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

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.