As some of you may know, the UEFA Champions League is the premiere European soccer competition, contested every year by 32 teams beginning each August and ending in May. For those not familiar with its intricacies, the Champions League starts out with what is called the group sage, where the 32 teams are divided into eight groups, playing each team in their group twice. This produces 16 teams that move on to the knockout rounds, with the two teams with the highest point totals in each group moving on.
This Friday featured the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League. Teams were randomly picked against each other, with the only caveats being that a team could not meet a club from its own domestic league or a club against whom it had played in the group stage. What follows are my predictions of how the last 16 matchups will turn out.
Olympique Lyonnais v. APOEL Nicosia
Both teams had pretty lackluster group stages, with only Lyon notching anything resembling a convincing win as they beat Dynamo Zagreb 2-0 and 7-1 respectively. The latter result enabled them to qualify for the knockout rounds based the fact that their goal differential was better than that of Ajax Amsterdam and raised more than a few eyebrows amongst those who believe there is some conspiracy to get big teams like Lyon in the knockout rounds. APOEL routinely finishes near the top of their domestic league, and won their group in the group stage, but did not really impress in any of their games.
Prediction: Lyon advances, 1-1 @ APOEL, 2-0 @ Lyon
Napoli v. Chelsea
Napoli was the team everyone was scared to face, having been one of the two groups to advance from the so-called “group of death” featuring them, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Villareal. Napoli finished second in that group, handling Manchester City and Villareal and drawing one match against Bayern while losing the other. Chelsea had a very unimpressive group stage, but still managed to finish at the top of their group. Neither team has been lighting their domestic league on fire this season, although Chelsea recently scored a big victory against Premiere League leaders Manchester City. Top to bottom, Chelsea has more class here, with big time players such as Juan Mata and Didier Drogba routinely gracing their starting XI.
Prediction: Chelsea gets a couple big performances from its big guns and advances, 1-2 @ Napoli and 1-0 @ Chelsea.
AC Milan v. Arsenal
Easily the best matchup of the last 16, this tie features two giants of Italy and England respectively. Milan’s group stage campaign featured a draw at Barcelona’s famed Camp Nou stadium, which any team should be proud of, but also featured draws against lesser competition in Viktoria Plzen and BATE Borisov. Arsenal beat the teams they were supposed to in their group and finished at the top of the table. Both teams have been playing well enough to be in the hunt in their domestic leagues, with Arsenal coming on as of late. Each has players that can take over a game and make some spectacular stuff happen, which will provided added excitement to fans of both teams and neutrals alike. Plus, the fact that AC Milan’s always volatile forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic might punch someone will keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
Prediction: Although Arsenal has been hot as of late, who knows how they will be doing in February. If these matches were played next week and the week after, I would tip them to win without a doubt. As it is, I think Arsenal still advances in a hard fought set of matches, 2-2 @ Milan and 3-2 @ Arsenal.
FC Basel v. Bayern Munich
FC Basel scored the upset of the group stages, beating perennial Champions League contender Manchester United on the last day of the group stages to take second place in their group and advance to the knockout rounds. However, they got drawn against a team that is currently going Donkey Kong on the German Bundesliga. Not much analysis to do here.
Prediction: Lightning doesn’t strike three times, or even twice, and Basel get blasted in both matches, with Bayern wining 0-2 @ Basel and 0-2 @ Bayern.
Bayer Leverkusen v. Barcelona
The only team less happy with their draw than Basel is Leverkusen, who get pitted against a Barcelona team coming off a three trophy haul last season and seeking to become the first ever team to win back to back UEFA Champions League titles. Leverkusen finished second in their group to Chelsea and has been toiling near the middle of the table in the Bundesliga this season. Barcelona, meanwhile, won their group stage and is currently tied at the top of La Liga with their bitter rivals Real Madrid. Did I mention that they feature around 2-3 of the top five players in the entire world?
Prediction: Barcelona’s Champions League campaign once again is subtitled “The Lionel Messi Show”, as the diminutive forward notches goal after goal and Barcelona win 1-2 @ Leverkusen and 4-0 @ Barcelona.
CSKA Moscow v. Real Madrid
Madrid cannot be happy to have to travel to Russia in the dead of winter, but lucky for them they are the second best team in Europe by a pretty wide margin. Madrid easily disposed of every team it met during the group stage, and as mentioned above is tied for the lead in their domestic league. They feature Cristiano Ronaldo, number two in the world with a bullet, as well as a host of other players who are at or near the top of their positions. CSKA Moscow got through the group stage on the strength of several draws and one win against Turkish club Trabzonspor.
Prediction: Not much to see here. Madrid could have trouble in Russia, but will cruise at home. Madrid advances, 1-3 @ CSKA and 3-0 @ Madrid.
Zenit St. Petersburg v. Benfica
Zenit finished second in a relatively easy group stage, but is leading their domestic league by a whopping eight points at this stage in the competition. Benfica won a group that featured FC Basel and Manchester United, and is in a dogfight with FC Porto in the Portuguese Liga. A trip to Russisa in February/March is not what they hoped for, and unlike Madrid, they will struggle playing in what are sure to be less than optimal conditions.
Prediction: Zenit benefits from the fact that Benfica is not used to playing in an ungodly cold climate, and advances 1-1 @ Benfica and 2-0 @ Zenit.
Olympique de Marseille v. Inter Milan
Inter cleaned up in an easy group, and has been a middle of the pack team in the Italian Serie A this season. Marseille has likewise been at best a decent team in both the Champions League and in the French Ligue 1. Which team can out-mediocre the other? Will the fact that Inter has had almost as many coaches as the Pitt Panthers in the past year make a difference? These are all questions that will be answered in the set of two matches between these teams.
Prediction: Marseille out-mediocres Inter, 2-2 @ Inter, 2-1 @ Marseille.
And those are my Champions League last 16 predictions. Tune in during late February/early March to find out whether I can do better than I did on my MLB free agency predictions. As long as I am right about the Barcelona result, I will be happy.