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.