The UEFA Champions League resumes on Tuesday night with the first legs of two last sixteen ties pitting Lyon against APOEL in France and Bayer Leverkusen facing title holders FC Barcelona in Germany. The opening phase of the 2012 competition threw up a series of surprise results but the knockout element of the upcoming fixtures means we have reached the business end of Europe’s premier football tournament and can expect the more experienced clubs to move up a proverbial gear in search of a quarter final placing.
Champions League – Tuesday 14th February Preview
Round of 16 – Lyon vs. APOEL Nicosia in the Stade Gerland, Lyon
Few if anyone could have predicted APOEL Nicosia’s qualification for the last sixteen of this season’s Champions League when the tournament began back in September. Drawn in Group G alongside Zenit St. Petersburg, FC Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk, the Cypriot representatives could have been forgiven for assuming the title ‘cannon-fodder’ before a ball was kicked.
Ivan Jovanovic had other ideas however and his well balanced side caused the first of many shocks by defeating Zenit 2-1 on Matchday 1 before gaining a creditable draw away to Shakhtar Donetsk two weeks later. A draw and defeat of favoured FC Porto sent the Cypriots top of the group before a 0-0 result away to Zenit St. Petersburg on Matchday 5 made history, as APOEL became the first Cypriot club to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Ailton is the Cypriot side’s top European goal scorer with three strikes in five appearances but a well drilled defence that conceded just six goals in the opening phase is the foundation APOEL’s qualification was built on. The Nicosia club’s European exploits has failed to deter Jovanovic’s side from battling for their domestic Cypriot First Division crown with only AC Omonia and Limassol looking APOEL’s only serious title threats after twenty rounds of fixtures.
Qualifying for the last sixteen of the Champions League is nothing new for such an experienced club as Olympique Lyonnais. 2012 represents the ninth consecutive season the French club has emerged from the opening phase resulting in three quarter-final appearances. Remi Garde’s side were handed a tough assignment in the opening phase with Lyon forming Group D alongside Real Madrid, Ajax and Dinamo Zagreb.
A 2-0 defeat of Zagreb on Matchday 2 was the only victory Garde’s charges had to show heading into the final two group encounters. A goalless draw at home to Ajax in their penultimate group fixture appeared to end Lyon’s hopes of qualifying for the last sixteen until a dramatic Matchday 6 encounter away to Dinamo Zagreb.
Needing AFC Ajax to lose to Real Madrid CF, victory themselves and a seven-goal turnaround to finish second in Group D, Lyon’s chances looked remote until the most unlikeliest of comebacks in Champions League history. Bafetimbi Gomis netted the fastest ever CL hat-trick and made it a personal haul of four before Gonalons, Lisandro and Briand added further strikes to send Lyon through on a remarkable night for the French club.
Tuesday night’s opening leg should be a cagey affair and whatever surprise element APOEL had in the group fixtures is now gone having made the last sixteen in such spectacular fashion. Lyon will no doubt afford the visitors full respect but will be anxious to take a lead back to Cyprus for the second leg. Expect Lyon to edge a close encounter 2-0.
Verdict: Olympique Lyon 2 APOEL Nicosia 0
Round of 16- Bayer Leverkusen vs. Barcelona in the Bay-Arena, Leverkusen
Hard to believe that the reigning Champions League title holders head into the second phase of the competition whilst a full 10 points behind bitter rivals Real Madrid in La Liga. A shock weekend 3-2 defeat away to Osasuna (a side Barca had previously drubbed 8-0) offers Bayer Leverkusen the slightest of chances heading into Tuesday night’s showdown in the Bay-Arena.
Leverkusen qualified for the second round as Group E runners-up behind Chelsea who defeated the German side 2-0 on Matchday 1. Coach Robin Dutt’s side bounced back with victories over Genk and Valencia before the Spanish club turned the tables on Matchday 4 at the Mestalla by winning 3-1. Leverkusen’s best performance of the opening phase occurred on November 23 2011 when the Bundesliga outfit fought back from an early Didier Drogba goal to record a 2-1 victory in the Bay-Arena thanks to a Eren Derdiyok equaliser and late winner from Manuel Friedrich.
The Germans looked set to top the group needing only an away win at struggling Genk on Matchday 6 to book a seeded berth in the last sixteen draw. Disaster struck however, as Eren Derdiyok 79th minute strike earned Leverkusen a 1-1 draw on the same evening Chelsea romped past Valencia 3-0 at Stamford Bridge.
As expected, FC Barcelona cruised through the opening phase to top Group H with 20 goals scored and a paltry 4 conceded. Only AC Milan prevented the Catalans from a perfect record with an opening day 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou but otherwise it was business as usual for Pep Guardiola’s side.
A magnificent 3-2 victory away to Milan on Matchday 5 reminded Europe of Barcelona’s battling qualities as well as their now expected high level of passing and possession retention. The Matchday 6 defeat of BATE at the Camp Nou was significant as Guardiola left out 14 first team regulars before unleashing up and coming Barcelona youth team ‘products’ such as Sergei Roberto and Martin Montoya who starred in a mesmerising 4-0 display.
Lionel Messi continues to produce the kind of form that should see the diminutive Argentinean’s name mentioned as player of the year once again at the end of the campaign. Messi has netted 6 times with Pedro (4) and the now injured David Villa also contributing (3). Losing ground to a resurgent Real Madrid in their domestic league will be a worry to Pep Guardiola but Barcelona tends to reserve their best performances for the latter stages of the Champions League so expect the holders to reach at least the semi-finals.
Bayer Leverkusen has nothing to lose on Tuesday evening and enter their last sixteen tie as rank outsiders. Facing FC Barcelona is always a daunting prospect but as Osasuna demonstrated at the weekend, the Catalans are not unbeatable. The Bundesliga club should produce a stirring display in front of their rabid home support but Barcelona will prove too strong on the night and again in the second leg at the Camp Nou.
Verdict: Bayer Leverkusen 1 Barcelona 2
Follow Ger on Twitter: @germccarthy74