Monday, February 23, 2009

Champions League knockout round

Imagine the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament, except with North Carolina and UCLA drawing each other in the opening round. That's why I love the knockout round of the UEFA Champions League. Teams like Inter Milan and Manchester United can dominate their leagues with their superior resources. Now they're pitted against each other and it's who shows up to play on those two nights, one at each team's home pitch.

It starts up again tomorrow. Here's a quick capsule breakdown of the opening matchups:

Tuesday's matches
Manchester United at Inter Milan, 2:30 EST, ESPN2
- The defending champs and English Premiership leaders face the Serie A frontrunners. Both teams are likely to run away with their respective leagues as Inter is up 9 points and Man U is up 7. The Red Devils have standout defender Nemanja Vidic out due to suspension and several other defenders banged up.
Players to watch: For Inter, it's Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, moody as he is talented. He's deadly when he feels the urge but the knock on him is he disappears in big matches. Man U has reigning world footballer of the year Cristiano Ronaldo.
Juicy subplot: Former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho clashes once again with Sir Alex Ferguson.

Barcelona at Lyon, 5 EST, ESPN Classic - Lyon sits six points up in the French league while Barca hold an eight-point lead in La Liga. The Catalans have stampeded everyone but have sputtered lately without Spanish sparkplug Andres Iniesta.
Players to watch: French striker Karim Benzema will shortly head to a huge club for a lot of money. Big, fast and good with either foot. After Ronaldo, the next name usually mentioned for best player on the planet is mesmerizing Argentine Lionel Messi, Barcelona's La Pulga Atomica (atomic flea).
Juicy subplot: Lyon dominates the French league every year but can't translate it into Champions League success. If that continues, Benzema has hinted it will hasten his departure.

Roma at Arsenal - Roma has lost just once in its last six matches. Arsenal have been ravaged by injuries and are in danger of not finishing in the top four in England for the first time in a decade.
Players to watch: Roma has been much better since getting icon Francesco Totti back from injury. For shorthanded Arsenal, it's probably Robin van Persie by default.
Juicy subplot: Arsenal has standouts like Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Emmanuel Adebayor and Eduardo all injured. New addition Andrei Arshavin is cup tied and can't play. If the Gunners find a way past Roma and get some more weapons back, no one will want to play them.

Porto at Atletico Madrid - Porto won the Champs League a few years ago (yes, miracles happen) and is four points up on the Portuguese league. Atletico has struggled to seventh in La Liga.
Players to watch: Argentine midfielder Lucio Gonzalez, or El Comandante, runs the show for Porto. Another Argentine, Sergio Aguero, is only 20 but is one of many young Argentines around the planet that can turn games quickly.
Juicy subplot: You'd think this would have a rivalry feel with Spain vs. Portugal but most of Atletico's top players come from South America.

Wednesday's matches
Juventus at Chelsea, 2:30 EST, ESPN2
- Juventus, a couple years removed from Serie B and the match-fixing scandal, are second in Serie A. Chelsea, last year's finalist, are third in England and are a soap opera and soccer team all in one. Russian boss Guus Hiddink took over temporarily for Felipe Scolari last week.
Players to watch: For Juve, it's either keeper Gigi Buffon, long believed by some observers to be the best netminder on the planet; or resurgent Alessandro Del Piero, who has found the fountain of youth and provided a big spark. For Chelsea, it's Frank Lampard because Michael Essien is injured and Didier Drogba is pouting.
Juicy subplot: Which Chelsea team will show up? The Blues are ridiculously talented but are aging and without a good winger. If Hiddink can get them motivated, look out.

Liverpool at Real Madrid, 5 EST, ESPN Classic - The most successful club in Spanish history, or the Champs League for that matter, meets the most successful club in English history. Between them, the two storied sides have 14 Champs League titles and five runner-up finishes. Liverpool staged a stunning comeback, down 3-0 at halftime, to win on penalties over AC Milan in 2005 and lost the 2007 final. Madrid hasn't won since 2002 when Zinedine Zidane's miracle strike stopped Bayern Leverkusen in the galacticos days. Real has won nine straight in La Liga and allowed two total goals in that span. Both teams are second in their leagues.
Players to watch: If Steven Gerrard is hurt, then it's El Nino, or Liverpool's Spanish waterbug Fernando Torres. For Madrid, it's another young Argentine, midfielder Gonzalo Higuain, age 21.
Juicy subplot: Managers Rafa Benitez and Juande Ramos crossed swords in Spain earlier in their careers and Ramos already tweaked Benitez last week about the failed Robbie Keane experiment.

Panathinaikos at Villareal - Panathinaikos is second in the Greek league; Villareal is fourth in La Liga. Villareal made a surprise run to the semis in 2006.
Players to watch: I'm not familiar enough with Panathinaikos. Villareal boasts US-born striker Guiseppi Rossi, who opted to play for Italy internationally. Midfielder Marco Senna was an important part of Spain's European Championship.
Juicy subplot: The Greeks won their group. Both teams play in small but intimidating venues. Whoever wins this could easily bite one of the big boys.

Bayern Munich at Sporting Lisbon - Germany's most successful club won the Champs League in 2001 but has sputtered to fourth in the Bundesliga. Lisbon is third in Portugal.
Players to watch: Brazilian Liedson leads the Lisbon attack. French winger Franck Ribery can cause all sorts of havoc for Munich.
Juicy subplot: There's a bit of grumbling going on in Munich about coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Departing the Champs League early would only intensify that discontent.


kingdomforavoice said...

Great rundown of the matches. I'll catch a couple at my neighborhood bar.

Quran said...

Actualy knockout matches are good to watch because all the teams participating in play with their best effort due to to fear of being out of the series.