La Liga European UEFA Preview and U.S. T.V. Listings: Feb. 15 – Feb. 17

UEFA Champions League

The tie of the round begins at the Emirates Stadium (Arsenal Stadium according to UEFA) as Arsenal and FC Barcelona meet in the knockout phase of the Champions League for the second consecutive year.  When Arsenal failed to win their group, the Gunners always knew that there would be a chance that they would get Barcelona in the Round of 16 draw, and the fates heeded such a matchup between two of the best footballing sides in Europe.

Compared to last season’s tussle in the quarterfinals, the most significant changes between then and now come up front for both teams.  For Arsenal, Robin van Persie did not play in either leg against Barça and now is actually healthy and on fire in front of goal.  Since the beginning of the new year, when he firmly established himself in Arsène Wenger’s starting eleven after easing himself into match fitness in the previous month and a half, he has scored ten goals in nine matches in all competitions.  Marouane Chamakh, who has lost his place in the lineup to van Persie, has had nothing but praise for his teammate, believing van Persie is currently “walking on water” and stating that Arsenal is much better with van Persie than with himself at this moment.

Remember Zlatan Ibrahimovic?  He used to play for Barcelona, and he scored twice in the first leg in London against Arsenal to give the blaugrana a 0-2 lead before Arsenal stormed back late in the second half for a 2-2 draw.  Ibra is now leading the line for AC Milan, and David Villa steps in as the center forward flanked by Pedro Rodríguez and Lionel Messi.  Messi torched Arsenal in the second leg of their quarterfinal with a four-goal romp through their leaky defense, and with Arsenal likely to focus much more manpower on Messi this time around, it will be up to Villa and Pedro to create chances on their own to afford Messi that extra foot of space to work his magic.

Before Arsenal and Barcelona meet on Wednesday night, Valencia and Schalke 04 will perform as the opening act at the Mestalla on Tuesday evening.  Los che return to the knockout phase of the Champions League for the first time in four years, and only five players still belong to the club since Chelsea knocked them out in quarterfinal stage in 2007: Joaquín Sánchez, Miguel Monteiro, David Navarro, Vicente Rodríguez, and David Albelda.  The current striking pair of Roberto Soldado and Aritz Aduriz might not be as fearsome as David Villa and Fernando Morientes were four years ago, but Valencia’s two new additions provide a physicality and an aerial presence that suit Unai Emery’s more pragmatic system.

Schalke’s mediocre form in the Bundesliga has been juxtaposed by their impressive cup play.  Similar to Atlético Madrid last season, where los colchoneros could not find their feet in La Liga yet won the UEFA Europa League and lost in the Copa del Rey final to Sevilla, Schalke sits a middling tenth in the league yet has reached the semifinal of the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and won their group in the Champions League.

Die Knappen has more than a tad of Spanish flavor in their squad with Spanish natives José Jurado and leading goalscorer and Real Madrid legend Raúl and former Real Madrid players Christoph Metzelder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.  Schalke will keep it tight in the midfield, especially away from home, and with their last five Bundesliga matches ending with only one goal in each of those games, expect a tactical affair, especially with Felix Magath and Unai Emery at the helm of these two teams.

Feb. 15

Valencia vs. Schalke 04 – 2:30 PM on FSN HD (5:00 PM delayed on Fox Soccer Channel HD and Fox Deportes)

Feb. 16

Arsenal vs. FC Barcelona – 2:30 PM on Fox Soccer Channel HD and Fox Deportes

UEFA Europa League

The defending champions Atlético Madrid fell meekly out of the competition in the group stage, and Getafe simply was not good or deep enough to make it out of their group, but the two strongest Spanish representatives in the Europa League, Villarreal and Sevilla, made it through to the knockout phase.  Villarreal travels to the Stadio San Paolo to face Napoli in the tie of the round in a matchup of devastating front lines: Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar for Villarreal against Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Marek Hamšik for Napoli.

Napoli’s stellar surprise season has been headed by Italy’s top scorer Edinson Cavani, but the knock on the Neapolitans has been that they could not win against the top clubs in Serie A.  They went into the Stadio Olimpico against AS Roma on Saturday in the Derby del Sole, where they had not won since 1993 and thoroughly deserved their 0-2 win against a Champions League-caliber team.  With Walter Mazzarri successfully staying with his attacking 3-4-2-1 formation, Napoli has reemerged as a team worth reckoning in European competitions.

Villarreal has taken a downward trend in the past couple of weeks, inexplicably losing consecutive league matches to Levante and Deportivo La Coruña, and trainer Juan Carlos Garrido has had to motivate a suddenly disinterested team on the pitch.  A European night against the number two team from Serie A should instantly pique the players’ interest, and especially the atmosphere that will be created by the Napoli faithful at the San Paolo will only help to help Villarreal focus as their minds have meandered from the task at hand in recent times.

Feb. 17

Napoli vs. Villarreal – 12:50 PM on DirecTV channel 481 (481-1 for HD)

Sevilla vs. FC Porto – 3:00 PM on DirecTV channel 481 (481-1 for HD) (delayed at 5:00 PM on Gol TV HD)

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