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 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.