Arsenal travel to the lion’s den of the San Siro while Benfica face the harsh weather conditions of Zenit St. Petersburg as the UEFA Champions League opening phase continues on Wednesday night writes Back Page Football’s Ger McCarthy.
Wednesday night’s Champions League round of sixteen ties begins with a meeting of two emerging sides in Russia with Zenit St. Petersburg hosting Benfica in the Stadion Petrovskiy. There is little doubting AC Milan and Arsenal’s clash later on in the evening represents one of the glamour ties of the opening knockout round between two European heavyweights desperate to return to former continental glories.
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Round of 16 – Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Benfica in the Stadion Petrovskiy, St Petersburg
Zenit St. Petersburg head into their last sixteen UEFA Champions League tie with Benfica having already faced Portuguese opposition in the opening phase of the competition. Drawn in Group G alongside Benfica’s age-old rivals FC Porto the Russian club managed to secure the runners-up spot in the group behind surprise winners APOEL Nicosia.
Having lost to the Cypriots on Matchday 1 Zenit rebounded with a morale boosting victory at home to Porto on September 28 with Roman Shirokov (2) and Danny on target in a 3-1 win. From there the Russians took 4 points from a possible 6 in their two encounters with Shakhtar Donetsk before securing a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to plucky APOEL on Matchday 5.
That result secured top spot in Group G for APOEL and meant Zenit travelled to Porto on the final night of group fixtures needing at least a draw to have any hope of making the knockout phase of the competition. Vyacheslav Malafeev produced an inspirational display between the sticks for Zenit in helping secure a 0-0 draw and a despondent Porto exited the competition.
Former AS Roma Coach Luciano Spalletti leads the St. Petersburg club into the latter stages of the Champions League for the first time ever with Roman Shirokov having contributed three of his side’s seven European goals. The defending Russian Premier League champions have also managed to maintain impressive domestic form by topping the first phase of a revised Russian footballing calendar. Defending champions Zenit top the Russian Premier after 32 matches and remain well clear of a triumvirate of Moscow clubs freeing up Spalletti’s charges for a serious tilt at the Champions League this year.
Current runaway Portuguese First Division pace-setters Benfica enter their last sixteen clash with Zenit in a rich vein of form. As Águias (The Eagles) caused a shock by topping Manchester United’s Group C en route to the knockout phase including home and away draws against the Premier League Champions.
Jorge Jesus’ side began their campaign with a 1-1 draw in Lisbon against United after Ryan Giggs cancelled out Oscar Cardozo’s opener. A narrow 1-0 win away to Otelul Galati followed before 4 points were garnered from another surprise package, FC Basel of Switzerland, heading into the final two rounds of games. The crucial Matchday 5 fixture away to Manchester United at Old Trafford provided one of the most exciting night’s of this season’s Champions League. Benfica refused to be overawed by their more experienced opponents and Aimar’s goal on the hour mark secured a famous 2-2 draw after the Portuguese side had fallen 2-1 behind.
That result was enough to guarantee Benfica their place in the knockout phase but a 1-0 defeat of Otelul Galati on Matchday 6 courtesy of another Oscar Cardozo strike cemented an impressive unbeaten opening phase.
The match-up with Zenit St. Petersburg will be fascinating as both sides are setup to counter-attack which should make for a cagey but open affair. Expect the Russians to draw first blood on home soil but Benfica’s attacking prowess of Aimar and Cardozo should see the Portuguese club through over two legs.
Verdict: Zenit St. Petersburg 1 Benfica 0
Round of 16 – AC Milan vs. Arsenal in the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza
Arsene Wenger goes in search of a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League with a daunting away trip to the San Siro on Wednesday night. Their Italian opponents have unhappy memories of the same stage last season however when Arsenal’s bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur ended Milan’s interest in the competition over two legs.
Massimiliano Allegri’s side are a different beast this season and currently top Serie A by 2 points from Juventus after twenty-three rounds of action. The Rossoneri qualified for the second phase of the Champions League by finishing runners-up behind Barcelona in Group H. The Italians swept aside Plezn and BATE but reserved their best displays for the two crunch meetings with the Catalans.
The opening fixture against Barcelona on September 13 ended in a 2-2 draw following a pulsating encounter in the Camp Nou. Pato opened the scoring inside a minute before Pedro and David Villa strikes looked to have earned Barca a 2-1 away win. AC Milan dug deep and produced a gutsy comeback however with Thiago Silva netting a stoppage-time equaliser to earn the San Siro club a share of the spoils.
Matchday 5 saw Barcelona travel to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in search of a win that would secure top spot in the group. What followed was another thriller between two of Europe’s finest clubs in which the Catalans twice came from behind to win 3-2. Despite losing and having to settle for second spot in the group AC Milan demonstrated over the two matches that they were more than capable of going toe to toe with the Champions League holders.
Arsenal head into their last sixteen showdown having recently climbed back into the top four of the Premier League following an indifferent run of form. The goals of Robin Van Persie (28 domestic strikes) and return of Thierry Henry on loan from the New York Red Bulls has helped keep the Gunners in contention both in Europe and in their domestic league.
The North London club topped Group F ahead of Borussia Dortmund, Olympiacos and Marseille despite never producing the top quality counter-attacking football the side is synonymous with. The Gunners had already finished top of the group by Matchday 6 when a makeshift side lost 2-1 away to Olympiacos in the English club’s only defeat of the competition thus far.
The emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a burgeoning talent should provide AC Milan’s with plenty of work to keep the live wire midfielder at bay. How Milan contain Robin Van Persie will be the key to the Italian’s progression in the competition as the Dutch international is currently enjoying the form of his life and will take some stopping. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is Milan’s top striker and his form will prove pivotal to the outcome of the tie over the two legs. Much will depend on the Swedish international striker’s mood but a growing injury list may curtail Massimiliano Allegri’s side’s chances so expect Arsenal to go through over the two legs.
Verdict: AC Milan 1 Arsenal 1
Follow Ger on Twitter: @germccarthy74