After a seemingly endless layoff, the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League is upon us, and unlike many seasons, this first knockout round offers up some tantalizing and fascinating matchups and storylines. [ad#as2]
Of course, we won’t get to see them play out over the typical one-week period, rather over a full month, with UEFA splitting up the matches into two matches a day over four weeks, rather than the old rapid-fire four matches per day over two weeks. So here are the matchups:
Lyon-Real Madrid (Feb. 16/March 10) – The major storyline here is Karim Benzema’s return to Lyon with his new club, although his fitness is a major question as he battles to return from a groin injury. With Lyon languishing in 4th place in Ligue 1, Real should be more than capable of dispatching Lyon with or without him.
AC Milan-Manchester United (Feb. 16/March 10) – Speaking of returns, how about David Beckham vs. his beloved Red Devils? He has sworn he will not celebrate if he scores against his former club – he hasn’t found the net in 7 games with Milan so far this season, so one can’t like his chances against United’s stout defense, but stranger things have happened. Ronaldinho has been having himself a well-timed renaissance of late, just in time for World Cup consideration, making this an even more interesting matchup. However, Wayne Rooney will be the difference here as United find a way through.
Bayern Munchen-Fiorentina (Feb. 17/March 9) – Fiorentina has endured a brutal season in Serie A, currently struggling along in 11th place. Finding the net has been a major problem, with Alberto Gilardino their leading scored in league play with just nine goals, and no one else with more than four. Meanwhile, Bayern has put 48 goals in the net in league play, and have spread those goals around. Look for Bayern to carry the Bundesliga flag into the quarterfinals.
Porto-Arsenal (Feb. 17/March 9) – Arsenal fans cling to their one last hope at silverware for the first time since 2005 after seeing their Premier League dreams dashed again in recent weeks. This may look like a favorable draw for the Gunners, but with Andrei Arshavin and Alex Song out for the first leg in Portugal, this could turn into a very tricky tie for the North Londoners. I’ll still go with Arsene Wenger’s boys finding a way to get through, probably needing a big performance in the second leg.
Olympiakos-Bordeaux (Feb. 23/March 17) – One of the least interesting matchups of the round sees the French league leaders Bordeaux against Olympiakos. Of interest to Arsenal fans, this will be a chance to see longtime transfer target Marouane Chamakh try to lead the line against the defensive-minded Greeks. Look for Bordeaux to find a way through to the quarters as the only French side.
Stuttgart-Barcelona (Feb. 23/March 17) – It may be tempting to pick an upset here, after the way Barcelona struggled in the group stage, but I will avoid that temptation. Even without the injured Xavi, Barcelona just has too much for the struggling German side, currently 10th in the Bundesliga. Stuttgart’s Alex Hleb gets to face his old club, though they may barely recognize him, as they’re probably more familiar with him sitting on the bench in a track suit.
CSKA Moscow-Sevilla (Feb. 24/March 16) – Luis Fabiano and his Spanish comrades get the lucky task of visiting Moscow in February, always a daunting task. Sevilla is the stronger, more talented side here, and if they can survive the harsh visit to Russia, their quality should get them through in the 2nd leg in Spain.
Inter Milan-Chelsea (Feb. 24/March 16) – The headliner. Heavyweight title fight. The beloved Jose Mourinho, unceremoniously ousted at Chelsea following an incredibly successful run, returns with a very powerful Inter side, currently leading Serie A. True to form, the Special One’s squad has been stingy at the back, allowing just 20 goals this season. Carlo Ancelotti’s Blues have played some beautiful attacking football this season, with Didier Drogba going head-to-head with Wayne Rooney for Premier League Player of the Year. They have also seemed to play extremely well in the biggest matches of the season. This is a coin-flip, but I will go with Chelsea by a nose, with Drogba being the difference-maker.