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Champions League Preview

In Football on February 11, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Tuesday

The tie of the round sees two footballing giants clash at the San Siro as AC Milan host Manchester United. United have been in great form recently, closing the gap at the top of the Premier League to just a point in their Terminator-like pursuit of Chelsea. Milan have been more like one of those old-style Terminators, a lot clumsier and less intimidating. They do have a few big guns though, and will pose a real threat to United’s European ambitions.

Despite lying 10 points off the pace in Serie A following a rocky recent run, their thrilling group win over Real Madrid in the Bernabeu is a reminder of just what they’re capable of when they click. It looks as though they will once again be able to call on the services of centre back Alessandro Nesta, who was conspicuous by his absence in those league hiccups, while Real’s tormentor in chief Pato is also in the squad for their Friday fixture against Udinese.

Brazilians Pato and Ronaldinho will need to be watched closely

With these two back, and Europe looking like their main hope for silverware this year, the English champions must be wary. With Nemanja Vidic still missing and Rio Ferdinand sure to be rusty after his return from injury was compounded by a suspension, they could be vulnerable. Ryan Giggs is also facing a few weeks out, and with Anderson out of favour, Alex Ferguson will need his midfield quartet to close down Milan’s creative attackers. Darren Fletcher could be key to this plan, while Park’s perpetual motion may see him in line for selection too.

The Italians have favoured a 4-3-3 under Leonardo this season, with Clarence Seedorf playing behind an attacking trio. Captain Massimo Ambrosini provides the iron curtain in front of the back four, while Andrea Pirlo attempts to pick the opposition’s lock with his superlative passing skills. Marco Borriello usually plays as a target man, with top scorer Ronaldinho and Pato playing off him. Unfortunately for the rossoneri, both Seedorf and Borriello are currently unavailable, along with veteran full back Gianluca Zambrotta. It remains to be seen whether they will regain fitness, but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Pippo Inzaghi are able replacements up front, and Leonardo may also choose to reinforce the centre of the park with the pugnacious presence of Gennaro Gattuso.

The X factor in all of this is former United star David Beckham. Generally used as the right fork of the attacking trident, the return of Pato will put his position under threat. If he is to start (and he will be desperate to), the Brazilian coach may choose to keep him out wide and put Pato in the centre, or he may decide that Beckham can be used in the middle of the park alongside Pirlo. That would certainly give them some passing penetration, but would it be worth the risk?

The Milan defence has been far from impregnable this year. The return of Nesta will help, as he resumes his burgeoning partnership with Thiago Silva, but the problems are on either side of them. In addition to Zambrotta’s injury woes, journeyman back up Luca Antonini is also struggling for fitness. On the other side, Massimo Oddo is only just returning from a lengthy injury lay-off of his own, and is backed up by the 23 year old Ignazio Abate. The experience of Kaladze, Jankulovski and Favalli has largely been ignored by Leonardo thus far this season, while Daniele Bonera made his first appearance in nearly a year just last week.

Wayne Rooney could cause this ramshackle backline more problems than they can deal with. They have yet to keep a clean sheet in this competition, and have conceded a goal a game in Serie A. With the men from Manchester on searing form and banging in goals for fun at Old Trafford lately, even a 2-1 loss would be far from catastrophic. If you were a betting man, you’d favour an away goal going in. That could be the key to this tie.

With so many players returning from long spells on the sidelines or struggling to shake off knocks, United look to be meeting their European nemeses at the perfect time. They may not do enough to win in the San Siro, but they probably won’t need an away win to progress.

Tuesday’s other fixture sees Real Madrid taking on Lyon. Despite dropping 4 points against Milan, Real still topped the group. They lie 2nd in La Liga behind Barcelona, and come into this game on the back of three consecutive wins.

Lyon, on the other hand, trail Bordeaux by 8 points in Ligue 1 and lie in 4th place. They also crashed out of the French Cup at the quarter final stage, and are having a nightmare season by their lofty standards.

They’ve struggled to make an impression on the business end of the Champions League in recent times, despite being perennial knockout stagers. This year is likely to be no different as they run into a determined Real side.

Expect Real to prevail, despite the absence of former Lyon idol Karim Benzema. He’s picked up a leg injury which is likely to keep him out, so the lily white paupers may have to make do with a threadbare forward line consisting of Ronaldo, Kaka and Higuain.

Kaka, Ronaldo and Higuain could be Madrid's attacking trio

Wednesday

Wednesday’s games see another English club in action as Arsenal travel to Porto. The Gunners badly needed their Wednesday win over Liverpool, as the three games before that saw them pick up just a solitary point. The twin meltdowns against Manchester United and Chelsea brought this game sharply into focus, as the Champions League now represents arguably their most realistic hope of a trophy.

Their opponents FC Porto cruised into the knockout stages a full 9 points clear of Atletico Madrid and Apoel Nicosia. Arsene Wenger will have paid close attention to their two losses against Chelsea though, where they failed to score. They’ve been in reasonable domestic form, but only lie 3rd in the Liga Portugal, seven points behind Benfica.

They’ve been in prolific form at home, with Falcao and Hulk smashing them in up front, and winger Varela weighing in with his fair share from out wide too. They have notched 38 goals in just 18 league games, and 17 more in the cups.

They have a relatively clean bill of health, with all their main players fit and healthy. Arsenal, on the other hand, are still without talisman Robin van Persie, and now face fresh concerns over Andrey Arshavin and Alex Song.

Andrey Arshavin is struggling for form and fitness

Song, especially, would be a big loss to Arsenal as they look to shut down the home side’s midfield. The form of Gael Clichy will be a concern too, and he can’t afford to reproduce the sloppy defending he’s shown recently. Gallas and Vermaelen were imperious in the centre against Liverpool though, and if they can play like that, then they have every chance of keeping this Porto side under wraps.

Should they manage to contain the Portuguese attackers, then they have the firepower to cause damage. Cesc Fabregas is having the season of his young career and his partner in the centre Abou Diaby can also get into the opposition box. Andrey Arshavin has been in a bit of a slump lately, but often produces when it’s most needed, and with Bendtner and Eduardo returning from injury Wenger has options up top for the first time since van Persie’s injury.

The Londoners have produced some excellent performances in this year’s Champions League, and will take solace from Porto’s recent stutters at home. Previously a fortress, Manchester United and Chelsea have both stormed the Estadio do Dragao in the last year and Arsenal will aim to be the third English club to achieve this feat.

They would be delighted with a draw next week though, and if they can take an away goal back to the Emirates then they’ll have a great chance of a quarter final. What they don’t need is to concede early and have to chase the game, because Porto are well capable of ruining their season.

In the other Wednesday game, Bayern Munich and Fiorentina meet in Germany. This one could really go either way, although going by recent form the Germans have to be favourites to progress.

The Italians are a really dangerous side, who racked up five European wins on the spin after their opening day defeat at the hands of Lyon. They scored 14 goals in those five games, with nine different names on the scoresheet. They’ve been struggling badly in Serie A however, dropping to 11th after some awful recent form.

This will be of great encouragement to Bayern, who have strung together a run of 11 wins on the trot. This renaissance has seen them return from the dead to draw level on points with Leverkusen at the top of the Bundesliga. With Arjen Robben back they have a frightening battery of attackers at their disposal, with Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger and rising star Thomas Muller augmenting Mario Gomez, Ivica Olic and Miroslav Klose up front.

Fiorentina will be going all out at the Allianz Arena as they aim to put their shocking league form behind them. Bayern are on fire though, and should have too much for their Italian opponents.

Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery form a formidable partnership for Bayern Munich

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