalist PSV and the most exciting club this side of Barca, Lyon. Lyon has made the statement of the tournament so far, recording a 3-0 thrashing of Real Madrid and going undefeated in group play. PSV looked shaky in the group stage, conceding 9 goals while scoring only 7, and were somewhat lucky to advance. As is the lot of most Dutch clubs, PSV lost a great deal of talent in the offseason, with Mark Van Bommel, Ji-Sung Park, and Young-Pyo Lee all moving to more lucrative clubs. PSV will cause problems on the wings with speedsters DaMarcus Beasley and Jefferson Farfán, but Lyon has a seemingly limitless reserve of strikers and attacking midfielders, with the sublime Juninho orchestrating. Lyon have become the best club in the world at scoring goals in short bursts, and I think one of their patented salvos will overwhelm PSV.
Prediction: Lyon wins 6-3 on aggregate

Ajax v. Inter Milan
Ajax have been in poor form all season and were fortunate to be placed in a group with two minnows. Inter have been up and down as usual in Serie A, but are back on the upswing after a recent victory against city rivals AC Milan. If their attacking form holds, and it should, with Adriano and Obafemi Martins forming a potent partnership, Inter should walk all over the Dutch side.
Prediction: Inter wins 5-2 on aggregate

Benfica v. Liverpool
Defending tournament champs Liverpool draw one of the weaker sides as their title defense continues. Early in the season, Liverpool struggled to score goals and were mired in the middle of the Premiership table. They have caught fire recently, and have moved up to within striking distance of Chelsea, and have not conceded a goal in over 1000 minutes of play. Liverpool’s stifling defense will be too much for Benfica, who did well to knock Manchester United out of the tourney in the group stages. But with Liverpool striker Fernando Morientes rounding into form, I don’t believe Benfica will have enough this time.
Prediction: Liverpool wins 3-0 on aggregate

Rangers v. Villarreal
Probably the most unlikely pairing, as Rangers surprisingly squeaked into the round despite their horrid domestic form, thanks to the now sizzling Danish forward Peter Løvenkrands. Villarreal suprisingly topped their group, thanks to a stalwart defense that conceded only 1 goal in 6 games. These Champs League newcomers were also without the services of strikers Diego Forlán and Juan Román Riquelme during many of these games, and their returns will be a major factor. I see Villarreal as slightly better than Rangers in every phase of the game.
Prediction: Villarreal wins 2-1 on aggregate

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