Champions League Round of 16 Preview - Part 1
The UEFA Champions League took centre-stage again on Thursday as the draw for the Round of 16 took place in Nyon. When two-time winner and 2013 Champions League final ambassador Steve McManaman drew Manchester United to face Real Madrid, some neutral fans would have been delighted, smacking their lips and waiting with bated breath for the first leg to kick-off in February. Others would have groaned out loud, despairing at the fact that one of these two former champions were sure to get knocked out at the end of what some call an ‘early final’. Los Blancos and the Red Devils are not the only former champions set to face off in the first knockout stage. Barcelona and AC Milan renew their rivalry after locking horns four times last season, while Juventus, who triumphed in 1985 and 1996, meet 1967 champions and this year’s surprise package – Celtic. Another mouth-watering tie sees 4-time winners Bayern Munich clash with perennial underachievers Arsenal. Borussia Dortmund, champions in 1997, travel to Ukraine to play Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg. Galatasaray will attempt to bring some cheer to Turkish fans when they face Schalke 04. Paris Saint Germain will look to continue their group stage form against Valencia, who made it to this stage despite struggling domestically. And last but not least, debutants Malaga will have their work cut out against Porto, who won the competition in 1987 and 2004.
So that seems tasty, doesn’t it? Most eyes will undoubtedly be on United and Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo will be making his home-coming, if I may say so; returning to the place where he honed his skills and took the first real steps to global stardom. Rio Ferdinand took to Twitter to express his emotions : “Oh yes, Madrid!! What a great couple a games that’ll be!! @Cristiano see u soon bro!!“.
There have been rumours flying around regarding Ronaldo’s possible departure for northwest England. Heaven knows the amount of truth in that but the fact remains that Ronaldo still loves the club where he did no harm at all to the legendary #7 shirt’s reputation. This tie will also see Jose Mourinho battling it out with Sir Alex Ferguson, someone who the Special One will succeed at Old Trafford if talk on the street is to be believed. Madrid are not really having the best of seasons, currently trailing league leaders Barcelona by a whopping 13 points and losing to lowly Celta Vigo in the first leg of their Copa del Rey tie. Contrast that to United’s ‘runaway leaders’ status in the Premier League and any normal fan will place their bets on United to pull this one off. But Real Madrid have always been a fighting team under Mourinho and the matches promise to be enthralling.
Barcelona have been high-flyers this season in La Liga and had quite a comfortable group stage in Europe, save the occasional Celtic hiccups. There is no real need to sweat it out when you have someone named Lionel Messi on your team-sheet. What a season he’s been having – breaking Gerd Muller’s record of most goals in a calendar year is an outstanding accomplishment but it is only one of many. Meeting up with Milan again won’t seem to be much of a problem for the Blaugrana considering the Italian club’s plight in Serie A. Stephan El Sharaawy’s goals haven’t solved their problems as they languish in seventh place, 14 points adrift of leaders Juventus.
Philippe Mexes scored a fantastic overhead kick against Anderlecht but overall Milan had it tough in their group. They have a glorious history in this event, but that will not do them any good against Barcelona; it is imperative that they pick their game up and rise to the occasion if they are to have any chance at all. Barcelona will be looking to make their mark on the competition as they have in the recent past. Will Messi, Iniesta and the rest able do it?
In North London, the unthinkable is being thought of now. What could never be uttered out loud is being mooted in many corners of the Emirates Stadium. Is it time for Arsene Wenger to move on? Seven years have passed since Arsenal last lifted a trophy and it seems the record has taken its toll on Wenger’s untouchable status. He needs to prove that he still has what it takes to bring success to the club and for that, he will have to lead his young cadres out to victory against Bayern Munich.
The Bavarians are aiming for a third final in four years and are hoping with all their heart that it is third time lucky. The psychological advantage will be with the Germans but Arsenal are no pushovers. If Robben does pass the ball and if Wenger does rally his troops, then this may well turn out to be a thrilling encounter.
Celtic are, without a shadow of doubt, the team of the tournament so far, in my book. On a shoestring budget, coach Neil Lennon has taken his team to the Round of 16, coming out of a group that contained two former winners. The Bhoys have fans all over Europe bewildered after their brave displays against Barcelona. The win at Parkhead over Messi’s Barca has already accorded this group of players legendary status. Standing in their way to further achievements, is Juventus. The Turin club did not let Antonio Conte’s suspension affect their season plans as they romped to a seven-point lead at the top of the league table by the time their coach returned. More importantly, Juve helped dispose of defending champions Chelsea in the group stages. With an exciting lineup that includes young talents like Vidal and Pogba, this is a team with a confident look and with Conte’s return, they can only get better. I can’t wait to see these two clubs go head-to-head.