Your guide to the Champions League – Part 2

By Dillon Cooper

It’s finally here, the beautiful game is in its final stretch before the World Cup in Brazil this summer.  The first knockout stage of the Champions League begins tomorrow at 2:45 ET with plenty of mouth-watering fixtures.

The tie I am looking forward to the most, Manchester City vs. FC Barcelona.

Barcelona has been coming under some criticism in Europe for being knocked out in the semi-finals each of the last two years.

In the 11/12 campaign, Barcelona was dispatched by Chelsea, who won 3-2 on aggregate.  The 12/13 Champions League campaign saw Barcelona disposed of in a fashion they have not become used to in recent times.  Bayern Munich demolished Barcelona, throwing them out of the competition with a 4-0 home victory and a 3-0 victory in Spain.

There’s something different about this year’s Barcelona side though.  Not talked about enough?  Perhaps, slept on a bit?  Well, when the best player in the world is out for a few months, that’ll happen.

Barcelona still finds themselves top of La Liga on goal difference and topped their Champions League group.  Scoring 16 goals while only allowing five.

Manchester City has been blessed with an empty check.  The last few seasons have seen Man. City purchase the likes of Yaya Toure, David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negreda, Jesus Navas, Javi Garcia, Fernandinho, the list goes on and on and on.  Basically, this team is a lot different than the Shaun Wright-Phillips and Craig Bellamy duo of a few years back.  If that wing play didn’t send chills down your spine, it’s alright, you’ll have Aguero and Navas sprinting down the touchline soon enough, looking defenders straight in the eye, knowing they’ve already got them beat.

With money and expectations, comes heavy responsibility as it has been a coaching carousel.  Manuel Pelligrini currently finds himself under the helm and finds his squad in 3rd place in the EPL.

Man. City came in second in their respective group, following behind Bayern Munich.  City scored 18 goals while conceding 10.

You can break this game down in many ways, it’s quite the intriguing fixture with plenty of players that can make the difference.  This is truly England’s elite vs. Spain’s elite, and it’s only the first knockout round. 

Both attacks are stacked, but I have to give the edge to Barcelona.  Yes, City has scored over 100 goals already this season, but I just can’t bet against Lionel Messi.

Now, with that being said, City do have another Argentine that is quite good, however Aguero will be out of the first leg with a calf injury. 

If you give these forwards the ball, anything can happen, however I want to focus on my favorite area of the pitch, the midfield.

This is where, in my opinion, the game is won and lost.  It sounds a bit cliché to say that, but I will argue that until the end.

Everything is controlled in the midfield.  You need someone with enough vision to link up the defense with the midfield.  Someone to link up the midfield with attack.  Someone to break up opposing team’s attack while linking up play with your own team.  It takes tons of stamina, intelligence, and technique.

This is where I have to give the edge to yet again, Barcelona.

Now, while the world may not like Sergio Busquets, he is one of my favorite players.  He is always in open space, he has great vision, has superb technique, and can pick a pass.  He is the ideal holding midfielder, let’s just forget that “roll” against Inter ever happened. 

It’ll be interesting to see who Gerardo Martino lines up at Manchester.  Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, and Busquets would all start at any other club in the world, but at least one of them could sit tomorrow.

Pellegrini has been rolling with four midfielders.  Toure, Silva, Nasri, Garcia, and James Milner are all candidates.  However, will Pellegrini go with a quick approach on the wings and play more of a 4-3-3 formation with Dzeko or Negredo up front with Stevan Jovetic and Navas on the wings?  Or will he add another midfielder to make the midfield more compact and make it harder for Barcelona to move the ball around at the pace they want to.

The current strategy people use to beat Barcelona is on the counter.  Real Madrid has been doing it with relative success over the last few years, and a few European clubs have adopted that as their strategy for the Spanish giants.

If I were Pellegrini, I would come out with an extremely attacking lineup, force that shaky Barcelona defense to have to defend and sit on their heels.  Force the tiring midfielders to track back and defend, force the wingers to defend.  Pin Barcelona back into their own third for as long as you can.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.  Barcelona has been known for pressuring the ball and winning it back with efficiency.

This game will come down to midfield pressure and rhythm.  If City can disrupt the easy-flowing style of Barcelona, they have a good chance to score a few at home in front of their fans.

My prediction for this tie is:  Barcelona advancing on a 5-2 aggregate.  I think Pellegrini will find himself under the foot of Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez.  Neymar of course will be in the distance, lurking, waiting for his time to shine.

Yes, there is another game tomorrow.  You couldn’t tell with all the hype being around the City/Barcelona clash.

Paris Saint-German will travel to Germany to take on Bayer Leverkusen.

PSG currently sit five points clear at the summit of the French league while Bayer Lev. are in 2nd place of the Bundesliga, 16 points behind leaders Bayern Munich.

I am not really giving Bayer Lev. much of a chance here.  I mean, they’ve got some talent in midfield with Gonzalo Castro and Lars Bender.  Surely they can’t cope with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, right?

Edison Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Ibrahimovic are enough to make any defense in Europe squirm and immediately deploy the damage limitation strategy.

If those three weren’t enough, PSG have one of the best central defenders in the world, perhaps ever?

The Brazilian Thiago Silva, holds the back four together.  Formerly of AC Milan, Silva is extremely stout but just as quick as the fastest striker at the club you support.

Silva will outrun just about every forward for the ball.  He will beat out just about every target man for balls in the air.  If that’s not good enough, he’s a great passer of the ball with terrific vision.  Truly, an all-around world class player.

I’m giving this an aggregate score of 6-1.  I hope I’m wrong, I’d love to see an upset, especially in the first knockout stage but this PSG team is just too talented.

On Wednesday, we will have another two matches including European giants.  Atletico Madrid will travel to Italy to take on struggling AC Milan.  Milan have struggled this season due to injury and find themselves sitting in 9th place in Series A, 31 points back behind leaders Juventus.

Milan is led by controversial but highly talented Italian, Mario Balotelli.  Balotelli has 10 league goals this season, including three assists.  The Italians could be without Brazilian forward Robinho who has suffered a left thigh injury.

Milan will look to take advantage of an injured and struggling Atletico squad.  Madrid have a few key players out with injury including, David Villa, Tiago Mendes, and Thibaut Courtois.

Madrid are currently tied for 1st place in La Liga but have recently dropped points in three of their last six league matches, including a loss to Almeria and draws to Barcelona and Sevilla. 

Madrid are led by Diego Costa, who has scored 21 league goals already this season, just one behind Cristiano Ronaldo for top scorer.

I believe both teams will find goals, especially at home and I’m giving this a 4-4 aggregate score line with Atletico having more away goals and advancing.

The other match on Wednesday is a mouth-watering clash between Arsenal and Bayern Munich.  Munich is the current champions of Europe and look nothing short of retaining the crown, which no club has done in its current format.

Arsenal will play hosts in the first leg and find themselves in 2nd place in the EPL, one point behind leaders Chelsea.

After an FA Cup victory over Liverpool on Sunday with a weakened lineup, Arsenal will be coming into the game on Wednesday on a high.  The Gunners have used defense compiled with quick decisive passing in the final third to break down their opponents.  Other than a few awful results to Man City and Liverpool, Arsenal’s back four has been quite sturdy and has been the backbone of the good performances so far in England.

Arsenal finished 2nd in their group, scoring eight goals while allowing five.  Gooners will want to see a performance for the ages when Bayern comes into town on Wednesday, they’ll need it.

With the likes of Ozil, Giroud, Wilshere, and Cazorla, Arsenal has plenty of attacking options.  They will be without key man Theo Walcott, who would cause a different sort of problem for opposition with his unmatched pace.

Bayern Munich is cruising.  Unbeaten in the league, which they are in first place with a 16 point lead. 

Munich has only conceded one goal over their last five games while scoring 15.  Bayern topped their group, scoring 17 and conceding only five. 

This will be a really entertaining game to watch, but I don’t think many goals will be scored in the first leg in England.  Both teams are good defensively and I don’t think Arsenal will want to leave themselves too open in the midfield when they go forward.

Arjen Robben, Franck Ribbery, and Thomas Muller are just a few of the star-studded players in this squad.  You can count on a high percentage of the players playing for Bayern will also be competing in this year’s World Cup.

The first match won’t heavy with goals as I think Bayern will be happy with a goal or two in England, but I do think they will go berserk in Germany.

Bayern Munich will advance with an aggregate of 6-2.  They may lose in England, but I wouldn’t worry too much if I were a supporter of the current champions.

These four fixtures are just the beginning of what promises to be a drama-filled first knockout stage. 

Tune in, relax, and enjoy the beautiful game at its finest.


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