UEFA Champions League 2013-14 Round of 16 Preview
It is only in four years that the UEFA Champions League is seen as a prelude to something even bigger down the road. It also provides Champions League an opportunity to establish the murmuring claims that FIFA World Cup is no longer the most sought after trophy in world football. With some mouth watering and some easy-on-face-value to be played out, Debojyoti Chakraborty comes up with a detailed preview of UEFA Champions League round of 16 in Goalden Times.
Breathtaking. Blockbuster. These were the first expressions I had when I came across the Champions League round of 16 clashes on 16th December, 2013, being drawn in Nyon by UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino, UEFA competitions director Giorgio Marchetti and Luis Figo, ambassador for the final to be held in his home city Lisbon on 24th May, 2014. These teams have come through the rigours of group stages and are supposedly the best 16 teams of the continent. So a tie involving any two of these teams – starting on 18th February and culminating on 19th March, 2014 – should be a tough one on the paper. But even then there are few clashes which would catch a few more eyeballs compared to others which have eased mounting pressure on some managers. Let us dissect the ties to see what lies beneath.
Barcelona vs Manchester City
Manchester City, the star-studded (or assembled?) side, tipped by many to win the domestic league in England, is up against Barcelona, one of the legendary sides of modern era. Such has been the impact and wave created by the sky blue side, that none seem to realize that they are the only debutants at this stage of the competition in the mix of 16 teams. Loss of Sergio Aguero – at least for the first leg – that too in lethal form would no doubt be a tremendous blow for Manuel Pellegrini. But he will surely try to make the most of his knowledge of Malaga days to tame the Spanish giants. And he will get plenty of support from the Spanish internationals Alvaro Negredo, David Silva, Jesus Navas, ex-Barcelona midfielder Yaya Toure and ex-director of football at Barcelona, Txiki Begiristain – the man who formed a unforgettable partnership with Pep Guardiola during his heydays. Citizens have already accounted for the defending champion Bayern Munich – which happens to be the only loss of the season for the German side – and they will not be in awe of the Catalans who are performing well below their standard. Just a small warning –after coming through a frustrating and injury hit 2013, a certain Lionel Messi has racked up 6 goals in 5 matches in February so far. Bad Omen for the Citizens!
Bayern Munich vs Arsenal
Bayern Munich are in red-hot form in their pursuit for the retention of the Champions League. If they can do so, they will become the first team to achieve this rare feat since the great Milan team of 1990. But they will face a tough opposition in the form of Arsenal. This will be a repeat match up from last season’s round of 16. And Philipp Lahm might not be playing mind games when he commented that Arsenal are “the toughest team we could have drawn”. After all they were beaten 2-0 at home by the Gunners in last year’s fixture. But the German champions, after their treble-winning season last year, have evolved even further under the supervision of Pep Guardiola. Arsenal have only themselves to blame. They not only lost to Napoli in the last group match, but also surrendered their chance to top their group and thus being drawn against possibly the toughest team in the competition. Bayern might just start as favourites, Arsenal fans may beg to differ. But one thing is for sure – we are going to witness a cracker of a match.
Atletico Madrid vs AC Milan
AC Milan is going through a transition period and entering the knock out stages of Champions League is a sort of achievement for the San Siro side. Languishing towards the end of top half in Serie A, newly appointed manager Clarence Seedorf knows that Milan will be absent from next season’s edition and hence would like to derive maximum out of this term. But they have been drawn against a highly inspiring Diego Simeone managed Atletico Madrid team. Not only are the Madrid side challenging for La Liga, they have fetched an impressive 16 points out of a maximum 18 in the group stage. With an attacking line up featuring David Villa and Diego Costa, the Colchoneros would look to eliminate the Italian challenge from this year’s competition.
Chelsea vs Galatasaray
Chelsea should be content with the opponent they have got. They could have been handed over a much stronger opponent at this stage of the competition. Galatasaray would be, on the other hand, buoyant after knocking off Juventus en route to the knockout stages. Jose Mourinho would also definitely not undermine the tricky first leg in front of a passionate and vocal Turkey crowd at Turk Telekom Arena. Neither would he want to make the homecoming of a certain Didier Drogba in the return leg a memorable one. After scoring an astonishing 157 goals in 341 matches for Chelsea, Drogba would not be wrong if he feels more at home in London. His strike force partner Burak Yilmaz also may want to justify his decision to snub Chelsea and stay in Turkey during the summer transfer window. But Galatasaray need a massive improvement, at least defensively, which cost them the most number of goals (14) in the group stage, among all the teams alive in the competition.
Real Madrid vs Schalke 04
The most successful team in the Champions League history, Real Madrid, is going through a lean phase in the competition by their own standards. Their last triumph came 11 long years back – since then they have been eliminated at the round of 16 stage six times. But the newly crowned FIFA World Footballer of the Year, Balon d’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo will have his sight set on this year’s trophy. Having already set up a competition record of maximum (9) number of goals scored during the group stages with only five appearances, Ronaldo would give his all to get La Decima home. Presenting a challenge to Los Blancos is Schalke 04. New manager Jens Keller is yet to find a formation and role to suitably accommodate both Kevin Prince-Boateng and Julian Draxler. After progressing through a relatively easier group, if Schalke wants to have any chance of putting up a fight against Real Madrid, they need to sort out this problem very quickly.
Manchester United vs Olympiacos
During a dismal Premier League campaign, the Champions League provides a welcome break for the struggling David Moyes and his Manchester United side. Not only do they got a relatively easier draw, the sell of main striker Kostas Mitroglou makes the tie even more daunting for the Greek side. Wayne Rooney might not have scored many but he leads the assists chart (6). On the other hand, David de Gea has kept the most (4) number of clean sheets. It looks likely that the Red Devils would be continuing their impressive showing against all Greek opponents in the competition – seven meetings so far with a 100% win record.
Paris Saint-Germain vs Bayer Leverkusen
This is the only tie where a team can break the dominance of Holy Trinity. PSG remains the only team capable of challenging for the title alongside the Spanish, German and English sides. And they get a very winnable proposition in the form of Bayer Leverkusen. Leverkusen is one of the very few sides to progress this far in the competition with a negative goal difference. This is even more baffling for a side marshalled by such a competent ex-defender like Sami Hyypia. No wonder that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edison Cavani should be licking their lips in prospect of a leaking defense.
Borussia Dortmund vs FC Zenit
If the Russian team wants to be competitive against the last season’s runner up, then they have to make it count in the (freezing) first leg at home. Zenit qualified from the group stages with a mere 6 points and a solitary win,least among all the qualifiers. Zenit shot stopper Yuri Lodygin though has been in excellent form as he has made the most number of saves (30) so far in the competition. On the other hand, Dortmund topped a very difficult group that saw Napoli bow out even after being equal on points (12) with both Dortmund and Arsenal. So the German outfit might argue they rightly deserved the rub of the green in the first knockout stage draw. Even with their unconvincing form in the Bundesliga, they should be able to win this tie quite comprehensively.
● Manchester United, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are still unbeaten in the tournament. Diego Simeone can rightfully claim his side to be the best in Madrid and thus Atletico’s impressive run does not come as a surprise. Real is also not surrendering the city honours and keeping their reputation unharmed. What is amazing is the contrasting fortunes of the Manchester sides domestically and in the continent. It will be fascinating to see how long these three teams can keep their records intact.
● Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid have notched up maximum points (16) in the group stage.
● Among the 16 teams in the knockout stage, with one win and three draws in the group stage, Zenit have qualified with least points (6). Napoli, on the other hand, were heartbroken as they got eliminated even after getting to 12 points, same as the group topper Dortmund and runner-up Arsenal.
● Olympique Marseille got the wooden spoon as they bowed out from the group stage without any point.
● 277 goals have been scored in the group stages, 2.89 per match on an average. This figure is expected to come down in the knockout stages as the weaker teams get filtered out eventually.Last season 284 goals were scored,at an average of 2.96 goals per match in the group stage. The average came down to 2.75 in the round of 16.
● Real Madrid lead the goal scoring charts with 20 goals.
● Real also enter the knockout stages with the best goal difference of 15.
● Zenit have scored the least number of times (5) among the teams featuring in the round of 16. In the group stage, Real Sociedad scored the least overall – only once.
● Atletico Madrid, along with Manchester United and Chelsea, have been the meanest of them all defensively. They have conceded just three goals in the group stage. Among the three teams, Chelsea’s feat is quite astonishing considering that they were beaten twice in the group stages.
● Galatasaray have the worst defensive record; they have conceded 14 goals so far.
While some in UEFA are contemplating how to spread the beautiful game towards unheralded territories, it is worth noting that the traditional powerhouses are not letting it go so easily. Decline of the Azzuris is a sickening site but unfortunately no other new nation has emerged to grab the limelight. Even though the final 16 teams have representatives from eight different countries, England, Germany and Spain count for 11 of them. And there is very realistic chance that they will outmuscle others to reach the next stage of the competition. Goalden Times will be with you through out the journey. Follow football, follow us.