Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Champions League Roundup: Who's In, Who's Hot, and Who's Not

The UEFA Champions League is heating up, people. Group winners and runner-ups have been established and are ready for the Round of 16 drawing on Friday, December 17th. There were some frills, thrills, and surprises in this year's Group Stage, which I will touch upon in a light analysis of each team that has progressed. But first, please see the official seedings for the day of the draw, listed below.
Pot 1 (Group Winners)
Barcelona (D)
Man Utd. (C)
Chelsea (F)
Bayern Munich (E)
Real Madrid (G)
Shakhtar Donetsk (H)
Tottenham (A)
Schalke 04 (B)

Pot 2 (Runners-up)

Arsenal (H)
Inter Milan (A)
AC Milan (G)
O. Lyon (B)
Roma (E)
Valencia (C)
Marseille (F)
Copenhagen (D)

Pot 1 teams are paired with Pot 2 teams, and teams from the same country can not play each other. And now, the hopefuls:

Group A

1 Tottenham
The Spurs emphatically ended their first Champions League Group Stage in decades by taking first place in Group A. Coupled with holders Inter and a strong Bremen squad, Tottenham excitingly barreled, Gareth Bale style, to a place in the final 16. My only negative for Tottenham is how many goals they conceded (11 - other group winners gave up 6 at most). This could prove dangerous in two-legged play. Based on the seedings, I am hopeful of the North Londeners at very least getting to the Quarterfinals. Come on you Spurs!
Bale leaving Maicon for dead (1 of 3,000)
2 Inter Milan
Inter lackadaisically waltzed through to the Round of 16 in a group which they should have easily taken first in. Their horror-show in Germany on the last day of group play and thumping at the hands of Tottenham proves the champions will not repeat. I would put $1m on them crashing out in the first round of the knockouts. All I can do is laugh a hearty, Romanista laugh. Sorry, Rafa.

Group B

1 Schalke 04
I love German teams that have numbers in their names, which is why I'm thrilled that Schalke 04 has progressed to the Round of 16. The club is inexplicably underachieving in the Bundesliga (10th), but had a positive string of results in the UCL to boost morale. The combination of summer signings Raúl and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar have accounted for half the side's goals in UCL play. Even with their accomplishment, I don't think the Bundesliga side a big chance of making a run for the final this year. Group B was one of the weaker groups in the competition and the squad does not hold the pedigree of bigger clubs to see them through the coming pressure-filled matches.

2 Olympique Lyonnais
The once French powerhouse, Lyon, have qualified for the knockouts for an eighth consecutive year (impressive)! Though I felt they should have come out clear winners in this group, the Ligue 1 squad coasted through this simple group to second place. C'est la vie in the Round of 16.

Group C

Manchester United
United are making waves in the fabled European competition again, folks. With a stalwart defense (1 goal conceded) and the right results, the Red Devils went tops in tricky Group C. Sir Alex's men are a squad to fear in the Round of 16, with such tight defending and a workman-like ethic. Not to mention they are bound to get better as the year progresses. There is a good chance United will be vying for the title at Wembley in May.
Nemanja Vidic: defense is desire
2 Valencia
David-less (Villa & Silva) Valencia coasted through Group C to a realistic runners-up spot. They won games they needed to versus Bursapor and Rangers, and held United to a draw in their last match. A nice campaign thus far for a team that lost it's favorite Davids this past summer. 

Group D

The Catalan super-club made it into the knockout stage as group winners - what a surprise. Can you sense my sarcasm? There is no doubt that this tight-knit Spanish squad is destined, at the very least, for the quarterfinals. I don't think they require further analysis. Can you tell I hate Barcelona?

2 FC Copenhagen
What a delightful shocker! The minnows have progressed to become the first Danish team to reach the knockout round! No easy feat, considering their group mates were the aforementioned Spaniards and two lower-tier teams, Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos, that I still consider better than Copenhagen. The lively Danes won the games they had to and recorded a sensational draw against Barca. These guys truly deserve the knockouts. 
Group E

Bayern Munich
One of the best competing teams so far, FC Hollywood qualified for the knockouts weeks before any other squad. They performed as expected in one of the easier groups of the competition. My question is: can they beat one or two of the big boys and get back to the final this year? 

2 AS Roma
After shooting themselves in the foot, then playing good, then shooting themselves in the foot again, then playing good again, the Giallorossi finally emerged as knockout stage contestants. It has been a topsy-turvy campaign for Ranieri's men, but with some gusto and a vital smash and grab job against Munich at Olimpico, the Italians are in it to win it. If they bring the same fighting spirit they displayed against Bayern, there's no telling where this ever-so-progressing squad can go. I have a terrible feeling about the Roman's luck, though: we will draw Barcelona

Group F

The Blues soared to the top spot in a very predictable group. Though their form has taken a dip of late, the Ancelotti led Londoners have a lot to look forward to. With Lampard coming back from injury and the squad preparing to kick it into champion-winning gear, I would not discount Chelsea from booking a trip to the final in May.
Friggin' baby
2 Olympique Marseille
It's all happening so fast for the French champions! They went on to stun the country and win Ligue 1 last year and have now cruised into the Round of 16. In a crucial last game in which OM had to grab a point off of Chelsea, they went on to beat them! They are playing well and gaining major momentum. Marseille could make some waves in the knockouts.

Group G

1 Real Madrid
The most impressive team of the tournament so far, Madrid made being a group winner look easy. It did not matter for Mourinho's squad that they were in the hardest group of the competition, as they dispatched every team effortlessly, with the exception of a draw with Milan at San Siro. The galácticos are back. Led by Cristiano Ronaldo, who can't seem to stop scoring at the moment, this Madrid is poised to vie for the trophy. I believe Mourinho will be kissing hardware for a second straight year in May.
Ronaldo and Ozil celebrate
2 AC Milan
Given the difficulty of this group, it is an accomplishment for Milan to have progressed. But, the way they just scathed by, is worrisome. Earning just 8 points in 6 games, the Rossoneri were lucky to get into the Round of 16. Nonetheless, they are in and building momentum with each passing day. Could this be the year Ibra brings his team the trophy?

Group H

1 Shakhtar Donetsk
Arguably the biggest surprise of the UCL, the Ukrainian powerhouse spectacularly overcame Arsenal to win Group H. Hats off to Shakhtar for getting the job done. Luckily, they will avoid some tremendous squads in the first knockout stage and reach for the stars! Very exciting news for Ukrainian Football.

2 Arsenal
Dismal, incorrigible, embarrassing, unacceptable...those are some words Arsenal fans were using after their team's shocking losses to Braga and Shakhtar in the latter stages of group play. Arsene Wenger's squad dreadfully came second best in one of the weaker groups in the tournament. The fact that Arsenal is in the second drawing pot could be deadly for the Gunner's, as the potential for facing powerful teams is higher.
Arsenal face-plant
Stay tuned this Friday for UEFA's drawing. Let's hope FIFA doesn't show up and find some way to screw this thing up. 

More to come re: UCL Round of 16 match-ups. I'm getting giddy just thinking about it. Adios, friends.

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