With mega-rich English side Chelsea becoming the first defending European champion to fail to qualify for the knockout round and Spanish giants Real Madrid finishing a disappointing second place in Group D behind back-to-back German champions Borussia Dortmund, this season’s UEFA Champions League has added intrigue to it.
The main favorites for Europe’s biggest prize are one-seeds Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, the aforementioned Real Madrid, as well as two-seeded Arsenal and AC Milan, who are also expected to go far in this season’s competition. This season’s Champions League round of 16, begins on Tuesday, February 12, here are my thoughts.
Celtic (two-seed) vs. Juventus (one-seed)
Star Players: Celtic: Tough-tackling center-midfielder Victor Wanyama. Juventus: Italian national team goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Key Battle: Celtic striker Gary Hooper vs. Juventus center-back Giorgio Chiellini.
Verdict: In a matchup of two teams who have not been in this position in quite some time, both the Scottish and Italian champions will look to use their home grounds to make a statement. Antonio Conte makes his return to the Bianconeri bench after serving his four-month ban for match-fixing and Neil Lennon will look to write his name into Celtic history. Mirko Vucinic leads the line for Juventus, and the combination of Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio in midfield provides intelligence, strength and elegance for the table-toppers in Serie A. Striker Georgios Samaras has found his feet at Celtic after a horrid stint with Manchester City and Charlie Mulgrew will be called upon to unlock the Juventus defense from set pieces.
Juventus to advance on aggregate, 4-2
Valencia vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Managers: Valencia: Ernesto Valverde. Paris Saint-Germain: Carlo Ancelotti.
Star Players: Valencia: French center-back Adil Rami. Paris Saint-Germain: Young Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore.
Key Battle: Valencia goal machine Roberto Soldado vs. Paris Saint-Germain defensive stalwart Thiago Silva.
Verdict: Moneybags Paris Saint-Germain will look to take a big step toward becoming a European superpower when they face off against a solid Valencia side. Both teams boast top quality goalkeepers, with Diego Alves the Valencia stopper and Salvatore Sirigu the goalkeeper in the French capital. Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be counted on to supply goals for PSG, while Roberto Soldado will look to cause problems for the PSG defense. Former Napoli winger Ezequiel Lavezzi will look to improve his form in the Champions League for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, while Algerian ace Sofiane Feghouli will look to set up goals for Los Che. If Carlo Ancelotti cannot get past a seasoned Valencia team, his time at the Parc des Princes may come to an abrupt end.
Paris Saint-Germain to advance on aggregate, 4-3
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Borussia Dortmund
Managers: Shakhtar Donetsk: Mircea Lucescu. Borussia Dortmund: Jurgen Klopp.
Key Players: Shakhtar Donetsk: Croatian captain Dario Srna. Borussia Dortmund: German midfield starlet Marco Reus.
Key Battle: Shakhtar Donetsk striker Luiz Adriano vs. Borussia Dortmund defender Mats Hummels.
Verdict: Shakhtar’s reward for finishing second in Group E ahead of Champions League holders Chelsea is a matchup with one of the most dangerous young sides in European soccer. Dortmund has plenty of playmakers with the likes of Reus and Mario Gotze, but the combination of Luiz Adriano and Fernandinho will give Dortmund center-backs Neven Subotic and Hummels headaches. Dortmund was able to finish top in Group D ahead of Real Madrid and Manchester City, so they have the confidence to knock off the Ukrainian giants, who have won four straight domestic titles.
Borussia Dortmund to advance on aggregate, 3-2
Real Madrid vs. Manchester United
Managers: Real Madrid: Jose Mourinho. Manchester United: Sir Alex Ferguson.
Key Players: Real Madrid: Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo. Manchester United: English striker Wayne Rooney.
Key Battle: Manchester United striker Robin van Persie vs. Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos.
Verdict: In a matchup of many storylines, the biggest has to be Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford in the second leg of this mouth-watering tie. Ronaldo joined United from Sporting Lisbon in 2003, and scored 118 goals in 292 appearances for the Red Devils before making a world-record 131 million dollar move to the Santiago Bernabeu in 2009. Mesut Ozil and summer arrival Luka Modric’s creativity should be able to lacerate a much-maligned United defense. Van Persie has been in astonishing form at Old Trafford since his shock summer move from Arsenal, and his partnership with Rooney will ask questions of Real Madrid’s back-line.
Real Madrid to advance on aggregate, 4-4 (away goals rule)
FC Porto vs. Malaga
Managers: FC Porto: Vitor Pereira. Malaga: Manuel Pellegrini.
Star Players: FC Porto: High-flying Colombian winger James Rodriguez. Malaga: Young Spanish midfield sensation Isco.
Key Battle: FC Porto forward Jackson Martinez vs. Malaga defender Martin Demichelis.
Verdict: Joao Moutinho and company were unable to rescue a point against PSG in Paris on the last round of group play, and now they will have to do battle against shock group C winners Malaga. Los Boquerones finished ahead of Italian giants AC Milan and big-spending Russian outfit Zenit St. Petersburg (In case anyone was wondering, summer arrivals Axel Witsel and Hulk have been major disappointments in Russia). Isco’s name keeps growing every week, and Javier Saviola has been a constant goal scorer for the Spanish side. On the other side, Martinez will look to continue to score the goals current Atletico Madrid star Radamel Falcao once produced for the Portuguese outfit, and Rodriguez, alongside Moutinho, are the clear danger men that Demichelis and Jesus Gamez must contain.
FC Porto to advance on aggregate, 3-2
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich
Managers: Arsenal: Arsene Wenger. Bayern Munich: Jupp Heynckes.
Star Players: Arsenal: Spanish playmaker Santi Cazorla. Bayern Munich: French winger Franck Ribery.
Key Battle: Arsenal center-midfielder Jack Wilshere vs. Bayern Munich center-midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Verdict: Even though they avoided their European nemesis Barcelona, it does not get any easier for the Gunners, as they will lock horns with the leaders of the Bundesliga. Arsenal is a more united team with the summer arrivals of Cazorla and German forward Lukas Podolski and Jack Wilshere seems to have found his feet after he missed 14 months due to ankle, foot and knee injuries. After losing in the final last season to Chelsea, Bayern have added more firepower to the squad, with Croatian forward Mario Mandzukic and talented Swiss international Xherdan Shaqiri making an instant impact for the Bavarian giants. Arsenal will find it hard to find the back of the net, as Manuel Neuer is one of the best goalkeepers in the business.
Bayern Munich to advance on aggregate, 4-2
Galatasaray vs. FC Schalke 04
Managers: Galatasaray: Fatih Terim. FC Schalke 04: Jens Keller.
Star Players: Galatasaray: Newly acquired Dutch attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder. FC Schalke 04: Former Real Madrid forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Key Battle: Former Chelsea hero Didier Drogba vs. FC Schalke 04 center-back Benedikt Howedes.
Verdict: The Turkish giants narrowly finished above Romanian club CFR Cluj on goal difference, which gave them second spot in group H and they will look to announce their presence in Europe when they take on group B winners Schalke, who are in sixth place in the Bundesliga. Burak Yilmaz will look to carry his goal scoring form into the knockout round and in Fernando Muslera they have one of the more underrated goalkeepers in Europe who took part in the 2010 World Cup. Schalke have had success in the knockout stages of the Champions League, and Huntelaar is scoring goals for fun at the moment. Attacking midfielder Lewis Holtby joined Andre Villas-Boas’ Spurs side in the January transfer window, so Jefferson Farfan will have to provide the creativity Holtby once did.
Galatasaray to advance on aggregate, 3-2
AC Milan vs. Barcelona
Managers: AC Milan: Massimiliano Allegri. Barcelona: Tito Vilanova.
Star Players: AC Milan: Future Italian national team striker Stephan El Shaarawy. Barcelona: Spanish pass master Xavi.
Key Battle: Barcelona legend Lionel Messi vs. AC Milan back-line.
Verdict: These two European superpowers are going in two different directions domestically, but they have combined to win five of the last ten Champions League titles. The Catalan giants are first in La Liga and are looking to give Vilanova a Champions League title in his maiden season at the Nou Camp. AC Milan is looking to build for the future, and that is the biggest reason why they sold star players Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to PSG for 65 million euros. Their league position in Serie A has suffered because of the youth movement, but El Shaarawy’s goal scoring ability gives the Italian outfit a chance to cause a major shock early in the competition.
Barcelona to advance on aggregate, 4-1