While Di Matteo has tinkered with the personnel in his first XI during his relatively brief tenure, Howedes’ influence typically makes an immovable figure. The World Cup winner is an adaptable defender, and whether he plays as centre-back, right-back or left-back, the German does an exceptional job.
Howedes is superb at protecting his penalty box, aggressive in the tackle and a defender who can bring the ball out, setting attacks in motion for this Schalke team. His organizational skills and fundamental defensive abilities must come to the fore if the Germans are going to nullify the stunning firepower boasted by Real Madrid.
Verdict – Last-16: Schalke simply haven’t showcased the requisite consistency to get the better of Real Madrid and as the group stages illustrated—they lost 5-0 against Chelsea at home—against the very best sides they can occasionally cave in. Expect them to make a better fist of things than last season, but to come up short for the second successive year.
Despite routinely selling off their best talents at the end of every season, Shakhtar Donetsk are a team have been an eminent presence in the Champions League. But a combination of these players setting off for pastures new and perennially poor away form has prevented this team from making a major impression at the sharp end of the competition.
As they get set to face German juggernauts Bayern Munich in the last-16 this time round, it’d be fair to say that little has changed. The Ukrainians showcased some outstanding firepower in the group stages—they bagged 12 goals in two games against BATE Borisov—but against the better opposition, they struggled to preserve that kind of cutting edge.
Eventually they finished in second place behind Porto in what was an admittedly weak Group H, but Shakhtar will be tough opposition to best in the last-16. When the team’s attacking quartet clicks into gear, they’re capable of scything through even the most stringy of defenses.
It’s doubtful that they’ll be able to keep out the very best offenses away from home, though. Andriy Pyatov is something of an erratic presence between the sticks, while manager Mircea Lucescu seems unsure on what his best combination is at the back.
Key Man – Douglas Costa
While Chelsea eventually landed Juan Cuadrado from Fiorentina in the mid-season window, there was much talk about them potentially lining up the Shakhtar star and it’s easy to see why. Costa is vibrant midfield player who combines intricacy, intelligence and a fierce intensity to make life very difficult indeed for opposition defenses.
He is just one of a clutch of attacking midfield talents in this squad and this is the area of the field in which Shakhtar can really hurt opponents. Typically deployed on the right of this engrossing triumvirate, Costa will also have to work back and put in some defensive diligence when his team come under pressure.
Verdict – Last-16: Shakhtar don’t have the experience, solidity or enough 1quality to cause Bayern big problems and they’ll find exceptionally difficult to take anything from their tie with the German giants. If they don’t establish a commanding lead in front of their rowdy home crowd after the first-leg, their hopes of glory could be dashed very quickly indeed.
Christopher Moore (World Soccer Talk writer): Since September 1st, Real Madrid has recorded an astounding 25 victories in 26 matches when they don’t play Atletico Madrid (winless during that stretch in four matches against the club located just five miles away from the Bernabeu).
Real picked up a favorable draw (Schalke) in the upcoming round of 16 of the Champions League knockout phase. The Spanish giants should be able to handle the Germans in the two-legged affair and with the quarterfinals set to be played in April, both Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos should be fit and available once again (and a chance of James Rodriguez recovering from injury as well).
If Real can avoid Atletico in the tournament, they have a solid chance to become the first team to win consecutive Champions League crowns since AC Milan accomplished the feat 25 years ago.
Matt Lichtenstadter (World Soccer Talk writer): Real Madrid are, and rightfully so, favorites to repeat as Champions of Europe, except their road to glory has been met with speedbumps, namely Atletico Madrid asking questions of the Merengues midfield.
Bayern Munich too are favorites, but they have not been tested on the level at which they will be when the competition thins out. Atleti certainly have the credentials to produce more upsets, and their matchup against Bayer could be tricky, but they should be able to break through Roger Schmidt’s press well enough to advance.
But you get the sense that this is Jose Mourinho and Chelsea’s year. There is no standout favorite since all of the big teams remaining in this year’s tournament are fallible, but Chelsea seem to have the fewest problems among the mix.
Their midfield on its day is the best in the Premier League and possibly the best in Europe, and Diego Costa is the type of striker that can thrive in a 2 leg series. So long as the centre-back pairing of Cahill and Terry hold out, Chelsea can, and probably should, hoist the trophy come June 6 in Berlin.
Nick Webster (World Soccer Talk Podcast host): It sounds like a cliche as to why Chelsea will be champions but the simple fact is this…they are the best team! From top to bottom, Jose Mourinho has assembled a squad that contains all the qualities needed to scale Europe’s biggest heights.
Defensively they are rock solid with discipline and commitment being preferred to flair and adventure. They always defend with 8 which makes them very difficult to break down even when opponents enjoy more possession.
In midfield, Mourinho has workers who can flat out play mixed with experienced match winners who can flip a game in the blink of an eye. They’ve all learnt the Mourinho doctrine that ‘team’ triumphs over ‘I’ and realize that collectively they’re stronger than individually. Think Oscar, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas.
Upfront, Chelsea has an assassin in Diego Costa. The man was built to score goals.
And then there is the man himself, Jose Mourinho. The most calculating manager in world soccer. The Champions League is where he measures himself against the best and his record of taking teams to the latter stages of the competition is unmatched.
Christopher Harris (World Soccer Talk Editor/Publisher): I’m not expecting any major shocks or surprises in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, so if Bayern Munich and Real Madrid can keep themselves separated, I can see them meeting in the European final for the first time in either club’s history.
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