We’ll go with a shorter UEFA Champions League preview this week, partly because I am busy at work (seriously), but mostly because I am stubbornly sticking to my guns from the first time around. That makes little sense, since I did extremely poorly (although I am still proud of Shakhtar for proving me right), but I’m nothing if not persistent.
Arsenal at Barcelona (Arsenal won first leg 2-1)
The most anticipated match of the Round of 16 second leg is also the first on the calendar. In the first match between these two teams, Arsenal stunned the previously invincible Barcelona squad with two late goals to pull out a 2-1 victory at home. Since then, Arsenal has built on the momentum by drawing against third division Leyton Orient in the FA Cup (before beating them in the replay), slipping by Stoke City 1-0 at home, losing to Birmingham in the League Cup final, and only managing a 0-0 draw at home against Sunderland. Yikes.
Barcelona, meanwhile, has rolled off four straight victories in La Liga play, including a 1-0 road win against third place Valencia, which shows just how big the chasm is between the top two La Liga teams and all the other teams.
So what do we take from this? The prevailing point of view seems to be that Arsenal got lucky. Arsenal is +230 to advance to the next round despite holding a 2-1 advantage. When was the last time you could say that about the second place team in the Premier League? I’m tempted to take Arsenal just for that reason…but I still can’t really bring myself trust them. They were flat-out dominated in the first half of the first leg and were lucky to enter the half down only one. At Camp Nou, they can’t afford that luxury.
Not often is the second best team in England a major underdog, but that is exactly what Arsenal is here. As with any underdog, the longer the Gunners hold the favorites out of the net, the more confidence they will play with and the better it bodes for their advancement. Unfortunately for them, Barca attacks early and often. Barcelona wins 3-0.
Roma at Shakhtar Donetsk (Shakhtar won first leg 3-2)
In my first leg post, I predicted that this was finally Shakhtar’s year. After years of falling short of the Round of 16, the Ukrainian squad seemed prime to breakthrough this year, especially with a favorable draw against Roma. I picked a draw in the first leg followed by Shakhtar winning at home in the second leg. They did me one better – a three-goal first half barrage gave them a 3-2 victory in Rome.
Hard to see how Roma wins this game. The pressure will be on them to salvage something from this season, as they are increasingly unlikely to qualify for the Champions League next year (they sit five points back with ten Serie A games to go). They are basically a mess, going 1-1-4 in their last six overall matches. They have given up a whopping 18 goals in those six games. Rock bottom actually came after their loss to Shakhtar, when they blew a 3-0 lead to mid-table Genoa in a stunning 4-3 loss. Just a train wreck of a team.
It would take a serious collapse from Shakhtar to blow this game. They certainly may come out tight in their attempt to become the first Ukrainian squad to make the final eight. But as I said in my first leg preview, I think this team is different: they now have the confidence that was missing in past seasons. Plus, it must be nice to have the luxury of feeling that, even if you come out tight, the other team still might not be good enough to beat you. Good enough for me: Shakhtar wins 2-0.