Although the Champions League doesn’t return to action for another month the draw for the round of sixteen has thrown up some intriguing ties. As expected all four English sides have progressed to the knockout phase while both Real Madrid and Barcelona also look set to feature prominently as the road to Wembley gathers apace.
This year’s group stage has also seen the emergence of Tottenham Hotspur, AS Roma, Shaktar Donetsk and FC Copenhagen as surprise qualifiers while Lyon, Valencia and Bayern Munich have re- established themselves in Europe’s premier football tournament despite erratic domestic form. There are hundreds of sub-plots amongst the eight first round knockout ties but the following are just some of the reasons to look forward to the next phase of what remains a wide open tournament this year.
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Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur proved to be one of the main surprise packages of the group stages (with quick nods to FC Copenhagen and Shaktar Donetsk) of this season’s Champions League. Spurs topped Group A with a succession of impressive performances which yielded 18 goals – along with Arsenal the most netted by any club in the opening phase – and pushed last year’s winners Inter Milan into second place. The consistent performances of Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart helped the North London outfit win all three of their home ties and although they failed to win away Tottenham should not fear AC Milan in the first knockout round.
An ability to break from defence at lightening pace thanks to the speed and trickery of Bale, Aaron Lennon and Luka Modric has propelled the Champions League débutantes into the knockout phase of the tournament. For neutrals Spurs have been excellent to watch, as they seem incapable of playing at anything other than 100mph. A productive Christmas period has also seen Redknapp’s charges remain in the top four of the Premier League so Milan will face a side in form and with a host of previously injured starters returning to the first team, i.e. Michael Dawson and Ledley King.
The big question is can Spurs keep their surprising run going at the expense of an AC Milan side back on top of Serie A. The addition of a new striker, Cassano, offers the Milanese yet another attacking weapon to add to a forward line which already contains Pato, Robinho and Ibrahimovic. Harry Redknapp will know that Spurs must keep a clean sheet in the first leg at the San Siro or at least limit Milan to a single goal to have any hope of progressing. It promises to be another electric night at White Hart Lane for the second leg where an ability to marry their quick counter-attacking style with a more patient build-up (including a tougher defensive stance) will be the catalyst for a shock Tottenham Hotspur victory over two legs.
FC Copenhagen grabbed all the headlines in November by holding Barcelona to a 1-1 draw in Denmark. That result coupled with home and away victories over Panathinaikos propelled Stale Solbakken’s side into the last sixteen for the first time ever. The Scandinavians now face the daunting prospect of a Chelsea side desperate for European success to make it through to the quarter finals. Irrespective of the result FC Copenhagen has re-established Denmark in the European club standings following their Group D heroics. Shaktar Donetsk’s topping of Group H at the expense of Arsenal was also noteworthy as it helped the Ukrainians avoid some of the top seeds in the second round. A two-legged tie with Roma represents a more than winnable tie for Shaktar.
There are still no clear cut favourites for this season’s Champions League trophy
Barcelona and Manchester United remain many pundits (and bookies) favourites to lift this season’s Champions League trophy yet at least six other clubs can lay legitimate claim to running out victorious at Wembley in May. Barcelona’s amazing 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid in the recent El Classico reiterated the Catalan club’s assertion that they remain the best pure footballing side on the planet. Lionel Messi is in rude form while the arrival of David Villa has eased the goal-scoring burden on the diminutive Argentinean. Barca would do well to remember that similar plaudits were showered on the club at the same stage last season just before Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan knocked them out with two gritty defensive displays.
Manchester United are currently sitting pretty at the summit of the Premier League without tasting defeat once this term and despite never hitting top gear to get there. Wayne Rooney is drastically out of form but Dimitar Berbatov has stepped up with some vital goals to top the Old Trafford club’s goal scoring charts. An un-inspiring group stage was earmarked by five consecutive clean sheets and it the solidity of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s central defensive partnership that could see United go all the way this season. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have the experience and pedigree to lift the trophy but a return to form from Rooney is essential if European glory is to be attained.
Jose Mourinho has overseen the re-emergence of Real Madrid as serious contenders for this season’s Champions League trophy. Despite the morale-sapping loss to bitter rivals Barcelona recently, The Madrista’s impressively topped their group following five wins, one draw and no losses. The fitness of Gonzalo Higuain plus the form of attackers Mesut Oezil, Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo will dictate just how far Mourinho’s side will go.
Arsenal have proven to be perennial under-achievers in the Champions League with only one final appearance under Arsene Wenger’s tutelage. The Gunners produced fluctuating performances to surprisingly finish second in their group behind Shaktar Donetsk and now face the onerous task of knocking out an in-form Barcelona to progress. Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie have returned from injury and should Samir Nasri and Mourane Chamakh reprise their early season form then Arsenal have a fighting chance against their Catalan opponents.
Wenger’s tactics will ultimately dictate how the Emirates club fare against Barcelona as his decision to not man-mark Lionel Messi backfired spectacularly the last time the sides met in European competition. Arsenal look set for a serious tilt at the Premier League title this year but an unexpected two-legged win over Barcelona would see Wenger’s side installed as one of the favourites to lift the trophy at Wembley in May.
FC Bayern Munich’s domestic woes continued into the New Year and it looks unlikely they will be challenging for the Bundesliga this season. Dortmund’s superb start to the campaign suggests the Champions League looks Louis Van Gaal’s best hope of a major title in 2011. Bayern looked impressive in Group E qualifying as group winners with 5 wins a solitary loss en-route to booking a last sixteen berth.
Current Champions League title- holders Inter Milan stands in the Bavarian side’s way of a quarter final spot. A repeat of last year’s final offers Van Gaal’s outfit the opportunity for revenge over the Italians and with little domestic issues to distract them expect Bayern to go far in this season’s tournament. What price another German victory at Wembley?
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.