Sunday, December 23, 2007

Champions League Draw--Round of 16

Since I'm two days late with this, does that make me two dollars short? Oh well. The draw for the Round of 16 was conducted on Friday in Nyon, Switzerland, UEFA's headquarters, and there are some very interesting ties that will play out beginning February 19/20 and end, at least for most teams, on March 4/5. Inter Milan and AC Milan share the same stadium and both of those teams will play the second leg of their respective ties at home. Obviously they can't both play on the same day, so Inter Milan's home leg against Liverpool was pushed back until March 11.

Remember, the eight group winners play the eight group runners-up in the Round of 16. Teams from the same country can't be drawn against each other at this stage in the competition, and neither can teams from the same group.

Onto the matchups for the Round of 16: (Note: Teams listed first are at home first)

Celtic vs. Barcelona (Feb. 20, Mar. 4)
Lyon vs Manchester United (Feb. 20, Mar. 4)
Schalke 04 vs. FC Porto (Feb. 19, Mar. 5)
Liverpool vs. Inter Milan (Feb. 19, Mar. 11)
AC Roma vs. Real Madrid (Feb. 19, Mar. 5)
Arsenal vs. AC Milan (Feb. 20, Mar. 4)
Olympiacos vs. Chelsea (Feb. 19, Mar. 5)
Fenerbahçe vs. Sevilla (Feb. 20, Mar. 4)

•British teams are highlighted in bold.

First, my predictions to advance to the quarterfinals and then a brief synopsis of the first four ties:

Manchester United
Real Madrid
AC Milan

1. Celtic vs. Barcelona: The only chance Celtic have to beat Barcelona over two legs is to win at Celtic Park by at least one goal, preferably two, and then try and hold out for a draw or a one-goal defeat in Barcelona. In the group stage Celtic beat AC Milan 2-1 at home; in fact, the Bhoys won all three of their fixtures at Celtic Park. They lost all three of their away matches as well, however, and two of those were against Benfica and Shakhtar Donetsk. Those two teams are a far cry from Barcelona, who currently occupy 2nd place in La Liga.
Barcelona-4, Celtic-1

2. Lyon vs. Manchester United: Listen, I could care less that Lyon have won Ligue 1 six years running and look good to stretch that to seven titles in a row. They are not even close to being in the same class as Manchester United. Karim Benzema is an up-and-coming star for the French champions and will cost one of Europe's biggest clubs at least $35 million US this summer, and Juninho is a masterful free-kick taker, but that's about all Lyon have going for them in comparison to United. The Red Devils can beat you in any number of ways; they can grind it out like they did against Liverpool, and they can simply overpower you like they did to Blackburn and Aston Villa. Lyon may, and I repeat, may manage a draw at home but they have no chance to get a result in Manchester.
Manchester United-4, Lyon-1

3. Schalke 04 vs. FC Porto: Neither of these two teams have anything to lose at this stage in the competition; Porto was fortunate to win a group that also featured Liverpool, and Schalke wasn't even favored to make it to the Round of 16 in the first place. The German side were never going to finish ahead of Chelsea and it's only because of Valencia's complete collapse that they finished ahead of Ronald Koeman's outfit. Schalke needed a 3-1 win over Rosenborg on the last matchday of the group stage to advance to this point. These two teams don't play in domestic leagues that are lucrative financially like the Premiership, La Liga, or Serie A, so a big source of extra revenue has been generated from the Champions League. The gate receipts and prize money are nothing to sneeze at, and I would expect both teams to play an attacking style and really try and win both legs rather than play not to lose like some of the bigger clubs do. Schalke have been good at home this season (only one loss in the Bundesliga) and if they can win by a couple goals and not concede in the first leg, they'll have the advantage going back to Porto, who haven't lost at home in the Portuguese league and have only given up one goal at the Estádio do Dragão.
Porto-3, Schalke-2

4. Liverpool vs. Inter Milan: This is undoubtedly the tie of the round in my opinion. Liverpool are a much better team in the Champions League than they are in the Premiership; Rafa Benitez is a brilliant tactician and can outwit any manager in the world over two legs. I guarantee Liverpool won't lose at Anfield in the first leg and I don't think they'll concede a goal either, and it could very well come down to March 11 and the second leg at the San Siro. Inter Milan are a more dangerous team on paper and when they're firing on all cylinders, no one can stop them. That's why the game at Anfield is so critical; Liverpool will need to set the tone heading back to Milan and make the Nerazzuri win the tie at home rather than at Anfield. Liverpool aren't explosive enough to come from behind and win, so it's essential that they get the first goal and try to grind the rest of the tie out. Liverpool are the more experienced team in Europe and by far the more successful one in recent years and I'll give them the nod here.
Liverpool-2, Inter Milan-1

My previews for the last four ties will be out at some point later next week; I'm taking a little holiday break to spend time with family and enjoy Christmas. Hope you and yours have a merry Christmas as well.

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