UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg Predictions Part III

March 14, 2011

Quick and dirty UEFA Champions League predictions for this week. A bit busy studying for March Madness picks (dorky I know, but give me a break…it comes around only once per year), so this won’t be a long post. Still, I figured you gambling readers out there would want to know who not to pick for the Champions League this week. Judging by my track record, the easiest way to make money this week is simply to pick the opposite of who I pick.

Marseille at Manchester United (teams tied 0-0 in first leg)

One prediction that I can confidently make this week: this game won’t be anywhere near as boring as their first game.

The first leg between these two teams featured a pretty rare event – the home team (Marseille) feeling great about a 0-0 draw. Maybe Manchester United is pleased with the result. After all, Sir Alex loves his 4-5-1 formation for road games. But you get the feeling that the 0-0 draw is exactly what Marseille wanted.

Just ask Man U fans about this. They have been here before. Last season against Bayern Munich, they jumped out to a 3-0 lead in their second leg home game just 41 minutes in to open a commanding 4-2 total goal lead. Two stunning goals later and Bayern moved on to the next round on the away goals rule. Then there was eventual champion Porto’s stunning 90th minute goal at Old Trafford back in the 2004 Round of 16 when Man U looked certain to move on.

Sure, it’s more likely than not that Man U advances with ease. There is no doubt that they are the better team. But Marseille also knows this. They were pleased with the 0-0 draw at home because now they are one fluke goal away and some solid defense away from advancing. If the French squad somehow gets a goal, they will love their chances. You can’t blame them for that, as I certainly wouldn’t trust Man U to put up two goals against a defensive-minded squad given their recent form.

I think Man United wins this one…but not before making their fans sweat with painful flashbacks a little bit. They move on 1-0.

Inter at Bayern Munich (Bayern leads 1-0)

Dead team walking alert!

The best news of the past month is that I finally got a job. With that job, I was able to purchase the expanded sports package on cable, which includes the Fox Soccer Channel. And it’s fantastic.

Having Fox Soccer Channel meant that I watched the Inter/Brescia game last weekend. One game might not be a strong sample size but Inter doesn’t look anywhere near as good as they were last season. Last season, they seemingly could attack from everywhere with Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o up front, Mario Balotelli on the wings, Wesley Sneijder in the middle, and even Maicon from the back. This season, Balotelli has moved on and Milito, Sneijder, and Maicon have all been completely unable to stay on the pitch. They just seem out of sync with each other and Eto’o seems to be the only one capable of scoring.

I pointed out in my first leg previews that Bayern has become more multi-dimensional than they were last season’s final, when their offense consisted entirely of Arjen Robben trying to weave through an average of 2.3 defenders at a time. Bayern has gained weapons and Inter has lost them. With that said, Eto’o is certainly good enough to single-handedly put in a goal or two and send Inter on. I don’t think that will happen, just covering my bases. Bayern wins 2-1.

Copenhagen at Chelsea (Chelsea won first leg 2-0)

Copenhagen had a golden chance at home in facing a slumping Chelsea squad that seemed incapable of scoring in the weeks heading into the first leg. Instead of taking advantage, they lost 2-0. Talk about demoralizing.

Chelsea figures to play at least some members of their second team with advancement already assured. Even with the second team in, it is hard to envision any way that the floodgates aren’t completely open for the Blues. Chelsea will score as many as they want to. Bodog isn’t even taking odds on Chelsea to advance. Let’s just move on: Chelsea wins 3-0.

Lyon at Real Madrid (teams tied 1-1 in first leg)

Last post, I pointed out that Real Madrid was the more talented team by far. It is really not even particularly close. Yet for some reason Lyon has Real Madrid’s number in the Champions League. Real has been knocked out in the Round of 16 for six consecutive years. Lyon plays the role of bogeyman for Real fans, with good reason, as they are unbeaten in six games against the Spanish side.

This season it looked like Real was finally ready to get the monkey off their back when they jumped out to a 1-0 second half lead in France. Then seven minutes from full time Lyon pulled back within 1-1. Real still has the advantage…but that last goal has to make them doubt themselves a little bit. You don’t lose in the Round of 16 six straight seasons without that doubt creeping in, and nothing is more demoralizing than giving up a late goal in a two-leg total goal series.

I’m going to stick with the heart this time instead of the head. Lyon scores another late goal to tie 1-1, the game eventually goes to penalties, and Cristiano Ronaldo hits the post to send the French side through. Real fans are again devastated and the rest of the football world laughs.

Hey, a man can dream, right?

UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg Preview Part II

March 9, 2011

Well it took five rounds of predictions, but I finally get to gloat a little bit. Barcelona (somewhat controversially) knocked off Arsenal 3-1 to advance to the quarterfinals (I predicted a 3-0 victory). Shakhtar did the same, easily dismissing the free-falling Roma squad 3-0 (I predicted a 2-0 victory). Not a bad day at all. Let’s see if I can get lucky again today.

AC Milan at Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs won the first leg 1-0)

Tottenham Hotspur can’t blow this one…right? Like many fans, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. On one hand, they looked every bit like a Champions League title contender in the first leg, when they pulled off a 1-0 upset at Milan. On the other hand, this is the same team that went out and lost to Premier League bottom dweller Blackpool (their only win since January 12) and only managed a 3-3 draw with relegation bound Wolves.

So the only thing we really know about Spurs is that we don’t know what team we are going to see in any given match. They pass the you-never-know test that I just invented: if someone approached you with the score from yesterday’s Spurs match, there is literally no scoreline that could surprise you.

Meanwhile, AC Milan has continued to dominate Serie A this season. They have reeled off four consecutive victories to all but lock up the title. It would take a huge collapse and an equally monster run from Inter to lose the title.

Milan can score and Spurs rarely can stop good attacking teams, so the 1-0 advantage that Spurs take into this match isn’t really all that big of an advantage. Sure, they have the luxury of playing back on their heels with the lead. But even with that going for them, I can’t grasp my mind around Spurs actually putting up two consecutive clean sheets against Milan. I’m sticking with my original prediction: Milan takes this leg 2-1 and advances on away goals. And I’m fully prepared for Spurs to shock me once again.

Valencia at Schalke 04 (teams drew 1-1 in first leg)

In the first leg preview, I spent a lot of time breaking down this game before deciding that Valencia would be too strong for Schalke. I have only one real regret: that I spent that much time analyzing the matchup in the first place.

Every year, the Champions League has at least one clunker in the Round of 16. That award went to the Olympiacos/Bordeaux tie last season. This season, Valencia and Schalke take it. Schalke is a middle of the table Bundesliga team and Valencia is probably the third best team in Spain, for whatever that’s worth. Neither has any realistic shot of winning the entire competition. The only other Round of 16 matchup you can say that about is Shakhtar/Roma, but at least that has this year’s potential Cinderella team in Shakhtar.

As far star power (or lack thereof)? Valencia’s top two scorers are Artiz Aduriz and Roberto Soldado, neither of whom came anywhere close to making Spain’s World Cup team. The closest thing to a star on the German side is former Spanish national team forward Raúl, best known as “the guy who used to be the leader on the Spanish national team before they were any good.” Catchy nickname, I know.

What’s all that mean? It means that I have no confidence in picking either team, so I’ll go with a 1-1 draw. One of the teams will advance on penalty kicks and promptly get destroyed in the quarterfinals.

UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg Preview Part I

March 8, 2011

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.

UEFA Champions League Predictions (Part 2)

February 22, 2011

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.

UEFA Champions League Predictions

February 21, 2011

We’ll give the Champions League predictions one more try for this week’s four Round of 16 first legs. The post started to get a little bit lengthy, so I’ll post my Tuesday predictions today and will post my Wednesday predictions tomorrow.

My predictions last week went poorly, to say the least. I give myself one point out of four because I predicted that Shakhtar Donetsk would step up against Roma. Not only did they step up, they actually won on the road against the Italians (I predicted a draw).

That means there is no place to go but up. Here are my predictions:

Chelsea (5-0-1, 1st place Group F) at Copenhagen (3-1-2, 2nd place Group C)

What can I say about Chelsea that hasn’t already been said? I recall reading an article about Chelsea on ESPN in September in which the article wondered if any team could beat the Blues this season. This seemed plausible at the time because it was shortly after they had won their first two games by identical 6-0 scores. Hard to tell who should be more embarrassed – the author of the article or Chelsea themselves. Since starting the Premier League season 9-1-2, they seemingly hit rock bottom several times. Each time, they find a way to dig a bigger hole.

They are out of contention for a fourth Premier League title in seven years; they are in danger of missing the UEFA Champions League next season for the first time since 2002-03 (they currently sit in fifth place and the top four qualify); they were eliminated from the FA Cup after only one win; and they were even eliminated from the lightly regarded League Cup in their first game. The Champions League is pretty much Chelsea’s last chance to salvage the season. The team knows it, hence the panic signings of Fernando Torres and David Luiz at the transfer window deadline last month for the ridiculous total fee of £71 million.

I have no doubt that owner Roman Abramovich will dish out another kajillion pounds this summer…but if Chelsea fails to advance or finish in the top four of the Premier League, he has to think twice right? Even for a billionaire, the Blues will lose a LOT of revenue if they are knocked out of this year’s Champions League early and don’t qualify for next year’s competition. According to this report, Chelsea’s matchday revenue fell £7.3 million last year because they were knocked out of European play early and lost out on two extra games. If they miss out completely, they lose out on six extra home games, let alone the money from the broadcasting deal.

Could we be seeing Leeds United all over again? That is probably a longshot because Abramovich has way, way, way more money than anyone that ever ran Leeds did. But if it does happen, we will look back at this three month stretch and say that the writing was on the wall.

As to this year’s Champions League, Chelsea will have more talent than any team they meet not named Barcelona. Not many teams have the luxury of bringing a striker like Didier Drogba off the bench. If your team can say that, there is a good chance that you have the most talented team. Still, the question remains: can we trust Chelsea? Public sentiment seems to say no. Their opponents, FC Copenhagen, opened up at +500 to win, but that number dropped to +400 almost immediately after Chelsea lost to Everton in the FA Cup. Copenhagen is certainly the trendy upset pick.

Last week I said that it is impossible to tell just how good Shakhtar Donetsk is because of their lack of top level competition. Shakhtar is nothing compared to the unknown Danish squad. They are minnows on the European scene and have the lowest UEFA coefficient among teams that advanced to the knockout stage. Although they had the third highest coefficient in their first round group, they were picked to finish fourth by most, even behind fourth seeded Russian side Rubin Kazan. But a surprising draw versus Barcelona, two wins against Panathinaikos and a home win against Rubin were enough to see the squad through.

It is safe to say that Copenhagen is the most lightly regarded team left in the competition. They are the polar opposites of Chelsea: while the Blues Starting XI reads like a potential World Cup All-Star team, Copenhagen is led by relative unknowns like Senegalese forward Dame N’Doye, Brazilian winger Cesar Santin, and Chelsea outcast Jesper Grønkjær.

But Copenhagen has put together a dominant season in Denmark. They lead the league by a whopping 19 points (only 16 points separate second place OB from last place AaB). The Danish League is still on winter break, but the team has looked impressive in five friendlies to prepare for this game, including a 5-0 victory last week over Norwegian side Rosenborg. Fairly weak competition, to be sure, but eventually that confidence starts to show.

I don’t quite have the guts to pick a Copenhagen win, but I think Copenhagen’s momentum and Chelsea’s lack thereof could mean a positive result for the Danish side. I’ll go with a 1-1 draw.

Real Madrid (5-1-0, 1st place Group G) at Lyon (3-2-1, 2nd place Group B)

In every domestic battle between two great teams, a football fan has to pick a favorite – it’s just a rule. You don’t have to root for the team, but you do have to think of it as a lesser of two evils kind of thing. Barcelona and Real Madrid fit that bill in Spain. For whatever reason, I prefer Barcelona to Real Madrid. I can’t be the only one, as Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham are two of the most polarizing players of the last couple of decades. Beckham played with the team from 2003 to 2007 and it was fun to root against them. After the 2008 season, Ronaldo signed with the club, so it was again fun to root for them.

For this reason, I take a perverse joy in watching Real fall apart in the Champions League every single year. Six times in a row they have been knocked out in the Round of 16, including last season to this very same Lyon team. In most of those games, they were the more talented team, as they are this year.

Meanwhile, Lyon is the chronically underrated French side. It seems like every year they are an afterthought to the sexier Spanish, Italian, and English sides, but every year they continue to impress in European play. This includes last season, when they made the semifinals of the Champions League just one year after their seven-year run atop the Ligue 1 table ended. This season looked to be the end of Lyon’s magical run from random provincial club to perennial favorites. They were in the relegation zone as late as the end of September with only one win in their first seven games. Since then, they have lost only once as they have climbed all the way back into European contention again.

This is the make-or-break year for Real. Last season, the two leg loss to Lyon spurred the team to hire two-time Champions League winning manager Jose Mourinho. Not only that, Lyon is the symbol for everything that has gone wrong with Real in Champions League play. Improbably, Lyon is undefeated in six games against the squad. To top that off, Lyon comes into this game without injured leading goal scorer Lisandro Lopez. This is the chance that Real has been waiting for – a road win against Lyon will take the monkey off their back.

And you know what? I think the pressure gets to them. On paper, there really isn’t much in the way of a rational reason to pick Lyon…but there really wasn’t a rational reason to pick them the first six times the two teams played either. Lyon pulls out the victory, 1-0.

UEFA Champions League Preview

February 15, 2011

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.

Bradley loaned to Aston Villa

January 29, 2011

I’m a big soccer fan, but as you can tell, I’ve stayed in my own lane regarding my thoughts on soccer. Usually my opinions are either totally unsupported by facts or already written by somebody who knows far more than me.

For a few years, I tried supporting Newcastle United, but it didn’t take. It’s just too hard for an American with basic cable to consistently follow a team across the pond, particularly when Newcastle was relegated to the Championship after the 2008-09 season. Instead, I decided it was far easier to follow leagues and simply appreciate good soccer.

Of course, there are teams I like more than others. For example, Man United and Chelsea are the Red Sox/Yankees of England. As a rule, even if you hate both of them, you have to pick one as the lesser of two evils, since one of the two is pretty much guaranteed to win the Premier League every year unless Arsenal gets lucky. I prefer Man United for reasons that are unclear to me…something about Chelsea rubs me the wrong way. I still like Newcastle and find it fun to root for the newly promoted teams that stand little chance (like Blackpool this year).

I also like certain teams because of their players. I started following Atlético Madrid in La Liga this year because Diego Forlán was such a badass in the World Cup. Same with pretty much any player on Barcelona and Real Madrid. But mostly this involves me following the American national team players playing abroad.

Which brings me to the fantastic news of the day: American midfielder Michael Bradley was loaned to Premier League side Aston Villa today from the German Bundesliga’s Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Mönchengladbach is stuck at the bottom of the Bundesliga table and, barring a late run, will probably be relegated following the season. Bradley was solid this year, but the squad is a bit of a mess. He has one year left on his contract, so this loan seems like a Premier League tryout for next season, when Mönchengladbach hopes to get paid a decent-sized transfer fee for Bradley to help with the squad’s inevitable rebuilding.

Aston Villa’s move is part of a flurry of late-season moves in an attempt to avoid relegation for the first time since the Premier League’s founding in 1992. Although Villa is traditionally one of the more successful teams outside the League’s top four, they have spent most of the season trying to avoid the relegation zone.

Villa refused to spend money in the offseason following a sixth place finish last year – the only “move” they made in the summer transfer window was getting midfielder Stephen Ireland from Man City as partial payment for sending James Millner to the Blues. Ireland lasted until October before he was benched.

With relegation a serious possibility after midseason, Villa suddenly found the money they refused to spend in the offseason. On January 18, they received striker Darren Bent from Sunderland for a club record transfer fee. Bent is significantly under-appreciated compared to higher-profile strikers Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba, but he ranks just behind them with 81 goals scored since 2005 (Drogba has 83 and Rooney has 82).

Bent immediately provided a spark – he scored in his first game with the Villans in an upset victory over Man City. With a Premier League victory over Wigan four days later and an FA Cup victory over Blackburn Rovers today, Villa has won all three games since Bent arrived.

Then came the Bradley transfer news today. This is great news, and not just because I received an Aston Villa track jacket for Christmas. Bradley becomes the fourth American player on Villa’s squad, the most for any team in Europe.

Bradley joins former United States national goalkeeper Brad Friedel, backup goalie Brad Guzan, and right back Eric Lichaj. Guzan is currently out on loan to Championship side Hull City to get more playing time, because Villa is not expected to resign 39-year old Friedel after this season.

The United States expects a lot out of 22-year old Lichaj for the next World Cup cycle, particularly since the Americans struggled there during the last cycle. Lichaj was a backup most of the season before getting three straight starts just before Bent’s arrival. Unfortunately, he now finds himself back on the bench behind Kyle Walker (on loan from Tottenham Hotspur) after a 4-0 drubbing against Man City four weeks ago.

Bradley figures to get a fair amount of playing time, so that makes Villa significantly more intriguing for American soccer fans. It’s much easier to follow a Premier League team like Villa than it is to follow a bottom of the table Bundesliga team. Bradley may even make his debut on American TV this coming Tuesday afternoon, when the Villans make an appearance on ESPN2 against Manchester United.

Plus, the next several weeks are make-or-break time for Villa. After Tuesday’s game against Man U, Villa’s schedule gets significantly easier – of the club’s last 13 league opponents, only Arsenal is in the top six. Villa is six points clear of the relegation zone and ten points back of the last European spot. A late run towards the top half of the table is not out of the question, but a few losses to teams in the lower half brings relegation back into the picture. With the win in the FA Cup today, Villa also enters the final 16 of that competition.

So there’s a lot to be excited about in the near future for both Aston Villa and American soccer fans. Hopefully the Villans will continue their recent hot streak and the 23-year old Bradley gains important Premier League experience that will make him even more valuable in the next World Cup cycle.