In Part 1, I previewed four match-ups of the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League. There is a reason for the division of this article into two parts. The first part scanned through the matches involving the ‘big teams’, the ones who are expected to be here and compete for the legendary trophy.
The second part will preview the relatively ‘smaller’ clubs, the ones who have beaten many odds to reach this stage. These are the clubs that don’t often come under the radar of many global football fans, but that doesn’t imply in any way that these teams are to be ignored.
Turkish football has been suffering for quite some time now, with allegations of match-fixing hitting the game hard. Players and officials have been dealt with and teams have suffered point deductions but coming into this season, Turkish clubs attempted to put it all behind them. Galatasaray, league winners after a gap of three years, were the only Turkish representative in the group stages after Fenerbahce were knocked out in the qualifying stage. In their first Champions League since 2006-07, Gala navigated through to the knockout stages without many problems, although they did have to wait until the final game to pip CFR Cluj on a better head-to-head record. The memorable moment must have been the win at home against Man United, with Burak Yilmaz getting the all-important goal. Yilmaz had a great time, scoring at ease and finishing the group stages as joint top-scorer with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Drawn to face Fatih Terim’s Turkish giants are German side Schalke 04. Legendary forward and fan favourite Raul left Schalke in the summer but his departure failed to deter the Royal Blues from ending the group stages unbeaten. Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored four goals to spur them past Arsenal, Olympiakos and Montpellier. A fine achievement, if you ask me, but there is still a long way to go if they are to replicate their 2011 exploits, when they reached the semi-finals. If domestic performances are anything to go by, Schalke do not exactly seem a confident side. Coach Huub Stevens was fired earlier this week. A visit to the the Turkish cauldron of noise, flares and rowdy fans, that is Gala’s home stadium, is sure to be a daunting task. If Huntelaar has his scoring boots on and can inspire his team again, it will instil confidence in them to go on.
Borussia Dortmund are another German side who have made it to the knockout stages. The Bundesliga champions were determined to put their disappointing CL campaign of last season behind them. However, an early blow was dealt when they were drawn into the group of death along with Real Madrid, Ajax and Manchester City. Disaster. Or so it seemed. At the end of the group stages, they topped the group with a points tally that was only second to Paris Saint Germain. Without losing a single game, Die Borussen blew apart their opposition with aplomb. Madrid were left in disbelief and in second place. Ajax had to be content with the Europa League. City was dispatched into oblivion. So impressive was Dortmund’s performance that they were immediately labelled as title contenders by many bookmakers. This superb team, containing the likes of Gotze, Reus, Lewandowski and Hummels, has so much more to offer.
Shakhtar Donetsk are the team that will attempt to derail the Dortmund Express in the Round of 16. The team from the industrial Donets Basin were quarter-finalists in 2011 but faltered a year later as they finished bottom of their group. This year, they are back in form and qualified from Group E, along with Juventus. Shakhtar’s tussle with Chelsea was one of the highlights of their group campaign; they both finished on 10 points. When head-to-head was considered, Shakhtar came out on top by a single away goal, thereby knocking out the defending champions. Longtime coach Mircea Lucescu has ground out a quality team filled with great players; a team that won the UEFA Cup in 2009. Success in Europe’s premier competition, however, has been limited to their performance in 2011. It remains to be seen whether the likes of Srna, Chygrynskiy and Willian can better that achievement this time around.
Alright, Paris Saint-Germain may have risen to the status of a ‘big club’ in the eyes of many fans across Europe and elsewhere, but the fact that they haven’t won a title under their new management leaves them a rung or two under the big clubs. Money talks but it hasn’t brought success to the French capital club yet. But ever since Qatar Investment Authority purchased the club, there has been a rising optimism that the Champions League trophy could end up decked in the colours of a French club for the first time since 1993.
The summer arrival of Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Lavezzi and Verratti only added to the hope that Carlo Ancelotti would win a third Champions League title as manager. ‘So far, so good’ is the general opinion about PSG‘s performance in Europe this year. They finished with the highest points tally in the group stage, winning all but one of their 6 matches.
To push their European dream further, Ibrahimovic and Co. have to get past Valencia. In contrast to PSG, the Spanish club are Champions League regulars. Debt issues and the subsequent sale of key players have weakened the team but Los Che were still strong enough to qualify for the knockout stages. Four-goal hauls from Roberto Soldado and Jonas meant they could reach the next round with ease, despite struggling domestically. They are currently at 9th place in La Liga and have seen two managers this season. If Ernesto Valverde can shrug off the pressure and inspire his team to knock out the impressive PSG, it will be a welcome shot in the arm for Los Che.
Finally, we come to Malaga. The Andalusian club are making their debut in the Champions League and for a debutant team, it just couldn’t be better. Topper of a group containing Champions League regulars, including six-time champions Milan, Malaga have paved the way future debutants will hope to travel upon. Three wins and a draw in their first four games meant they qualified for the knockout stages with two games to spare. Two games later, they were still on top – and unbeaten too. Malaga also gave the tournament some of its most exciting finds, such as Fransisco ‘Isco’ Suarez and Eliseu. Owned by the Qatari Sheikh Abdullah al-Thani, the club has come a long way from its time in the second tier of Spanish football. In La Liga, they are in fourth place and a win against third-placed Real Madrid on Sunday will bridge the gap between them to two points. However, all is not well at the club. Financial problems haven’t been completely solved and in a related case, UEFA suspended Malaga from next year’s Champions League and fined them €300,000 as punishment for outstanding debt. Coach Manuel Pellegrini will have to convince his cadres to forget about the future and concentrate on the task at hand.
That task is to battle their Iberian neighbours Porto. Porto are two-time winners of the competition and come into this round after finishing second in Group A, behind PSG. Losing Hulk to Zenit St.Petersburg was a huge blow, but they managed to hold themselves together and march on to the knockout stages. Jackson Martinez’s performance has been heartening; the talented Colombian striker has scored 14 goals in 18 matches for the Dragons so far this season. Lucho Gonzalez has returned to the club where he starred for four years and has been fantastic as usual, scoring two goals in the group stages. Goalkeeper Helton will have to raise his game against Malaga after a woeful performance in goal during the last group game against PSG, letting in a tame shot from Ezequiel Lavezzi. On paper, Porto seems a bit stronger than Malaga but the Andalusians should put up a good fight, as the likes of Milan and Zenit will admit. The young Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira may be dreaming of a doing a Mourinho by winning the Dragons their third Champions League title but his charges will have to crush the dreams of Malaga first.Published 23 Dec 2012, 01:28 IST