Top teams set to fall as giants meet
AS is often the case at the last 16 of the Champions League you start to feel sorry for some teams. Some big names, who would normally be expected to reach the final, will be going out of the competition.
The prime examples will be Real Madrid or Manchester United who meet in what is undoubtedly the top tie of the round.
Jose Mourinho against Sir Alex Ferguson – the two coaches alone are attraction enough. They are even friends, and the fact that neither of them shy away from occasionally going on the attack against fellow coaches and match officials is something they both have in common.
Former Chelsea manager Mourinho has said he would not mind coaching in England again. Sir Alex, who has in the past mulled retirement, immediately let it be known that despite his 71 years he plans to stay in charge at United for a couple more years yet, a sign that Mourinho will have to wait if he were toying with the idea of a job at Old Trafford.
Ronaldo of Real Madrid (above left) and Van Persie of Manchester United … all set to clash in last 16 of Champions League. AP
The difficulty for Mourinho is that he will have to overcome this hurdle presented by United because his declared aim before the season was to win the Champions League. That must be even more of a target now that Barcelona have built up such a big lead in Spain’s Primera Division.
It will also be an emotional game for Cristiano Ronaldo who played five years for United and left many friends behind when he moved to Real. Sir Alex was, he says, something of a father figure to him.
Recently there has been speculation that he will soon extend his contract at Real. Ronaldo has praised Mourinho as the world’s best coach. He is clearly attached to the fellow Portuguese, who also has the same adviser.
Real can make the quarterfinals, but who knows how good United’s new striker Robin van Persie and his partner Wayne Rooney will play on the day, or how good Shinji Kagawa is after his injury lay-off.
The little Japanese midfielder feels he must improve his mental strength in his first season at United, but he had similar doubts at Borussia Dortmund before his form really took off.
AC Milan against Barcelona is another pairing which in previous seasons would have been worthy of a final. Now while Barcelona’s trio of Lional Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi virtually guarantee a place in the final, AC Milan have lost the lustre of 2005 and 2007, when they first lost and then won a final against Liverpool, especially now that the likes of of Maldini or Nesta are long gone.
Club president Silvio Berlusconi has turned down a return of Brazil’s Kaka, who played for Milan between 2003 and 2009, from Real, or signing Didier Drogba who left Chelsea for Shenhua Shanghai and who is now moving to Galatasaray,
However the return of the eccentric Mario Balotelli from English champions Manchester City to Milan (he played three years at rivals Inter Milan) spices up Italian football, both with regards to the national team and AC Milan.
Balotelli puts even Barcelona in the shade when it comes to making the headlines, although from the sporting point of view everything speaks for the Spanish.
Arsenal against Bayern Munich is always going to be a football highlight. Arsene Wenger’s players, however, are struggling at the moment to keep in touch with the leaders in England.
It has been hard for Arsenal to compensate for the departure of Van Persie even if Germany’s Lukas Podolski has done better than expected. He could be a real danger for Bayern, while the defence should be a bit stronger with the signing of Spanish left-back Ignacio Monreal from Malaga.
Bayern are playing better than they have for years. Thanks to Thomas Mueller, Mario Mandzukic, Mario Gomez, Franck Ribery, Toni Kroos they are almost as dangerous in front of goal as Barcelona.
If they can maintain their form the quarter-final beckons for Bayern. So far 67-year-old coach Jupp Heynckes has coped well with the fact that former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola will succeed him in the summer, a subject which is a constant source of copy for the media.
The other matches are overshadowed somewhat by these games but are nonetheless attractive.
Borussia Dortmund are the clear favourites against Shakhtar Donetsk. Although the Ukrainian champions are managed in exemplary fashion Dortmund play the better football and, on a good day, reach the very highest levels.
The young attacking pairing of Mario Goetze and Marco Reus is unique in international football today, while striker Robert Lewandowski is not only to be found up front but helps to link play going forward. Just these three alone make Dortmund one of the favourites for the Champions League title.
Celtic and Juventus seems to be shaping up in similar fashion. As long as Andrea Pirlo can orchestrate the play in midfield and the Chilean Arturo Vidal is able to destroy the opponent’s game, Juventus remain a serious contender for Europe’s top crown.
Elsewhere Valencia have Roberto Soldado as an effective weapon up front, but the club is having to contend with financial problems. That’s not a concern for big-spending Paris St-Germain who have just signed David Beckham.
The former England player though is likely to be the glamour boy as long as Thiago Silva is in charge of play in midfield and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with his tremendous presence up front, guarantees the goals.
I don’t want to commit myself on Porto against Malaga. The Portuguese have been consistent in Europe over the years while Malaga, thanks to its Arab investments, are now establishing themselves on the European stage. They have the likes of Martin Demichelis in defence and Roque Santa Cruz up front, who demonstrated their abilities when they played for Bayern. It’s an open game.
Normally I would have said Galatasaray have no chance against Schalke. But the Germans are in a form crisis. They have lost midfielder Lewis Holtby to Tottenham Hotspur and the currently injured striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has not been finding the net as regularly as last season.
The Turkish side meanwhile have strengthened their squad with the signing of Drogba and Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder from Inter Milan. These two big signings should boost Galatasary – if they stay fit. – (GMS)