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?

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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.