Apparently it was too early for Chelsea to be written off. Although they aren’t out of trouble completely, their 2-0 victory in Copenhagen all but assured they would progress to the quarterfinals and Spurs’ loss to Blackpool in the Premier League means that Chelsea is now only two points back of the final Champions League slot with a game in hand. A rare good day for the Blues.
Meanwhile, in Lyon, Real Madrid was held to a draw against Lyon. Although the 1-1 draw gives them the edge going back home, Real certainly has to be frustrated with their seventh consecutive game against the French squad without a win.
Here are my predictions for Wednesday’s Champions League action:
Manchester United (4-2-0, 1st place Group C) at Marseille (4-0-2, 2nd place Group F)
How fantastic are Wednesday’s Round of 16 games that Manchester United versus the French champions is only the second best game of the day?
Through mid-January, Man U was one of the hottest teams in Europe. Then they needed three late goals to avoid a stunning defeat to Blackpool on January 25. Two weeks later, they were stunned in a surprising 2-1 loss to cellar dwellers Wolves, ending a 29 match unbeaten streak in meaningful competitions. The squad seemingly regained momentum after Wayne Rooney’s goal of the year candidate gave them a win over Manchester City the following week, but they were lucky to pull out an FA Cup win against fifth division Crawley Town last week.
Like Lyon, Marseille struggled in the early part of the Ligue 1 season. The squad put it together eventually and have climbed all the way back into second place in the league table, one point behind league leaders Lille with ten games to go. But last Saturday’s win against Paris St. Etienne turned a bit scary for Marseille fans when three of their top offensive threats all left with an injury. André-Pierre Gignac, who scored three goals in four group stage games, is out with a strained groin. Brandão and the team’s scoring leader Loïc Rémy also left with injuries, but the team hopes they will be back for this game.
Marseille isn’t a bad team – they beat Chelsea in the group stage and are unbeaten in their last twelve games at home. Yet the only thing that really matters is which Man U team shows up. Will it be the unbeaten team from the first half of the season or the team that has shown chinks in the armor in recent weeks?
I am going to go with the first option for three reasons. First, the Red Devils have won nine of their last eleven Champions League road games outright. Second, Nani, Wayne Rooney, and Dimitar Berbatov are good for at least one goal between them (the team has been held scoreless in only two of their last 26 games). I can’t say the same about Marseille’s injured strikers.
Finally I think those that see a Marseille upset here are over-thinking things based on a couple of recent games. Three weeks ago, no one would have predicted a Marseille win. Now people are questioning Man U because of the Wolves loss (which wasn’t as bad as it looks – Wolves beat Chelsea and Man City at home this season) and the Crawley Town escape (when only two of the team’s typical starting XI started). They are still the same great team. Manchester United wins it 2-0.
Bayern Munich (5-0-1, 1st place Group E) at Inter Milan (3-1-2, 2nd place Group A)
The marquee matchup of this week’s action is a rematch of last year’s Champions League final. Both Bayern and Inter entered last year’s game with a chance to win the treble. Inter cruised to the title with a surprisingly easily 2-0 victory. Both teams enter this game with a decidedly less impressive resume, but I think these two legs will be much closer.
Bayern currently sits in third place in the Bundesliga, a full 13 points back of leader Borussia Dortmund. They are still alive in the semifinals of the DKB-Pokal, but have still struggled for large parts of the season. Most of this is due to injury – star midfielders Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben have only played in the same game four times this season. But in their absences, young striker Mario Gomez has stepped up with 27 total goals this year and Thomas Müller has added 13 more.
Inter has endured similar struggles in Serie A this season. The squad was in seventh place on the table as late as January before winning nine of their last eleven games to pull back into third place, five points back of leaders AC Milan. Like Bayern, they have reached the semifinals of the domestic cup. They finished in second place in their first round Champions League group, but they get a little bit of a pass for that performance because they played in one of the toughest groups in recent memory: the top teams from Pots 1 through 3 (Inter, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur) and the second team from Pot 4 (Twente) were drawn into the Group of Death. A second consecutive treble remains a longshot, but remains a possibility thanks to their current form. Inter is again led by Samuel Eto’o, who has been sublime this year with 27 goals, including seven in six Champions League games.
In last season’s final, Bayern mustered little offense against Inter and only forced goalkeeper Júlio César to make one save. Their offense consisted of Arjen Robben trying to find seams that weren’t there until he was either stripped or forced an off-target shot. Müller had a few opportunities, but I distinctly recall thinking within the first half hour of the match that Bayern was not going to score. I looked up player ratings from this game to confirm what I thought I remembered and they sort of did. This quote from Eurosport sums it up:
“Arjen Robben 7 – forced a great save from Cesar but Bayern were too reliant on him”
That seems to confirm what I recall, although I remember thinking that Robben was also forcing the team to rely on him. He tended to force things instead of making an extra pass for most of the second half when Bayern became desperate to get a goal. I don’t think that will be a problem this season. Bayern’s offense has become more complete and less reliant on Robben after he spent the first half of the season injured. Gomez has emerged as a goal scorer up top next to Müller that the team sorely lacked. Although Croatian international Ivica Olić was decent as a stopgap solution last year, a healthy Gomez gives the team a threat up top that they simply did not have in last year’s final and Robben will not have to force the action from the wing.
Inter’s key player is Eto’o. As Eto’o goes, so goes Inter, as no one has stepped up along side the Cameroonian star this season. He has scored 27 goals for the team; midfielder Dejan Stanković is next on the list with seven. Diego Milito, the hero of last year’s final, has struggled with injuries and is not expected to play in the rematch. Inter will rely on their defense as they try to work the ball up to Eto’o. That could get scary for Inter fans, as the team gave up a whopping 11 goals in six group games, including an ugly 3-0 in their group stage finale against last place finisher Werder Bremen with first place on the line.
All that equals Bayern revenge. I see a draw in Milan this game before Bayern takes the home leg in Munich. I’ll go with a 2-2 draw here.