Champions League – Wednesday Preview

by Ger McCarthy

Ger McCarthy is back with another Champions League preview looking ahead to Wednesday night’s round of sixteen fixtures between FC Basel and Bayern Munich as well as the glamour tie pitting Ligue 1 side Olympique Marseille up against Serie A’s Inter Milan.

The final first-leg fixtures of the UEFA Champions League round of sixteen have two intriguing ties down for decision on Wednesday night. Bayern Munich are one of the decent outside bets to win the competition this year and travel to Switzerland to take on Manchester United’s conquerors, FC Basel, in one of the Swiss club’s most important ever fixtures.

Both Marseille and Inter have endured difficult times in their respective domestic leagues in the past few years but Wednesday night’s Champions League fixture at the Stade Velodrome offers both the opportunity to take a giant leap towards qualification for the quarter-finals. Claudio Ranieri was brought in to steady the ship at the San Siro and has guided Inter to fifth in Serie A following a horrendous start to the campaign. Inter’s erratic form of late does not bode well for Wednesday night’s difficult encounter.

Didier Deschamps’ Marseille have recovered from a mid-season slump to move up into sixth place in Ligue 1 and qualify for the last sixteen of this year’s Champions League. Injuries may yet rob the French club of vital players ahead of the Inter Milan clash but as underdogs, Marseille have nothing to lose and should prove formidable opponents for Ranieri’s men over the two legs.

Champions League – Wednesday 22nd February

Round of 16 – FC Basel vs. Bayern Munich in St. Jakob Park, Basel

FC Basel 1893’s reward for finishing runners-up in Group C of the opening phase and eliminating Manchester United and Otelul Galati is a glamour last sixteen tie with Bundesliga Champions Bayern Munich. Basel’s manager Heiko Vogel is a former Bayern youth team coach and will need every piece of inside knowledge to have a chance of knocking out one of the outside best to claim the 2012 Champions League trophy.

The Swiss club began their opening phase with a 2-1 defeat of Galati on Matchday 1 before holding Manchester United to a shock 3-3 draw at Old Trafford on September 27. Only a last minute header from Ashley Young prevented Basel from recording a shock victory. Danny Welbeck’s early brace of goals looked to have secured the points for United before the 17-minute mark had elapsed. FC Basel has other ideas and mounted a stirring second half comeback with Fabian Frei capitalising on some poor David De Gea goalkeeping to reduce the deficit. Alexander Frei made it 2-2 shortly afterwards before the same player converted a penalty to send the travelling supporters into wild celebrations. Young’s late intervention spared United’s blushes but FC Basel’s performance served notice that the Swiss side were a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the group.

Basel only took one point from their two encounters with eventual Group C winners Benfica before a 3-2 win away to Otelul Galati setup a Matchday 6 showdown with Manchester United at St. Jakob Park. The English Premier League Champions travelled to Switzerland knowing a point would be good enough to secure qualification but FC Basel produced a heroic display to run out merited winners. Goals from Marco Streller and Alexander Frei sealed a memorable 2-1 victory to eliminate Sir Alex Ferguson’s side and proudly cement the Swiss club’s place in the knockout phase of the tournament.

Heiko Vogel’s side domestic form has not slipped despite an extended run in the Champions League with FC Basel currently 6 points clear at the summit of the Swiss Super League ahead of nearest rivals Young Boys and FC Luzern. The attacking duo of Marco Streller and Alexander Frei has combined for 19 league goals this term and will pose the Bayern defence with plenty of problems over the two legs.

Bayern Munich marched through the opening phase of the Champions League recording 4 wins and a draw before a Matchday 6 defeat away to Manchester City. By then the Bavarians had already secured top spot scoring 11 times and conceding just 6. Back-to-back 2-0 victories over group whipping boys Villarreal and Manchester City on an infamous night for Carlos Tevez set Munch on their way to qualification from Group A and a seeded position in the knockout stages. Napoli proved difficult opponents in the two middle fixtures of the group but Bayern were still strong enough to emerge with 4 points before sailing into the last sixteen courtesy of a 3-1 win at home to Villarreal on Matchday 5 thanks to Franck Ribery (2) and Mario Gomez strikes.

Bayern’s Bundesliga form has dipped considerably since the resumption of the German league following a winter break. Disappointing draws at Hamburg and Freiburg has seen Jupp Heynckes’ side drop to third in the rankings, 4 points behind new leaders Borussia Dortmund. Despite their current domestic woes Bayern possess plenty of attacking threats in Mario Gomez, Franck Ribery and (if picked) Arjen Robben. Munich can expect a difficult night at St. Jakob Park but should have enough experience to grind out a 1-1 draw before completing the job in the second leg.

Verdict: FC Basel 1 Bayern Munich 1

Champions League – Wednesday 22nd February

Round of 16 – Olympique Marseille vs. Internazionale in the Stade Velodrome, Marseille

Didier Deschamps’s Marseille qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League having secured second spot in Group F behind Arsenal. The Ligue side began their campaign with consecutive victories over Olympiacos (1-0) and Borussia Dortmund (2-0). Only an injury-time winner from Aaron Ramsey denied the French club a deserved share of the spoils at the Stade Velodrome at home to Arsenal on Matchday 3 but Les Olympiens bounced back from that disappointment to record a deserved 0-0 at the Emirates on November 1.

Marseille were still in with a realistic chance of winning Group F before a shock 1-0 loss at home to Olympiacos in their penultimate group fixture appeared to damage their hopes of progressing. Giannis Fetfatzidis’ 82nd minute wonder strike secured victory for the Greeks setting up an intriguing final night of action on Matchday 6 with Deschamps’ side needing a result away to Borussia Dortmund to make the last sixteen of the competition.

December 6 was the date for the matchup in the BVB Stadion and the two sides produced a five-goal thriller. Jurgen Klopp’s Bundesliga outfit had failed to spark in the Champions League but raced into an early 2-0 lead with goals from Jakub Błaszczykowski and Mats Hummels (penalty). The vociferous Dortmund support sensed a home victory and Borussia actually had a mathematical chance of qualifying until Loic Remy netted a crucial goal in first half injury time. Buoyed by that strike Marseille laid siege on the Germans goal but it wasn’t until the 85th minute that a Andre Ayew effort made it 2-2. Mathieu Valbuena proved Marseille’s hero with an 87th minute winner to send the Ligue 1 side through as group runners up.

Inter Milan have endured a dramatic season with a change of manager, erratic domestic form and a stop-start Champions League campaign blighting their season. A Matchday 1 defeat at home to Turkish side Trabzonspor eventually led to the dismissal of then manager Gian Piero Gasperini with his replacement Claudio Ranieri overseeing a hard fought 3-2 victory away to CSKA Moscow on Matchday 2 thanks to a late Mauro Zarate effort.

The Nerazzurri took control of Group B with back-to-back victories over Lille before a 1-1 draw away to Trabzonspor on Matchday 5 courtesy of a Ricardo Alvarez goal cemented top spot in the group and a seeded draw for round of sixteen. Inter’s final group match saw Cambiasso’s opener cancelled out by two late CSKA goals to send the Russians through as runners-up and further underlined the Serie A side’s inconsistency heading into the knockout phase of the competition. Three consecutive losses to Roma, Novara and most recently Bologna (3-0 in the San Siro) have Inter in a dreadful run of form. The Nerazzurri have dropped to seventh in the Serie A standings and are in danger of failing to secure European football next season unless the players and management can quickly turn things around.

The loss of Loic Remy to injury severely blunts Marseille’s attacking threat and with Inter still smarting from a recent Serie A defeat to Bologna the stage is set for a cagey rather than attacking affair. Expect the Italians to play their usual defensive formation to secure a draw before adopting a more attacking approach back at the San Siro in the second leg.

Verdict: Marseille 0 Inter 0

Follow Ger on Twitter: @germccarthy74

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