After a nice long break from the action both the Champions League and UEFA Cup competitions will kick off their knockout rounds. We’ll first look at the UEFA Cup as their Round of 32 first leg fixtures take place this week.
Spanish clubs have dominated this competition in recent years but Germany, with 5 clubs, and England, with 3 clubs are strongly represented this season. My pre-tournament favourites to win it all, Bayern Munich, take on Scottish club Aberdeen in what looks to be a mismatch at Pittodrie. Bayern have cooled off after their fast start but Aberdeen are coming off the back of two thrashings — first a 4-1 defeat to Dundee United in the CIS Insurance Cup and then a 5-1 loss in this past weekend’s league fixture against Celtic. Dons manager Jimmy Calderwood will need to shore up his porous defence or Bayern could run riot over them.
Two-time winners Tottenham are up against my sentimental favourites Slavia Prague. It would be a miracle for Slavia to turn over Spurs and I do not expect that to happen. Tottenham have started to improve under Juande Ramos and their backline was upgraded significantly during the January transfer window. Joining the squad were Gilberto (from Hertha Berlin) and Jonathan Woodgate (from Middlesbrough) as well as 12m Euro signing Alan Hutton. However, Hutton is ineligible to play for Spurs because his former club Rangers FC have transferred to this competition. Despite that, I feel that if their core group of players stays healthy, Tottenham should make a strong UEFA Cup run.
Everton, currently 4th in the EPL, have a great chance of making the final 16. They face Norwegian champions Brann Bergen in Norway for the first leg but Brann’s season ended in November so match sharpness could be an issue. Due to the harsh winter conditions, the Norwegian league season typically starts in early April and lasts until early November.
Compounding their problems is the fact that they have won only one of their three home games in the UEFA Cup this season, losing the other two. Brann will have at least one face familiar to English Premier League fans, former Leeds United midfielder Eirik Bakke now plies his trade for Brann. Some might also remember Azar Karadzas, who had a loan spell with Portsmouth in 2005/06. The winner of the this tie goes on to fave the winner of the tie between Rosenborg BK and ACF Fiorentina in the Round of 16 setting up the potential for an all-Norwegian clash.