The Champions League makes a welcome return this week following its mid-winter break. With the frequent boredom and (relative) predictability of the group stages out of the way, fans can look forward to some truly mouth-watering fixtures now that the real deal of the knockout rounds is upon us. The draw for the round has provided some mouth watering clashes, none more so than those of the top two in the Premier League. The first round of games sees Manchester United travel to the San Siro to take on AC Milan while just over a week later, Chelsea undertake the same trip to face a Jose Mourinho led Inter Milan who sit comfortably on top of Serie A. Arsenal meanwhile prepare to tackle FC Porto. Below, we take a look at what all this weeks offerings have in store for us….
Tuesday February 16th (Kick off 19.45)
AC Milan – Manchester United
David Beckham gets ready to line out against some familiar faces as the 2007 champions host their successors in what is the tie of the week. It will be the ex United hero’s first time to face his past employers since leaving for Madrid in the summer of 2003 and the press have been relentlessly building it up ever since it was first announced. Sir Alex Ferguson has warned his players to forget the “media circus” surrounding the return of the player who still describes him as a “father figure” and will be wary of the skills he helped Beckham develop through his formative years, should the former England captain manage to make the Milan team.
Beckham has been quick to dispell any talk of seeking “revenge” for his exit from the club he says he still supports. When speaking about Ferguson, whose stray kick infamously launched a boot at Beckhams head following defeat to Arsenal in 2003, he says “No matter what has been said in the past, whether good or bad, I only remember the good times”.
This game is incredibly hard to call. Manchester United have had somewhat of a revival of late. Having struggled to hit top form prior to Christmas, the Red Devils have kicked on since and sit just one point off top spot in England having gone unbeaten in the league since losing to Fulham in December.
Meanwhile, Milan are in relatively inconsistent form and sit nine points off league leaders and bitter rivals Inter in Serie A. Much like their domestic form, their form in Europe has also been patchy. An excellent performance and a victory against Real Madrid was followed by two lacklustre draws against Marseille and Zurich as the group stages drew to a close.
Those who see United as favourites however, only need to recall the dismantling handed out in the corresponding fixture in 2007 when Milan dumped Fergie’s men out of the tournament with a 3-0 battering. Man of the match that night, Kaka, has since moved on but the Rossoneri have a rejuvenated Ronaldinho, who set up all three goals in their 3-2 win over Udinese this weekend, on their books instead. Spurs target Klaas Jan Huntelaar, handed a rare start in the game, bagged two with Alexander Pato netting the other.
AC Milan are waiting on the fitness of young striker Marco Borriello, who sat out their weekend game, thus handing Huntelaar his chance. Borriello is in fine form this season and has been tipped for great things by various Milan legends. Also out for the Milanese are Gianluca Zambrotta, Luca Antonini and Massimo Oddo.
United are boosted by the availability of Rio Ferdinand who continues to serve a four match domestic ban picked up almost immediately following his return from long-term injury. Centre half partner Nemanja Vidic , who was expected to return, does not travel. The Serb is yet to play in 2010. Jonny Evans is likely to continue to deputise in his place. Ryan Giggs also misses out due to his fractured arm picked up last week. Out-of-favour Brazilian Anderson also gets left behind. Long term absentees John O’Shea and Owen Hargreaves complete the injury list.
Manchester United come off the back off a strong yet unrewarding display against Aston Villa, which saw their ten men control the game yet fail to score a winner. Previous results over the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City, along with a 5-0 battering of Portsmouth tend to indicate a strengthening force within the Manchester side.
Home advantage is going to be key over the two legs of this encounter. The San Siro is a tough place to go at the best of times and the United side may count a slim defeat a success, knowing full well of their prowess in Old Trafford.
Lyon v Real Madrid
Much like David Beckham getting ready to face his ex team-mates, this tie also sees an old fan favourite revisit the club where he made his name when Karim Benzema heads back to Lyon for the first time since his much publicized move in the summer, following five seasons with the French side. Rumours currently abound that Madrid may look to offload the Frenchman in the summer, claims that the club refute.
Lyon are in the unusual position of being able to complete a hat trick of victories over the Spanish powerhouse having beaten Los Galacticos on the last two visits the Spaniards made to the Stade Gerland. The French club have since slipped from their seemingly resident position domestic champions and do not look as difficult a proposition as they did a number of years ago however. They currently trail Bordeaux by eight points in the league and are knocked out of both domestic cups. Their league form has improved since the turn of the year but a battle for third place is more likely than one for first.
Madrid, who are incredibly seeking a first quarter-final appearance since 2003/04, have not been beaten on their travels in Europe thus far and will enter into the game with a lot of confidence. They have won their last four league games and have equalled their best ever point total at this stage of the season.
Unlike Benzema, Kaka and other big name signings, Cristiano Ronaldo has had no trouble settling into life at the Bernabéu. His two goals in Madrid’s 3-0 win over Xerex at the weekend brings his league total to 17 in as many games. In Europe, the phenomenally gifted Portuguese man has scored six goals in just four appearances. Few would bet against him to add a couple more to his quickly amassing Madrid tally in this tie.
Wednesday February 17th(Kick off 19.45)
FC Porto v Arsenal
Proof that statistics aren’t an answer to everything comes when trying to predict this one. Arsenal have never won in Portugal in European competition whereas Porto have lost their last two matches at home to English opposition. This will be a tough encounter for both sides with both fancying their chances. Last season’s fixture between the two sides saw Porto run out 2-0 winners and a similar result this time round would make life very difficult for Arsenal ahead of the return leg in the Emirates, in a tie that Arsene Wenger rates as 50-50.
Wenger will know that a big effort will be required to beat a side who have conceded more than one goal only once in their last twenty eight European home games dating back to November 2003. The Gunner’s away form has been far from perfect in Europe, picking up only one win from their last seven attempts and failing to score in four of these games The North Londoners have come through a torrid spell of fixtures of late and to many peoples surprise, still see themselves in the running for the Premier League title, although European ambitions will also be high in priority for a trophy starved faithful.
Like Arsenal, Porto find themselves in third spot in their domestic league and look like struggling in their ability to reel in leader’s Benfica. Much of their hopes will lie in the success of their big striker Hulk, who caused endless trouble for the Chelsea defense in the group stages. Hulk has managed three goals in his six Champions league games so far this season and will look to cause William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen similar troubles to those he caused their london rivals eariler in the campaign.
Alexander Song and Andrei Arshavin are doubts for Arsenal, adding their names to Robin van Persie and Kieran Gibbs on the treatement table waiting line. Nicklas Bendtner is likely to lead the line.
Bayern Munich v Fiorentina
Both sides are responsible for the absence of two more European giants in this phase of the competition. Fiorentina famously wrecked Liverpool’s dream of repeating their European success of 2005, while Bayern’s performances mean Juventus can only watch on from Italy in envy.
Since their epic feats in the group stages, both sides have had mixed fortunes. Bayern have been ripping up the league in Germany – following an incredibly slow start to the season, Louis Van Gaal’s charges find themselves in joint top spot with Bayer Leverkusen.
Fiorentina, conversely, have failed to win in Italy since January 10th and find themselves in 11th place in the standings.
The Germans will enter the tie as favourites to proceed although Fiorentina have already proved that they are a tricky proposition and will need to be met with care. A shot at Europe may be just the tonic to make up for disappointing domestic form.