Champions League – Round of 16 Preview – Part IV

by Ger McCarthy

All first leg ties from the Champions League Round of 16 will be completed on Wednesday night with Manchester United in France to face Olympique de Marseille and Inter Milan and Bayern Munich resuming battle in a repeat of last season’s final writes BackPageFootball contributor Ger McCarthy.

Round of 16, First leg
Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Olympique de Marseille
vs. Manchester United

How did they get there?
Manchester United eased through the group phase of this season’s Champions League without losing a single game and conceding a single goal to top Group C. The defensive solidity provided by Vidic and (when fit) Ferdinand was the rock on which United built their qualification ahead of Valencia, Rangers and Bursaspor. The three time European Cup winners managed just seven goals en-route to making it through to the Round of 16 and only an Anderson strike in the final group game at home to Valencia prevented the Spaniards from gaining an impressive away win.

United’s domestic form has mirrored their Champions League performances with the Old Trafford club never hitting the heights of previous campaigns but the ability to produce enough quality in all their matches to remain unbeaten and top the Premier League table. The out of form Wayne Rooney has been frustrating for player and fans alike but the scoring ability of Dimitar Berbatov has made up for the England striker’s malaise and helped United dominate at the summit of the standings.

Olympique de Marseille qualified for the knockout phase of the Champions League by finishing runners-up in Group F behind Chelsea. The French side recorded four wins and two losses from their six group fixtures with Chelsea and Spartak Moscow the two sides to inflict defeats on Didier Deschamps’ side. André-Pierre Gignac and Loic Remy combined for five of L’OM’s goals in a group campaign which concluded with four straight wins following consecutive opening losses.  A 1-0 victory over Chelsea on Matchday 6 courtesy of a late Brandao effort was the highlight in an impressive opening to the tournament.

On the domestic front Marseille has risen to second in the Ligue 1 rankings and are now breathing down the necks of surprise leaders Lille as a topsy-turvy French season continues to throw up surprise result after surprise result. At the time of writing Les Olympiens are undefeated in seven straight league fixtures and appear to be hitting form at the right time for the visit of Manchester United. Former defender Gabriel Heinze has settled into the Marseille back four since leaving Old Trafford and but an injury to André-Pierre Gignac at the weekend could yet rob the French side of their talismanic striker and hand the advantage to United.

Two players most likely to influence the outcome of the tie
Loic Remy - Marseille
André-Pierre Gignac  was originally selected to appear in this section but an injury over the weekend suggests the striker will not make the first leg at the Velodrome. Wednesday night’s home side are unbeaten in 12 matches on their home ground since losing to Spartak Moscow back in September. In the absence of Gignac expect Loic Remy to take up the attacking responsibility for Marseille with the young French U21 International striker already having netted twice in the group phase of the competition. Marseille will look to unleash Remy’s searing pace at the earliest opportunity and his ability to outpace United’s defence will prove crucial to the tie’s eventual outcome.

Nani – Manchester United
Nani has proven to be a valuable member of Manchester United’s Premier League title chasing squad this season with the Portuguese international appearing 22 times and weighing in with 9 goals. His form has been consistent since the beginning of the campaign and included a wonderfully cushioned first time finish in the the recent Manchester derby victory over City. Marseille will know all about Nani but the versatile winger’s ability to seamlessly move between midfield and attack is certain to cause the French side’s defence plenty of headaches.

Prediction
The Stade Velodrome is famous for its intimidating atmosphere and United can expect a ‘warm welcome’ when the Round of 16 tie kicks off from the probable 60,000 plus set to be in attendance. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have vast experience of such European nights however and it is this factor which will eventually see the Premier League side through to the quarter-finals.

The loss of André-Pierre Gignac to injury has robbed the hosts of their main attacking threat although Marseille will have little choice but to go for it from the first whistle.  Les Olympiens will need some form of a lead to take back to Old Trafford but United’s impressive defence and ability to score from midfield will see the Red Devils safely into the last eight of the tournament.

Round of 16, First leg
Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan
Inter vs. Bayern Munich

Brief Preview
A repeat of last season’s Champions League final sees reigning title holders Inter Milan play host to previous runners-up Bayern Munich in the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan.  Much has changed at both clubs since last year’s decider with Munich struggling domestically and Inter under a new manager in Brazilian Leonardo since the departure of Rafa Benitez.

Inter finished runners-up in Group A behind surprise table-toppers Tottenham Hotspur with a 3-1 loss at White Hart Lane condemning the Italians to second spot ahead of Werder Bremen and Twente Enscehede.  Samuel Eto’o has proven a rare bright spark in an otherwise disappointing campaign to date with the Cameroon international netting 7 goals in 6 group games. Things have improved on the domestic front since the departure of Bentiez with the return of a host of long-term injured players including Wesley Sneijeder. Inter moved within two points of bitter rivals AC Milan following a 1-0 victory over Cagliari at the weekend and are now just two points behind their city rivals at the top of the table.

In contrast, Bayern Munich have all but surrendered their Bundesliga crown to an emerging Borussia Dortmund side and currently lie 13 points behind the pace setters. A 3-1 victory away to Mainz has setup the mouth-watering clash with leaders Dortmund this coming weekend in a game Munich simply must win to have any slim hope of catching the runaway leaders. Louis Van Gaal’s side have kept their best performances for the Champions League this season, topping Group E with 15 points from their 6 fixtures. Mario Gomez averaged a goal a game in the qualifying phase and the German international forward’s form combined with the return of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery (nicknamed Robbery by the German media) suggests Bayern are ready for the challenge of dethroning the European Champions.

Prediction
Bayern’s thirst for revenge makes the German side slight favourites to progress although Inter are coming into form domestically having previously failed to top their Champions’ League group. If Munich can stifle the Inter attack at the San Siro then expect Robben, Gomez and Schweinsteiger to see the Germans through to the quarter-finals.

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.

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