Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Champions League Knockout Stage Preview

The Champions League is back after a far too long winter hibernation, which means it's now time to see who Europe's best team is. Everyone has their say and their opinions on who will be hoisting the trophy on June 6 in Berlin, and I am certainly no stranger to that. But let's take a look at the Knockout stage with a different perspective; one with the likelihood of victory in Berlin in about 4 months. So let's dive in:

Shakhtar Donetsk: Ukraine's moneybags team is still performing despite the fact that their town has been ravaged by war and they're playing thousands of miles from home. They always seemingly make this stage of the tournament and fall here, and since they're playing Bayern Munich this time around, that seems like a pretty fair bet.

Bayern Munich: Is this Bayern Munich team the one that can not only challenge Europe's best this year but be better than the team that won the treble 2 years ago? There have been hiccups, but small ones in the grand scheme of things. They're once again dominating Germany, meaning they can focus all of their energies on this competition. A lot obviously will depend on their draw, but they have as just a good a shot as any to win.

PSG: Felled by Chelsea last season in the quarterfinals, will that happen once again in the Round of 16 this time? They'll have Zlatan this time around, which means they'll have the difference maker they lacked against Chelsea last season. How everyone else plays around him is critical. They'll need great performances from Lavezzi, Cavani, Lucas, and not the least of which Marco Verratti, who has never really lived up to his hype. If they get past Chelsea, they can be a threatening team. But that's one hell of an ask.

Chelsea: So close last year, yet so far. Good news is this year they have midfield destroyer extraordinaire Nemanja Matic, whose influence was lacking against Atleti in the semifinals. Having a halfway competent striker is also a welcome change, even if there is the chance Diego Costa could stamp on someone's ankle and get suspended. Chelsea blow by blow are the team with the fewest weaknesses in this tournament, but they can still be had by teams who can take advantage of John Terry and Gary Cahill. If they get the away goal they want at the Parc de Princes, watch out.

Schalke: Germany's Tottenham can seemingly never get a decent draw with the hopes of advancing. Blasted by Real Madrid last season, so seems their fate once again this time out. Roberto Di Matteo has already pulled one Champions League shock off in his career, but can he do it again? This Real Madrid team has the potential to be better than last year's so...

Real Madrid: The defending Champs are in good form despite the numerous spats between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, which has seemingly not only divided the Merengue fanbase but the team as well. How will that play out on the field? They'll probably still obliterate Schalke, but after that they could be in for problems if they play a team with a strong midfield. Their desire to play without a defensive midfielder was once their undoing in the past, and could well happen again (Atleti or Chelsea, hello).

Basel/Porto: Let's be honest, this tie exists so whoever draws the winner in the Quarters can trumpet their easy draw. Both are Champions League mainstays, and both have pulled giant killings off before, but they do feel sadly like cannon fodder. That doesn't mean they both don't have players who can be problems for whoever gets them next (Arsenal seems likely), but... try not to mince words when speaking about these teams.

Manchester City: Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony are now back with the squad, and that doesn't seem like it's happened a moment too soon. Manchester City are not the same team without Yaya, and that's been fairly evident ever since he left for AFCON duty. Wilfried Bony was able to bag goals for fun for Swansea, but how will he work with David Silva and Sergio Aguero? Is Vincent Kompany going to be the centerback everyone thinks he can be? If the pieces begin to gel together for Manuel Pellegrini, then a shock could be on the cards. But with the way Barca are firing right now... seems a bit of an ask, doesn't it?

Barcelona: This isn't a vintage Barca side by any means, but if Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel can combine the way they have recently, oh boy, watch out. They still have issues at the back that can be exploited, and the midfield isn't any sort of Barca vintage, but they are sitll Barcelona and can absolutely blow you away if you're not careful. They are growing in confidence with every passing game, which means Luis Enrique's seat is getting cooler, which means Barca might play with more freedom. They will still meet challenges down the road, but Manchester City is one they should overcome.

Juventus: Italy's best team always seems to struggle in Europe no matter the year and the players they have. They do have Paul Pogba, who may be the best young midfielder in the world at present, and Arturo Vidal, who is awesome in every way, but hasn't really ever shown his true colors in the Champions League. Let's be fair here though, this is their shot to finally break through at this stage. Dortmund are not the same team they have been in the past, even as they are beginning to find their feet. If Tevez and Morata can score, Juve can advance here and possibly go further. But they have to put their European demons behind them first.

Borussia Dortmund: What a season they're having. It's almost inconceivable to look at the Bundesliga table and see where they are right now. There are many reasons for their struggles, but they're out of the relegation zone now and for whatever reason they've felt more comfortable playing in Europe this season than they have domestically. A healthy Marco Reus is invaluable to their possible successes, and he finally looks healthy after a long layoff. They are still a dangerous team despite what their record would indicate. Watch out.

Arsenal: As much as it pains me to say this, boy they look good right now; almost a vintage Arsenal side. They are attacking with fluidity, confidence and guile. And for once, they've been handed a draw that doesn't seem like it will punch them in the face. Sure there is narrative, but Arsenal are better than that this season. They may be the most sneaky dangerous side in the draw because of how they are playing and because they can build up confidence with a tie they should easily win. The likelihood is they'll still slip up massively if they have to play a big team, but they might give said team trouble on their way out.

Monaco: The new era Anzhi, Monaco's free spending days are over because it's hard to convince players to play in a half empty stadium every day even if they are splashing out oilbucks in a tax haven. They found a way to win Group C, but their team isn't incredibly impressive on paper. They have a decent collection of young players like Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Geoffry Kondogbia, etc. but they feel like no match for what Arsenal will be able to put on the pitch against them.

Bayer Leverkusen: We think Marcelo Bielsa is the man of the high press, but Roger Schmidt might be the new progenitor of the system. His team press like few others in Europe do, which seems appropriate considering who they are going to play in the Round of 16. If the press fails, which it has done in the past, boy can they get scored on. Usually, Atleti play in defensive, scrappy, physical ties that end up with more off the ball incidents than goals. I don't think we'll be saying the same thing about their tie against Bayer.

Atleti: Finally, the silver medalists from last year. Diego Simeone has done an impressive job rebuilding his side on the fly after it was plucked apart last season, Who knew Fernando Torres would ever score goals again? Is he ever. Antoine Griezmann is as good as advertised, Mario Mandzukic seemingly fits in perfectly with Simeone's style, and despite a few road hiccups, Atleti are still in with a shot to win La Liga, and by association the Champions League. I wouldn't want to draw them in the Quarters.

Round of 16 tie winners:

Real Madrid
Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid

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