Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Champions League: Round of 16 Preview

Cue the choir: the Champions League is back! After winter hibernation, the knockout phases begin today and tomorrow. With the domestic leagues in England, Italy and Spain quickly becoming routes, the Champions League will hopefully provide some needed drama. Here’s a look at the match-ups, ranked from least to most compelling.

Atletico Madrid vs. FC Porto: Madrid’s “other team” has slipped to seventh in La Liga, and while Porto captured the title in 2004, neither team here has realistic final aspirations.

Villareal vs. Panathinaikos: If you’re looking for a true underdog, Greek side Pantahinaikos is your team. A win at Inter Milan in the group stages earned them a top seed and a manageable fixture against Villareal.

Sporting Lisbon vs. Bayern Munich: Back in the Champions League after a one-year absence, the German giants should handle Lisbon. A tight Bundesliga race may impact Bayern’s European campaign, but they have the talent to contend for a fifth title.

Arsenal vs. Roma: Despite regular appearances at this stage, Arsenal and Roma will struggle to return to next year’s Champions League, sitting in fifth and sixth respectively in their domestic leagues. Racked by injuries, the Gunners should get stronger as the tournament progresses- assuming they’re part of the progression.

Lyon vs. Barcelona: A stunning home loss to bottom feeders Espanyol over the weekend should refocus the favored Catalans. For all their success in France, Lyon have never played well in Europe, and this fixture is unlikely to reverse the trend.

Chelsea vs. Juventus: The Guus is loose at Stamford Bridge, and last year’s runners up will quickly learn how much of an impact one of the game’s premier coaches can make. Juventus’ arrival at this stage marks their full return from the depths of the match fixing scandal.

Liverpool vs. Real Madrid: Two of the three most successful sides in the competition’s history meet; both sitting at second in their leagues, seven points from the top. Despite annual rumors about his contract status, Rafa Benitez knows how to win in Europe. Real have disappointed since winning three titles in five seasons from 1998-2002, and defeat here might see them making overtures to the victorious manager.

Manchester United vs. Inter Milan: Sir Alex versus The Special One; the leaders and defending champions of two of Europe’s showcase leagues. What separates the two is success in Europe. Manchester United hold the crown, but Inter have struggled in this competition and they hope Jose Mourinho can bring them their first title since 1965. These matches should be classics.

Picks to advance: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona, Roma, Bayern Munich, Villareal, FC Porto

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