UEFA Champions League Preview

Spring is inching ever so closer. Pitchers and catchers report this week. The UEFA Champions League starts back up today. Good times.

Here are my predictions for the four first leg Round of 16 games on Tuesday and Wednesday. Keep in mind that I know very little about anything. If I get any right, feel free to applaud me. If I miss any, just remember I don’t know anything. Talk about a win-win situation!

Tottenham Hotspur (3-2-1, 1st place Group A) at Milan (2-2-2, 2nd place Group G)

In their first ever UEFA Champions League appearance, Harry Redknapp’s Spurs squad finished a surprising first place in Group A, ahead of Serie A and defending Champions League champion Inter, Eredivisie champion Twente, and German squad Werder Bremen. Spurs was undoubtedly the most exciting team in the group stage – they tied with Arsenal for most goals scored (18) and with Roma and Inter for most goals allowed among Round of 16 teams (11). Twenty-one year old Welsh international Gareth Bale has been outrageously fun to watch. He almost single-handedly brought the 10-man Spurs back from a 4-0 deficit at Inter with a late hat trick before Inter hung on for a 4-3 victory.

Their reward? A draw against current Serie A leaders Milan, perhaps the best second place team in the Champions League. Milan has not lost since December 18 to open up a three point lead in the league table. Star striker Zlatan Ibrahimović has been a revelation since he arrived on loan from Barcelona at the start of the season – he has 13 goals (including four in the CL group stage) and 10 assists in 23 appearances for the club.

There is no doubt that Tottenham Hotspur can score. In addition to Bale, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, and Russian striker Roman Pavlyuchenko all scored multiple goals in the group stage. But Milan is by far the most complete team Spurs have faced in the Champions League. Even the victory over Inter looks less and less impressive, as the out-of-sorts Inter has already lost nine times this season after only losing seven times in last year’s Treble season. The lasting image of Inter’s season so far is Samuel Eto’o’s ridiculous miss this past weekend.

Spurs might be content to play for the tie and head back to White Hart Lane, but I don’t see it happening based on their track record. Milan has the horses to make them pay for their attacking style. I think Milan takes the first leg 3-1.

Schalke 04 (4-1-1, 1st place Group B) at Valencia (3-2-1, 2nd place Group C)

Schalke 04 somehow won Group B over 2009-10 Champions League semifinalist Lyon and traditional Portuguese power Benfica despite spending the entire season in the bottom half of the Bundesliga table. Of course the flip side of this is that Schalke 04 will come out firing on all cylinders, since the league season is all but lost. They are currently primed for their worst league finish since 1999-2000 and qualifying for any European competition next season looks to be a longshot; the Champions League Round of 16 appearance and DFB-Pokal semifinal appearance are all that the club has left to play for.

Meanwhile, Valencia has put together a good season in the Champions League and currently sit in third place in the La Liga table. Their only group stage loss was to Manchester United. They have quietly established themselves as the third best squad in La Liga and are primed to qualify for the Champions League for the second straight season even after losing David Villa to Barcelona.

No one is giving Schalke much of a chance in this game: they currently sit at a +420 money line, behind only “just happy to be there” Copenhagen’s impending slaughter at the hands of Chelsea. This makes sense because I don’t see how Schalke scores in this game. They have only scored two goals in five Bundesliga games since Christmas and were blanked twice on the road in the Champions League group stage. Valencia is better than all of those teams. The trend continues in this game; Valencia wins 2-0.

Shakhtar Donetsk (5-0-1, 1st place Group H) at Roma (3-1-2, 2nd place Group E)

If anybody claims to know anything about Shakhtar’s Champions League prospects, they are lying. Sure, they have dominated the Ukrainian Premier League this season – they are 17-1-1 in league play this season. But you could say that pretty much every season over the past decade: they finished in the top two of the league in each of the last ten years and have not lost more than five games in a season. In each of those years, they flamed out of the Champions League before the knockout stage. So this is either a) Shakhtar’s breakthrough year; or b) they took advantage of the worst group of the group stage to finally make the knockout round.

It is fitting that Shakhtar drew Roma in the Round of 16, probably the most bipolar team of the remaining teams. They may or may not be any good. On one hand, they are experienced and have been the quiet, consistent Italian team over the past five years. Although they have never been a threat to win a European competition, they reached the knockout stage in three of the past four CL seasons and have made the final of the Coppa Italia five of the last six years (they are currently in the semifinals this season).

On the other hand, they sit in eighth place in the Serie A table; they haven’t finished worse than that since the 1996-97 season. They qualified for the Round of 16 mostly by default: one of either Roma, Basel, and CFR Cluj had to join Bayern Munich out of Group E. Roma grabbed the second spot but looked unimpressive. They are the only Round of 16 team with a negative goal differential in the group stage and were beaten 3-1 at home against Basel.

I have a hunch that this is finally Shakhtar’s season. I think they know it too. After making it to the Round of 16 for the first time, they received a very favorable draw in Roma. They pull off the 1-1 draw in this leg and win it in Donetsk in two weeks.

Barcelona (4-2-0, 1st place Group D) at Arsenal (4-0-2, 2nd place Group H)

What can you say about Barcelona’s season? They have a chance to be historically great. They haven’t lost a meaningful game since September; although they lost in the second leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals to Real Betis, it was only because they trotted out their second team after the first team jumped out to a 5-0 aggregate lead in the first leg. They are outscoring opponents in league play by the XBox-like differential 71-12. They have scored 18 more goals and given up seven fewer than second place Real Madrid. Barcelona players accounted for all eight of champion Spain’s goals in the 2010 FIFA World Cup…and they have Lionel Messi to boot. In short, they are good.

Arsenal finished second in the extremely weak Group H after blowing games at Shakhtar and Braga. Like Barcelona, there isn’t a whole lot to say about them that we don’t already know. They are sitting at second place in the Premier League table and are set to break Man U/Chelsea’s stranglehold on the top two positions. But they aren’t Barcelona. End of story.

This draw pleases me. Too often a traditional powerhouse stumbles to a second place finish in a major competition only to get a favorable draw in the knockout round. Arsenal finished second in a group that it had no business losing and now they get the unstoppable Barcelona squad. The Gunners keep it close in the first leg before getting pounded at Camp Nou in the second leg. I was tempted to go with a draw, but I’ll go with a 1-0 win for Barcelona.


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