The resumption of the UEFA Champions League knockout phase is the prime indicator that the serious business is about to kick off in European soccer. It’s crunch time, in short, and teams will resume their respective European commitments with dreams of glory and hopes of parading the trophy around the Estadio Da Luz, Lisbon come May 24, 2014.
This season’s last 16 is bristling with quality out, each with their own case to make for the title knowing they are just seven games away from clinching a spot in footballing immortality.
Here, we run the rule over every team in the last 16 and make some bold predictions (draw permitting, of course) on who we think will be contesting the European Cup final this time round. Can anyone halt the runaway train that is the holders Bayern Munich? Can Borussia Dortmund go one better than last time around? Will the English teams feature? And how will the Spanish teams fare alongside their tightest title race in years?
We’ve done our best to help you make your own mind up. Feel free to let us know who YOU think will be crowned Champions of Europe come May 24 and what you’re expecting from this season’s Champions League knockout phase.
All statistics courtesy of Who Scored? All kick off times are Eastern time.
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Last 16 Fixtures:
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich, Wednesday 19 February, 2:45PM
Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal, Tuesday 11 March, 2:45PM
Arsenal came through the toughest of all the groups to make it to the last 16. But defeat to Napoli in the final fixture meant they were ousted from the top spot by Borussia Dortmund and they’ve landed a tie with European Champions Bayern Munich for the second season running in the first knock-out round.
But you could argue they have a better chance of progressing than this time last year, for Arsene Wenger’s side look a better rounded and steelier outfit this season. They have topped the Premier League for large portions of the domestic campaign, and some strong performances in Europe bode well for the knock-out stages. Particularly their dismantling of Napoli at the Emirates and their marvelous 1-0 win in Dortmund.
It’s going to take a couple of huge performances to overhaul Bayern, but the Gunners can take some comfort from their 2-0 win at the Allianz Arena last season, not to mention Manchester City’s triumph there in the group stages during this season’s competition. If they somehow make it through to the quarterfinals, they’ll certainly fancy their chances of going all the way to the final. It’s a rather big if, though.
Wenger has an embarrassment of riches in midfield, and the talents of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil give the team a continuous creative buzz. The central defensive duo of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have been rock solid too, discounting a couple of capitulations against Manchester City and Liverpool. Looking forward, if they can Aaron Ramsey back into the side ahead of the second leg, then that would be a major boost to the Gunners.
The midfield can look a bit samey as all the players are stylistically similar. The injury to Theo Walcott robs Wenger of a completely different attacking dimension and the onus looks set to be on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to bring a dynamism and directness to the Arsenal midfield.
Key Man – Olivier Giroud
So much of Arsenal’s recent renaissance has been down to the performances of the former Montpellier man. Giroud has honed his skills and developed into an excellent front man, providing a suitable foil for the intricate style of Arsenal’s midfield schemers.
With little in reserve in terms of natural centre-forward players, the Gunners are hugely reliant on the No.12, and he must stick his chances away if they are to stand any chance of progressing.
Verdict: The worst possible draw for the Gunners means it’s difficult to see them progressing into the last quarterfinals. They’ll go not further than the LAST 16, but expect them to run the champions very close.
Manager: Diego Simeone
Last 16 Fixtures:
Milan vs. Atletico Madrid, Wednesday 19 February, 2:45PM
Atletico Madrid vs. Milan, Tuesday 11 March, 2:45PM
Diego Simeone’s side have really caught the eye this season. At the time of writing, Los Coloncheros sit atop of La Liga and have a very feasible chance of busting the Real Madrid/Barcelona duopoly in Spain’s top division. It’s a potential achievement made even more remarkable when you consider they sold Radamel Falcao last summer and have invested very little of his substantial transfer fee back into the playing squad as of yet.
They have been pretty impressive in their Champions League exploits too. Atletico finished top of their group and have been rewarded with a very winnable tie against an out-of-sorts AC Milan outfit. Simeone’s team will be majorly confident of breezing past the seven-time European champions and into the last eight of the competition.
And if they get there, then they are a team that the majority of sides will be looking to avoid. Simeone has Atletico playing with discipline, energy, incisiveness and a bit of stardust to boot. Players like Thibaut Courtois, Miranda, Gabi and Diego Godin have been excellent in the team’s defensive efforts so far this campaign, whilst the likes of Diego Costa, Koke and Arda Turan have posed an unwavering attacking threat. In addition, the recent signing of Diego from Wolfsburg will give them another intricate offensive dimension and will allow Simeone to be much more flexible with his team selections; something that will be key in the latter stages of this competition.
The cohesiveness and energy of this Atletico side has been unparalleled across Europe this season. Simeone has them wonderfully drilled and hugely clinical all aspects of their play. The front two of David Villa and Costa compliment each other well and the inverted wide players—Koke and Turan—are so difficult to pick up when drifting off the right and left respectively. Even if teams can puncture Atletico’s stubborn defensive effort, they have to beat Courtois, who is fast establishing himself as one of Europe’s top goalkeepers.
The squad has little experience when it comes to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, and the same can be said for Simeone as a manager. In their starting XI, only David Villa has a pedigree for winning major domestic and European competitions. The squad is a little lightweight in some areas too, so they will be desperate not to pick up any injuries or suspensions.
Key Man – Thibaut Courtois
The Belgian stopper has been sensational this season and a mainstay of Los Coloncheros sensational form. On-loan from Chelsea for the third consecutive season, he has now played over 100 games for Atletico, and in doing so has established himself as arguably the best young goalkeeper on the planet. As the tournament gets into the deeper stages and Atletico face more illustrious opposition, he needs to be at his absolute peak.
Verdict: Potential dark horses for the title? Atletico’s style will certainly pose plenty of problems for some of the more illustrious sides and they remain something of an unknown quantity in the Champions League. They’ll beat Milan comfortably in the last 16 and looking forward, have a fearless squad who are going to be exceptionally difficult for to beat. But a run to the QUARTERFINALS will be as far as they go this year.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Manager: Sami Hyypia
Last 16 Fixtures:
Bayer 04 Leverkusen vs. Paris Saint-Germain, Tuesday 18 February, 2:45PM
Leverkusen have enjoyed a very steady campaign to date, and as the weeks tick by they look increasingly likely to cement their spot in second place in the Bundesliga. With Bayern Munich but a dot on the horizon and a host of inconsistent teams battling for the remaining European berths, Bayer 04 could find themselves with little to play for soon. With that in mind, they’ll be desperate for a decent run in the Champions League.
Sami Hyypia’s team qualified from a difficult looking group which contained Manchester United, Real Sociedad and Shakhtar Donetsk. A couple of heavy defeats to the English champions did blemish their group phase performance, but to get out of the group in itself will have been viewed as a success. They will face big spending Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 and Bayer will be certainly be under less pressure than their opponents to progress. It’s something that could well work in their favour.
Key players seem to be hitting their stride at the right time, too. Heung Min-Son is enjoying his best spell since signing for the club, and his match-winning display against Borussia Monchengladbach recently suggests he is ready to make crucial contributions for his team. He’ll be ably supported by the ever-vibrant Sidney Sam and the predatory Steffan Kiessling in Bayer’s attacking efforts.
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