Champions League – Week in Review

by Ger McCarthy

Back Page Football’s UEFA Champions League correspondent Ger McCarthy looks back at the another week of last-sixteen first leg fixtures and makes some bold predictions about how each of the return games will go as we reach the business end of the competition.

Champions League – Week In Review

Chelsea’s capitulation in Naples on Tuesday night as well as Andre Villas-Boas’ team selection caused quite a stir in the English media. The decision to omit Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole from the Premier League club’s starting line-up overshadowed a dreadful defensive effort from the Pensioners and allowed Napoli’s attacking triumvirate to run riot. On the same evening, Jose Mourinho’s Madrid braved the icy Moscow temperatures to earn a merited 1-1 draw despite a battling CSKA performance. Spain’s current league leaders (a whopping 10 points ahead of Barcelona) should have put the result beyond doubt after Ronaldo’s opener and were subsequently made to pay for their profligacy in front of goal when CSKA grabbed a last minute equaliser.

Wednesday night provided two late goals and shock results in Switzerland and the South of France. Bayern Munich dominated much of their away fixture against FC Basel but were denied on multiple occasions by a marvellous goalkeeping display before a late goal sealed an outstanding 1-0 win for the home side. Inter Milan’s disastrous season continued with a fourth consecutive defeat following a late Marseille winner in the Stade Velodrome. Both of Wednesday night’s results have setup intriguing second legs where the home sides will kick-off a goal down guaranteeing  two open fixtures.

Champions League – Tuesday 21st February

Round of 16 – Napoli 3 Chelsea 1 in the Stadio San Paolo, Naples

Serie A’s Napoli produced a stunning performance to thump Premier League side Chelsea 3-1 and take a giant leap towards qualification for the Champions League quarter-finals in Naples on Tuesday night. It proved to be a terrific night for the vociferous supporters in the Stadio San Pablo with the attacking trio of Marek Hamsik, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi carving Chelsea apart for long stretches of the tie. Walter Mazarri’s counter-attacking tactics worked a treat as Andre Villas-Boas’ side failed to cope with the incisive passing and movement of their Italian opponents.

Villas-Boas’ decision to leave out the leave out the experienced duo of Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole from his starting line-up proved pivotal as Chelsea failed to deal with Napoli’s rapid attacks. News of a long-term injury to centre-back John Terry meant David Luiz and Gary Cahill started in the heart of Chelsea’s back four yet neither player performed adequately, allowing Napoli far too much time and space to create a succession of chances.

Despite their poor start, Chelsea grabbed the lead somewhat against the run of play when Juan Mata reacted quickest to some indecisive Cannavaro defending to coolly slot home after 27 minutes. Crucially, the visitors could have doubled their lead shortly afterwards when David Luiz directed a free header wide of the target. That was about as good as it got for Chelsea as Napoli assumed command from that point onwards and dominated the remainder of the tie.

Ezequiel Lavezzi brought parity to the score after 39 minutes with a low curling effort from 25 yards out after Raul Meireles failed to close down the Napoli striker. Chelsea’s goal led a charmed life for a time but the Italians pressed ahead in first half injury time when creator of the opening goal, Edinson Cavani, connected with a deep cross and shouldered the ball into the net for a deserved 2-1 lead. Napoli secured victory in the 65th minute when some idiotic David Luiz defending presented the ball to Edinson Cavani who unselfishly setup Lavezzi for his second of the night to cement a 3-1 win. Only a magnificent goal-line clearance from Ashley Cole prevented Napoli from adding to their tally but even so, the Serie A side ran out deserving 3-1 winners to the delight of their ecstatic supporters.

Second Leg Verdict:

Most pundits agree that Napoli are odds on to progress to the last eight of the Champions League based on their powerful first leg display. The return match at Stamford Bridge should be a thrilling affair although a 2-0 victory would be enough to send Chelsea through on goal difference. Chelsea’s current form and their woeful defensive display on Tuesday night makes Napoli clear favourites to secure a quarter-final berth especially if Hamsik, Cavani and Lavezzi repeat their first leg heroics. I’m predicting Chelsea to go out after an exciting 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge and Andre Villas-Boas to lose his job before the end of the season.

Champions League – Tuesday 21st February

Round of 16- CSKA Moscow 1 Real Madrid 1 in the Stadion Luzhniki, Moscow

A freezing night in Moscow saw CSKA prevent Real Madrid from recording a seventh consecutive Champions League victory with a late equaliser to secure a 1-1 draw. Jose Mourinho’s side took an age to acclimatise to the conditions and slippy artificial playing surface allowing the home side plenty of possession in the opening exchanges. CSKA failed to capitalise on their one clear cut opening however with Alan Dzagoev shooting wide of the target.

That effort would prove to be CSKA’s only attempt on goal until the final minute. In between Madrid controlled the game with Sami Khedira and Xavi Alonso in imperious form in the centre of the park. The home side finally conceded just before the half hour mark when Ronaldo reacted quickest to a poor clearance to volley home his 36th goal of the season.

The cushion of a one-goal lead allowed Real to boss possession for long periods as CSKA were forced to push further up the field and counter-attack in an effort to get back in the game. Madrid’s Jose Callejon was guilty of wasting a series of chances with the young striker shooting wide and then having another effort blocked despite Gonzalo Higuain standing unmarked in front of goal. Moscow’s goalkeeper Chepchugov acquitted himself well with a string of fine saves to prevent the visitors from extending their lead as the clock reached 90 minutes.

One last effort from CSKA resulted in an equaliser three minutes into injury time. Real were guilty of some appalling defending as a loose ball pinged around the Spaniards area before Berezutski rose unchallenged to head across the six-yard box.  New signing Pontus Wernbloom marked his full CSKA debut with an accomplished finish to give the Moscovites a fighting chance in the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeau.

Second Leg Verdict:

Jose Mourinho’s side dominated much of this last-sixteen tie but failed to build on Ronaldo’s early strike only to be caught by a sucker-punch in the 93rd minute. The Spaniards moved the ball superbly throughout a dominant display and will be confident of completing the job on home soil in a few weeks time provided CSKA are not permitted an early away goal. Ronaldo’s remarkable individual campaign continued with yet another goal on Tuesday night and if the Portuguese international can maintain his form into the latter stages of the competition then Real are in with a fighting chance of claiming the Champions League trophy. Real Madrid 3 CSKA Moscow 0 is my prediction for the second leg.

Champions League – Wednesday 22nd February

Round of 16 – Marseille 1 Inter 0 in the Stade Velodrome, Marseille

Claudio Ranieri’s season goes from bad to worse following the concession of an injury time goal to deny Inter Milan a draw away to Marseille in the Stade Velodrome on Wednesday night.

There was little to choose between two well matched sides throughout a cagey 90 minutes with Inter’s Diego Forlan going closest for the Italians after his close range volley was acrobatically tipped away by Steve Mandanda. Didier Deschamp’s side produced most of the attacking play in the opening half in front a reduced capacity at the Stade Velodrome due to ongoing construction works. Despite the lack of atmosphere the Ligue 1 side looked to release Andre Ayew and Brandao at the earliest opportunity but found Inter’s back four in excellent form thanks to the no-nonsense defending of Walter Samuel and Lucio.

Inter fielded the oldest Champions League line-up in the history of the competition but the Italians looked comfortable throughout and  created a terrific opening late on when Dejan Stankovic shot straight at Mandanda with the goal at his mercy. A 0-0 draw would not have been a bad result considering Inter’s recent poor run of form but Marseille persisted with their counter-attacks and were duly rewarded in the 93rd minute when Andre Ayew headed home to seal a shock 1-0 victory.

Second Leg Verdict:

There is little doubt that Inter are currently in the midst of a horrific run of form which has seen Ranieri’s squad drop out of the Serie A title race in recent weeks and now lose the opening leg of a winnable last-sixteen encounter in France. Take nothing away from Marseille though as Wednesday night’s represented the Ligue 1 side’s first knockout victory in the Champions League since winning the trophy back in 1993.

The second leg at the San Siro promises to be a tense affair for the home side whose supporters will not countenance another defeat removing all the pressure from Didier Deschamps’ side that will kick-off one nil ahead and know an away goal could see the Ligue 1 progress. I believe Inter’s current malaise is set to continue and Marseille will score at the San Siro to qualify for the last eight and cause Claudio Ranieri to lose his job by the end of the campaign.

Champions League – Wednesday 22nd February

Round of 16 – FC Basel 1 Bayern Munich 0 in St. Jakob-Park, Basel, Switzerland

Another memorable night in St.-Jakob Park for FC Basel ended with a shock 1-0 defeat of miss-firing Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich. Heiko Vogel’s side began nervously and only the brilliance of goalkeeper Yann Sommer denied Bayern twice in quick succession form netting an early goal.

FC Basel settled after those two let offs and created a succession of chances thanks to their quick counter-attacking tactic which opened up the Germans defence for Aleksandar Dragovic and Alexander Frei to rattle the crossbar and upright. Munich responded by dominating possession for the remainder of the half but failed to release striker Mario Gomez making for a frustrating end to the opening 45 minutes for Jupp Heynckes’ side.

Basel continued their tactic of closing down Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery as the second period developed as a bumpy, heavily sanded playing surface stifled much of Bayern’s attempts in the final third. Despite the difficult playing conditions the chances kept coming at both ends with Manuel Neuer and Yann Sommer excelling in either goal following a string of world class saves. One Sommer stop from a Mario Gomez close range effort prevented a certain goal while Neuer’s acrobatic stop at the other end onto the post from a bullet header was the save of the night.

Defences remained on top in the closing stages and the tie looked set to end in a 0-0 stalemate until a spectacular intervention 4 minutes from time. Substitute Valentin Stocker capitalised on fellow sub Jacques Zoua’s excellent approach play to fire between Neuer’s legs and win the first leg 1-0 for the ecstatic FC Basel fans.

Second Leg Verdict:

The pressure is on Jupp Heynckes and his Bayern side ahead of the second leg in Munich in two week’s time. The Bundesliga side failed to adequately threaten their opponents on Wednesday night with Robben, Ribery and Gomez guilty of failing to unlock the Basel defence. The Swiss side will head to Germany with a cushion of a one goal lead and know that another effort in the second leg will really open up a tie many pundits felt would be comfortably won by Bayern.

Despite Wednesday night’s heroics I expect Bayern Munich to produce a much improved performance on their home ground and run out 3-1 winners to qualify for the last eight of the competition.

Follow Ger on Twitter: @germccarthy74

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