Champions League – Round of 16 Preview Part I

by Ger McCarthy

The Champions League returns with the mouth-watering clash of AC Milan and Tottenham Hotspur to kick off a knock-out phase which will seperate the would-be challengers from the potential winners writes BackPageFootball contributor Ger McCarthy.

Round of 16, First leg
Stadio Giuseppe Meazza
AC Milan vs. Tottenham Hotspur

How did they get there?
Harry Redknapp’s swashbuckling Tottenham side surprised the continent with their devil-may-care approach in the group phase of this season’s Champions League. Spurs topped Group A following three wins and a draw from their six fixtures including a memorable 3-1 victory over AC Milan’s arch rivals (and current CL Champions) Inter at White Hart Lane back in November. The North London club’s first foray back into top European football competition resulted in a terrific opening campaign, full of attractive football that eventually beat the title holders into second spot in the group. In short, Tottenham will not fear AC Milan and the second leg at ‘the Lane’ should be one to savour.

AC Milan’s renaissance under Coach Massimo Allegri has seen the Milanese return to the top of Serie A in their native Italy. Milan secured passage to the knockout phase of the Champions League having finished second behind Real Madrid in Group G.  Top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic netted four times en-route to qualification for the Round of 16 and the Swede’s link-up play with Robinho and Pato marks the San Siro club down as one of the most potent attacks left in the tournament. Milan has the pedigree with seven European Cups already on display in the San Siro boardroom and are comfortably maintaining top spot in Serie A heading into the second half of the campaign.

Two players most likely to influence the outcome of the tie

Zlatan Ibrahimovic – AC Milan
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will lead the AC Milan attack in the San Siro having already netted 4 times in the 6 group fixtures. Pato and Robinho are most likely to support the Swede in attack and Massimo Allegri’s will be anxious to build up a substantial lead before the second leg at White Harte Lane.

A 4-0 weekend victory over Parma has Milan 3 points clear at the top of Serie A heading into Tuesday night’s encounter where Ibrahimovic’s ability to link midfield with attack will prove crucial to the Italian’s hopes of progression

Gareth Bale – Tottenham Hotspur
The flying winger has assumed the mantle of Spurs most dangerous attacking player since firing in a hat-trick in the 4-3 defeat to Inter in the group stages of this season’s competition. The Welsh youngster’s searing pace has destroyed opponents’ defences all over the continent this term and as long as a niggling back injury doesn’t preclude him from playing in the two legs, Bale will prove pivotal to Spurs’ hope of progressing if he is fit enough to start, which word is he will.

Prediction
Tottenham Hotspur have been the revelation of this season’s Champions League tournament but will need to adopt a more careful approach if they are to overcome an experienced AC Milan. Keeping a clean sheet – or at least limiting the Milan attack to a single goal – in the first leg will be crucial to Spurs hopes of qualifying for the last eight.
Redknapp’s side like to attack from deep but this has left the Premier League side open to the counter-attack and a forward line containing the likes of Ibrahimovic and Pato are just as capable of punishing the North Londoners on the break. If Milan take a one or two goal lead back to White Hart Lane then expect sparks to fly in an end to end thriller in the second leg, yet Milan’s greater experience at this level should eventually see the Serie A side through.

Round of 16, First leg
Estadi de Mestalla
Valencia v FC Schalke 04

How did they get there?
The second Round of 16 ties scheduled for the 15th of February sees Valencia entertain FC Schalke in the Estadi de Mestalla. The Blanquinegros made it through the group phase of the competition having finished runners-up behind Manchester United in Group C. Valencia’s only defeat came at home to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side on Matchday 3 with Javier Hernandez netting a late winner. Roberto Soldado has netted five times already in the competition and will be the Spanish side’s number one target man when Schalke visit the Mestalla. A recent 4-3 league victory at home to Malaga demonstrated new –found resolve under manager Unai Emrey  and Valencia look certain to occupy one of the top four CL qualification slots at the end of the season.
Felix Magath has overseen an upturn in fortune for FC Schalke following a torrid start to the domestic Bundesliga campaign. The Royal Blues topped Group B accumulating 13 points from a possible 18 and finished ahead of experienced Champions League outfit Lyon.  The goals have been evenly spread amongst a talented squad with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scoring three and Jefferson Farfán, José Manuel Jurado and Raúl weighing in with two apiece.  Schalke currently lie in the bottom half of the Bundesliga league table. Magath’s side spent most of the early portion of the season in the relegation zone but an improved run in Europe has seen the Royal Blues continue to climb the standings. Qualification for the last eight of this season’s Champions League would top off a terrific turnaround in fortunes.

Two players most likely to influence the outcome of the tie

Juan Mata – Valencia
The versatile winger come midfielder has been in consistent form for Valencia this season since arriving from the Real Madrid youth team. A member of the Spanish 2010 World Cup winning side, Mata has helped replace the void since the high profile departures of the likes of Baraja and David Villa. Mata sets the tempo for a Valencia side committed to attack and the Spanish international is certain to feature prominently against Schalke.

Raul – FC Schalke
Since moving from his beloved Real Madrid Raul has seamlessly taken on the mantle of lead attacker with Schalke and played every minute of the group stages. His two goals in the 3-1 group win over Hapoel Tel Aviv back in October solidified the German’s resurgence in the competition and Raul’s reward is a meeting with a side he knows all too well from his days in the Primera Liga. The Spanish hit-man scored one of the three goals that defeated the Blanquinegros in the 2000 final and the Schalke fans will be hoping for a repeat performance in the Round of 16 clash on February 15th.

Prediction

Both sides possess a wealth of attacking talent but this two-legged affair has all the signs of coming down to a single goal to decide the outcome. Valencia are at home in the first leg and having conceded a mere four goals in the group stage look favourites to emerge with a win. Schalke only conceded three to make it through to the knockout phase and if the Royal Blue’s defence can hold firm –even a single goal loss – then they will give themselves a fighting chance in the second leg.
Valencia looks the more potent in attack however and if Roberto Soldado can continue his excellent European form then it’s a narrow win for the Spanish side and progression to the quarter finals at the expense of Schalke.

Ger McCarthy is author of the book entitled ‘Off Centre Circle’ about a lifetime spent playing amateur football in Ireland. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

5 Responses

  1. shyamalotti says:

    wot nonsense! player to watch in the CL tie is cassano? he isn’t even eligible to play this season in CL as he is cup tied, shows your lack of knowledge in Italian football.

  2. Ger McCarthy Ger McCarthy says:

    Apologies to all who were misled by my mistake including Antonio Cassano as a player to watch for AC Milan when the Italian international is in fact ineligible to play. Apologies also for including Gareth Bale as the Spurs player to watch as the Welsh winger will miss out through injury.

    So here goes instead:
    Zlatan Ibrahimovic will lead the AC Milan attack in the San Siro having already netted 4 times in the 6 group fixtures. Pato and Robinho are most likely to support the Swede in attack and Massimo Allegri’s will be anxious to build up a substantial lead before the second leg at White Harte Lane.

    A 4-0 weekend victory over Parma has Milan 3 points clear at the top of Serie A heading into Tuesday night’s encounter where Ibrahimovic’s ability to link midfield with attack will prove crucial to the Italian’s hopes of progression.

    1. I’ve changed it from Cassano to Ibra.

      Gareth Bale is fit apparently.

      Regardless, a very good write up and consistency throughout every CL preview!

      1. Ger McCarthy Ger McCarthy says:

        Good man Kevin, thanks for that!

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