Champions League – Week In Review

by Ger McCarthy

Back Page Football’s resident UEFA Champions League correspondent Ger McCarthy reviews the first week of the knockout phase of the 2012 competition and predicts how each of the second legs in the respective ties will go.

Champions League – Week In Review

The opening week of the business end of the 2012 UEFA Champions League is in the books with eight clubs tasting last-sixteen round action over the past number of days. A few surprises and plenty to ponder ahead of the scheduled second legs at the beginning of March.

The quality of football was decent at best with only Barcelona (as per normal) producing the kind of dazzling inter-play which has become almost a trademark of the club. Valentines’ night saw few loving gifts handed out by a slick Barca side away to Bayer Leverkusen while APOEL Nicosia’s ultra-defensive approach almost reaped dividends in the Stade Gerland at the expense of a frustrated Lyon until a second half Lacazette goal handed the French side a narrow 1-0 win.

The marquee fixture between Arsenal and AC Milan at the San Siro turned out to be one of the worst nights in Arsene Wenger’s time in charge of the club with the Italians romping to a 4-0 win. While in a freezing St. Petersburg, Zenit and Benfica warmed the crowd with a five goal thriller.

 

Champions League – Tuesday 14th February

Round of 16 – Lyon 1 APOEL Nicosia 0

Lyon Coach Remi Garde’s decision to omit Bafetimbi Gomis prior to kick-off had tongues wagging in the Stade Gerland but the decision proved correct as his replacement Alexandre Lacazette netted the only goal of a tight affair. APOEL goalkeeper Dionisios Chiotis had a busy night repelling a succession of Lyon attacks as the Ligue 1 side dominated proceedings throughout a one-sided 90 minutes.

The Cypriots came to France looking for a 0-0 as the statistic of just one shot on target clearly proves but APOEL will look forward to the second leg on home soil having thwarted everything Lyon could throw at them until the 58th minute when Lacazette’s neat turn and slightly deflected effort (off Paolo Jorge) finally breached Chiotis’s goal. The Cypriots endured a nervy finale with Lyon squandering a succession of opportunities to double their lead and APOEL defender Nuno Morais extremely fortunate not to put the ball in his own net.

Second Leg Verdict:

Remi Garde will be happy to take a lead back to Cyprus for the second leg but Lyon’s profligacy in front of goal could yet prove fatal if APOEL rediscover the form that saw the Nicosia based club top their opening phase group. Ivan Jovanovic’s after match comments of: “My players worked hard and we have the second leg. We will do our best to turn this around but Lyon has an important advantage” coyly remind Lyon that although they remain favourites to progress no one should rule out another fairytale evening at the GSP Stadium, Nicosia. I have a sneaking suspicion that APOEL will go through on penalties.

 

Champions League – Tuesday 14th February

Round of 16- Bayer Leverkusen 1 Barcelona 3

The reigning Champions League titleholders reminded the continent of their explosive attacking potential with a typically professional, slick and deadly counter-attacking display in the Bay-Arena. Lionel Messi was at the heart of Barcelona’s most inspiring moments once again but credit should go to Bayer Leverkusen for making a determined effort that had the Catalans frustrated for long periods up until Alex Sanchis’ opener on 41 minutes.

Barcelona’s Chilean international has endured a difficult time since moving to Camp Nou having been hampered by injury but demonstrated his deadly finishing ability to open the scoring with a neat finish following a flowing Barcelona move. Leverkusen could have been forgiven for shutting up shop and attempting to keep the score at 1-0 but roared on by a vociferous home support the Bundesliga outfit rallied to quickly reduce the deficit.

Michal Kadlec managed to breach the visitors’ rearguard with a 52nd minute header that looped over the outstretched arm of Victor Valdes. The Germans delight was short lived however as Barcelona moved up a gear and restored their lead when Cesc Fabregas’ perfectly weighted through ball found Alex Sanchis lurking with intent and the Chilean. Sanchis dribbled around Leverkusen goalkeeper Leno and tapped home for a 2-1 lead.

Pep Guardiola’s side put the icing on the cake with a crucial third away strike two minutes from time after Dani Alves burst through the middle of the Leverkusen defence only to unselfishly square the ball for the in-rushing Messi to complete a 3-1 victory.

 

Second Leg Verdict:

Barcelona’s three away goals in the Bay-Arena renders the second leg at the Camp Nou almost irrelevant yet Bayer Leverkusen will want to go out of the competition with a bang suggesting an open encounter. It is highly unlikely the Germans will score three times so Pep Guardiola will be anxious for an early goal or two to kill off the tie completely and allow the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta an early night before preparing for the quarter-finals.

 

Champions League – Wednesday 15th February

Round of 16 – Zenit St. Petersburg 3 Benfica 2

Luciano Spalletti’s injury-hit Zenit St. Petersburg recorded a 3-2 win at home to Benfica in sub zero temperatures on Wednesday night. Both weather and pitch conditions were terrible for the duration of an entertaining fixture between two surprise qualifiers for the last sixteen of the Champions League.

Roman Shirokov proved the hero for under strength Zenit with a brace of goals but it was the Portuguese visitors who hit the front after 20 minutes when Maxi Pereira reacted quickest to a Yuri Zhevnov parry to make it 1-0. Shirokov leveled matters seven minutes later however with a smart piece of control before firing into the net. St. Petersburg wasted a succession of chances to extend their lead and it wasn’t until the final quarter that the goals finally began to flow.

A slick move involving Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Vladimir Bystov worked an opening for substitute Sergei Semak following a series of clever back heels and the Zenit player made no mistake with an assured finish. Benfica refused to accept defeat however and conjured up an equaliser in the 87th minute when Nicolas Gaitan’s initial effort was saved by Yuri Zhevnov only for Oscar Cardozo to pounce to make it 2-2 from the resulting loose ball.

Benfica celebrated what appeared to be a hard-earned point away from home but there was one final twist with Zenit grabbing a dramatic winner. That man Roman Shirokov pounced on some hesitant Benfica defending to push the ball beyond Artur and earn Zenit St. Petersburg a 3-2 victory.

 

Second Leg Verdict:

Luciano Spalletti will be delighted to have recorded a victory at home to such an attack-minded Benfica but the two away goals scored by the Portuguese club hands the initiative to Jorge Jesus’ side ahead of the second leg in Lisbon in three weeks time. Zenit missed the creative influence of Danny but coped better in trying conditions and in Roman Shirokov the Russians have a striker capable of causing further damage in the return fixture. It is undoubtedly advantage Benfica however and buoyed on by a full house, much a tighter defensive display and the counter-attacking threat of Oscar Cardozo there appears only one winner from this last-sixteen tie, Benfica.

 

Champions League – Wednesday 15th February

Round of 16 – AC Milan 4 Arsenal 0

AC Milan powered past a terrible Arsenal to record a fully merited 4-0 first leg victory on one of the most humiliating nights in the North London club’s history. A terrible San Siro playing surface could not prevent Milan from romping to an historic victory and barring a miracle the tie looks settled before a ball is kicked in the return leg at the Emirates.

The Serie A club erased the memory of exiting the Champions League at the same stage last season when Arsenal’s rivals Tottenham Hotspur knocked the Milan club out of the tournament. A former Spurs player, Kevin Prince Boateng, opened the scoring on the quarter hour with a marvellous first time volley in of the crossbar from the tightest of angles. That opener was no more than Milan deserved for a positive start which had the Arsenal defence all at sea and unable to gain a foothold in the game.

Roared on by their vociferous home supporters the Rossoneri continued to lay siege on the Arsenal goal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic outstanding at the apex of Milan’s attack. The Swedish international created his side’s second goal of the evening with an inch-perfect centre for Robinho to head AC into a 2-0 interval lead.

Laurent Koscielny’s injury hampered Arsenal’s hopes of a comeback and Arsene Wenger introduced Thierry Henry as a second half substitute in the hope the on-loan striker might provide some speak of creativity on his final appearance for the club. It was not to be, as AC Milan went on to score another two goals and complete a 4-0 hammering of the Premier League club with Robinho grabbing his second after another defensive slip. Ibrahimovic completed a fantastic individual display with the final goal of the night from the penalty spot to cement AC Milan’s passage into the last eight.

Second Leg Verdict:

Arsene Wenger pulled no punches in his post match assessment of Arsenal’s dire performance stating that AC Milan were the better side in every position and fully deserved their win. Massimiliano Allegri was delighted with his side’s victory but noted a word of caution by stating that Milan have not yet qualified and will need an equally professional display at the Emirates Stadium in the second leg.


Follow Ger on Twitter: @germccarthy74

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