Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Round of 16 Continued - Match Day 2

Today's Champions League fixtures fired us into the most enthralling part of the tournament: the knockout rounds. Tottenham conquered AC Milan at San Siro, winning the match and grabbing a crucial away goal through Peter Crouch's 80th minute strike. Valencia and Schalke 04 drew 1-all in a heated contest. Legendary Spanish striker Raul grabbed the vital away goal for the Germans, who should be thrilled with this result.

Now for the previews of tomorrow's matches:

Arsenal vs. Barcelona
Leg 1 will be played in London at the Emirates.

Managers were crossing their fingers at the December draw in Geneva in hopes of avoiding Barcelona in the Round of 16. Unfortunately for Arsenal, they drew the short straw and have the monumental task of taking down the Catalans in an enticing encounter. When the two clubs squared off in last year's quarterfinal, Arsenal were smashed to bits by an awe-inspiring Messi performance at Nou Camp. What about this year? Mission impossible for Arsenal? Most likely.

Frankly, Arsenal brought this difficult draw upon themselves by failing to top their easy group. Inconsistency has racked the Gunners' campaign, which is not a good sign when facing arguably the most consistent side in the world. Barcelona have been on a tear in La Liga, with the exception of a draw at the weekend, and sit 5 points clear at the top of the table. We all know the pedigree of the Blaugrana, so there's really no use in describing how dominating they can be.

Missing Persons: In defense, Arsenal will be without Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna (suspension). Wojciech Szczesny will must likely start between the sticks in lieu of Lukasz Fabianski's season-ending injury. The Gunners have been boosted by the return of Alex Song and Samir Nasri to the team sheet.

For Barcelona, Carles Puyol will miss out on the trip to London. This could force Pep Guardiola to field the experienced Eric Abidal at center back.

Key Questions
1. Can Messi be stopped? No. But he can be contained (sometimes). Obviously Messi is not the only threat on the team, but he undoubtedly has the ability to tear a side to shreads at any given moment during a match. Arsenal's only hope is to try not to give too much space and isolate him. This may be tough without the fleet-footed Sagna in the lineup, but the Gunners will have to do what they can.

2. Can Arsenal's wingers send some in-swingers? For Arsenal to have any chance at winning this tie, they need Theo Walcott to hit the byline and hit it hard. The hope is that the crafty winger and his left wing counterpart (Rosicky/Arshavin) can send some telling crosses into the area that might find the head of Arsenal's big men. Since Puyol will miss this leg, it is quite possible that the back line could be exposed in the air.

3. Will Arsenal impose their physicality to the tie? We know Barcelona's game plan: possession and build up in attack. But, can Arsenal inject enough physicality to throw the slick passing side off their game? If they do so, they might be able to dictate some play.

Prediction: Forget about the draw over the weekend: Barcelona is a machine that produces wins. The players in the squad have won this competition, the Euros, and the World Cup. Though Arsenal may put up a fight, Barca will win the away leg and most likely the tie.

AS Roma vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Leg 1 will be played in Rome at Olimpico.

One of the weaker draws in the Round of 16, perennial underachievers AS Roma take on Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk in what I believe will be a close two legs. The Giallorossi have had a torrid time this campaign, often winning a few on the trot then playing miserably and dropping points. As a frustrated Romanista, I can attest to how aggravating it has been to watch this team play. We simply do not know what kind of Roma will walk onto the pitch any given day. Luckily for the Lupi, Shakhtar may lack a bit of cohesion due to the winter break in the Ukraine.

The two squads have faced off in this competition before, so they are no stranger to each other. Roma are the more talented side, but since they rarely play to their potential, I think we will see a very evenly matched two games. 

Missing Persons: Roma have some question marks in their lineup, which could be coach Claudio Ranieri keeping his cards close before match day. In attack, Mirko Vucinic and Marco Borriello are listed as doubtful for the match, but I would not be surprised if they featured heavily. Unfortunately for the Giallorossi, first-choice goalkeeper Julio Sergio will not play tomorrow. So, we could see one of two characters in place of the Brazilian: Alexander Doni or Bogdan Lobont, who each have an unfortunate case of the butterfingers.

Shakhtar have a bit less to worry about, as they will only be without the services of Fernandinho and Olexandr Kucher.

Key Questions:
1. Which Roma will emerge from the tunnel? Will it be the 'Jeremy Menez running at people, linking up with Totti and Mirko' Roma? Or the 'why does the midfield seem 20 miles away from the forwards' Roma? Only time will tell.

2. Can Eduardo break through Roma's defense? Eduardo is obviously the Ukrainians biggest weapon, but can he do enough to trouble in-form Frenchman Philippe Mexes and his Brazilian counterpart Juan?

3. Will Roma's morale effectively see them implode? A great possibility coming off the wings of two important losses in the Serie A, players voicing concerns about the state of the club, and takeover talks. 

Prediction: I am curious whether Ranieri will allow iconic captain Francesco Totti to feature in the match. If so, Totti will see this as an opportunity to prove his worth and lead his side to victory (I hope!). I think Roma will escape Olimpico tomorrow with a narrow lead heading into the second leg.

Stay tuned for more Champions League match previews!

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