The excitement is building as we edge closer to the Champions League knockout stages. The quest to reach the final at Wembley begins tomorrow. Poise, class, and a little bit of luck will be needed to see teams through to the next round. Sensible Soccer will preview each match day in a series of installments. And now, a preview of tomorrow's fixtures:
AC Milan vs. Tottenham
Leg 1 will be played in Milan at San Siro.
Champions League new-boys Tottenham will take on Serie A leaders AC Milan in what should be a thrilling, two-legged affair. The question is: which teams will we see? Given the pedigree of each side, both teams have been inconsistent with their results this year. Even though Milan are tops, their campaign has been riddled with draws to sub-par teams. The Rossoneri are a much different Serie A leader from Mourinho's dominating Inter side we saw last season. Nevertheless, they are a talented squad in control of a tough league.
Tottenham have also produced spotty results, often winning a big game then dropping the next. The Spurs lie in 4th place in the cagey Premier League. That said, both teams are coming off a set of thrilling wins over the weekend, so hopefully we will see a well contested match.
Missing Persons: The injury list for this fixture is quite hefty on both sides. It is looking like Tottenham will be without lynchpin midfielders Luka Modric or Rafael Van der Vaart - the latter being more likely to start because somehow he always shows up on the team-sheet come gameday. Even worse, it seems increasingly unlikely that powerful winger Gareth Bale will feature at San Siro, the sight of his scorching Group Stage hat-trick. The Spurs are fortunate to have an in-form replacement, Niko Kranjcar, ready to dress and impress.
Milan's injury problems run throughout the lineup - at the back, the squad will be without new signing Nicola Leggrotaglie or veteran Gianluca Zambrotta; Rodney Strasser and Ignazio Abate are listed as doubtful for the clash. Luckily, the Rossoneri have been boosted by the return of Alessandro Nesta and Luca Antonini, who will likely start alongside Daniele Bonera and Thiago Silva. In the midfield, Milan will be without role-players Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini.
Some interesting things to note: a few new Milan signings are indeed cup-tied...that's right Milanisti, Cassano, Van Bommel, and Emanuelson will not be featuring in the tournament. Spurs fans will breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that their top winter signing, Steven Pienaar, is eligible.
1. Who will control the midfield? With both teams likely to field second choice players, I am wondering who has the depth to grab control of the midfield. The team who comes out on top after 90 minutes will be the one with the best cohesion in the middle of the park.
2. How will Milan cope with Tottenham's style of play? Tottenham taught Inter a hard lesson that sent tremors throughout world football during group play. The English style had embarrassed the holders. It will be interesting to see how Milan handles the gruff play of the Spurs.
3. Can Tottenham hold Zlatan at bay? The key to beating Milan is to stifle their hitman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (if you don't believe me, see the match report of Roma's win in Milan right before the holiday break). It looks like Younes Kaboul will miss the trip to San Siro, so that cancels out the big man out-muscling Ibra scenario. The onus will largely fall on veteran William Gallas. Spurs fans: pray for a good Gallas showing.
Prediction: Injuries aside, I still believe this will be one of the more exciting fixtures during the Round of 16, given the talent and dazzling play of both teams. I think we will see a draw at San Siro. For Tottenham to be satisfied, they will need to bag a crucial away goal.
Valencia vs. Schalke 04
One year ago, Schalke were top contenders for the Bundesliga crown, giving Bayern Munich a run for their money. It got even better in the summer, when the club made top signings in the form of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Raul. Then, the new season started and everything went wrong. Shockingly, Schalke sits in 10th place in Bundesliga. A strange turnaround for a side with motivation and top players. Nonetheless, Schalke will take on La Liga side Valencia in one of the weaker clashes in the Round of 16.
The David-less Valencia are holding course in La Liga, maintaining their perennial 3rd place slot after leap-frogging Villareal at the weekend. The Spanish side has not lost in 2011 and are unbeaten in 9-games.
Missing Persons: The good news for Schalke is that the squad is fully fit. The same can not be said for Valencia. Top stars Juan Mata and David Albelda have been out of action for a few weeks and are doubtful for the game. Strangely, these omissions have not hurt Valencia's form, as they are coming off a huge win against Atletico Madrid this past weekend.
1. Can Huntelaar and Raul do it again? The talented duo accounted for half the side's goals in group play and will need to continue their good Champions League form if they hope to see the quarters. Raul has lined up against Valencia many times in his career and will look to terrorize the back line in his first trip home since joining Schalke.
2. Will Neuer be able to hold off the flood? Manuel Neuer has made a whopping 4-5 saves per game in Bundesliga play, often times standing on his head to get a result for the struggling side. The highly rated shot-stopper will have to remain steadfast against a quick Valencia attack to give Schalke hope.
3. Will Valencia's stars be missed on the grand stage? Sure, the absence of Mata and Albelda in the Valencia lineup against inferior La Liga sides has been manageable, but what about a knockout match versus a team hoping to grasp onto a motivating result? Valencia has a scorer in Roberto Soldado (5 goals in CL play) but might miss their play-maker Mata and holding midfielder Albelda, should they not start.
Prediction: I think Valencia will win the first leg of this tie. The Spanish side are in form and motivated, which you can not say about Schalke. For the Bundesliga side to make a dent in this game, Klaas needs to be in session. Huntelaar or Raul need to notch an away goal to have any hope of celebrating after the return leg in Germany.
Stay tuned for tomorrow's previews of Arsenal vs. Barcelona and AS Roma vs. Shakhtar Donetsk.