UEFA Champions League: Round of 16 preview 1
The UEFA Champions League is back! We have reached the Round of 16 and there are some mouth-watering ties among the eight games that will take place over the next four weeks. “Stoppage Time” gives you the lowdown on the form of each team going into the knockout stage of the competition. Some teams fortunes have improved since the group phase concluded in December but in one or two cases form has got worse so we’ll make it easy for you to see who is hot and who is not. There are four matches this week and four next week with the second legs being played two weeks later in all cases (we’ll give you the dates to each match in each of the four previews). Today we focus on the two matches that will be played tomorrow with the second leg on Wednesday, March 10th:
AC MILAN (Italy) v MANCHESTER UNITED (England)
This may be a meeting between two giants of European football but, for most observers, the match has become the latest excuse to indulge in the ‘Beckham Circus’. Only this time there is sufficient reason for the former England captain to be at the forefront of preparations for what is, in any case, a widely anticipated contest. The former United star could play against his old club for the first time in his career but it’s not known yet whether his coach Leonardo will play him from the start. Either way Beckham’s view that “for the first time… I will have to hope Manchester United lose” could just be wishful thinking as the Red Devils go into the game in much the better form.
Since the conclusion of the group stage United have won seven of their eleven Premier League matches including a 3-1 demolition away at fellow title-chasers Arsenal FC only a fortnight ago and sees the English champions only one point behind leaders Chelsea FC who have stumbled in recent weeks, most recently suffering a 2-1 reverse at Everton FC. With United having qualified for another League Cup final, their third in five seasons, things are looking up at Old Trafford. Milan, on the other hand, have won only half of their eight Serie A encounters and lie third in the Italian league, nine points behind defending champions and city rivals Internazionale. When Beckham returned in January for his second stint at the San Siro Milan’s form saw an immediate improvement, three wins in a row against Genoa, Juventus and Siena gave the side hope of a title charge. However since losing 2-0 in the ‘Derby della Madonnina’ to Inter the Rossoneri‘s form has been less impressive taking five points from the last three matches.
Despite all the Beckham talk there are two players on the pitch who will be the real stars to look out for. Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney has really shone since a certain Cristiano Ronaldo left Old Trafford to go to Real Madrid. Rooney’s goal tally in all competitions already stands at 23, although it is surprising that none of those goals have come in the Champions League so far. Milan have a player of such skill, class and experience in Ronaldinho but even he could be eclipsed by his fellow compatriot Alexandre Pato who, like Rooney, seems to have improved after another club hero, namely Kaká, went to Real Madrid. Pato has scored eleven goals so far in 2009-10 with two of those in the Champions League and he is hoping to show that Milan are far from a spent force. Milan have a great history in this competition which they have won on seven occasions, including, most recently, in the 2006-07 season when they beat United in the semi-finals.
OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS (France) v REAL MADRID CF (Spain)
With the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League final being staged at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, nine-times European champions Real Madrid are determined that they can win “la décima’ (‘The Tenth’) at their home stadium and forget all about the history-making year which their arch-rivals FC Barcelona have enjoyed in the last twelve months. Their chances of winning the tournament look good after they easily topped a group containing AC Milan, Olympique de Marseille and FC Zürich by a comfortable four points and their form in the Spanish League has been almost faultless. Olympique Lyonnais, on the other hand, have found it tough going in the French League since they surrendered their title to FC Girondins de Bordeaux last season. Although they finished second in their Champions League group they did so due to the fact that they played a Liverpool side who were lacking in confidence and the Hungarian champions Debreceni who were incapable of taking a single point from any of their opponents.
Real Madrid lie second in La Liga having won eight of their ten matches since the conclusion of the group stage in December. They have been playing catch-up to defending champions FC Barcelona for most of the season but their title aspirations improved this weekend with a 3-0 win away at bottom club Xerez CD whilst the Catalans succumbed to their first league defeat this season losing 2-1, ironically, to Real’s local rivals Atlético de Madrid. This reduced the gap between the top two teams to just two points with El Real now looking more ruthless especially now that Portuguese sensation Cristiano Ronaldo has returned after injury. Olympique Lyonnais are not yet playing like a team who could seriously challenge for the championship but they do lie in fourth place, eight points behind defending champions and league leaders Bordeaux so all is not lost yet. Since the group stage Lyon have won five of their nine league games including wins against Paris Saint Germain and Racing Lens but have lost two games in that period to championship challengers Bordeaux and Montpellier. Therefore Lyon must improve against all types of opposition if they are to claim their eighth domestic championship in nine seasons.
As previously mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo is the star man for Los Blancos having scored 17 goals so far this season including six in the UEFA Champions League. Imagine how many more he could’ve had if he hadn’t have spent a month on the sidelines due to injury. But such is the potential at Real Madrid that anyone can be a matchwinner on their day including club legend Raúl, French striker Karim Benzema (formerly of Olympique Lyonnais) and Argentinian wonder Gonzalo Higuaín who has chipped in with 14 goals this season. For the French side Lisandro López, the Argentinian who signed from Portuguese champions FC Porto at the end of last season to replace Benzema, is the current top scorer with 13 goals, five of which were in the Champions League including the crucial equalizer at home to Liverpool FC which guaranteed the French side’s progression to this stage of the competition.