Barcelona and Bayern Munich face stern Champions League tests
Thankfully, Cupid and the Football Gods have conspired to avoid a calendar clash this year. No (or at least few) ‘#valentinesday #LAD’ tweets, complete with pictures of poorly-poured Heineken, feet up on sofa and Champions League game on TV. Thankfully, oh, so thankfully, we’ve been spared. And so we can welcome back one of the season’s most exciting nights of football without so much shame, the return of the Champions League after a winter of dreary Hulls v Sunderlands and Crystal Palaces v Stokes a true cause for celebration. Here’s what to expect.
Manchester City win – 2.90
Draw – 3.30
Barcelona win – 2.28
(All odds provided by GR88.com are accurate as of today and subject to change)
A little over 10 years ago, Manchester City faced Barcelona to mark the opening of the City of Manchester stadium. Then, the idea of City v Barça as a competitive tie seemed faintly ridiculous. Though City defeated the Catalans 2-1 (Trevor Sinclair scored the winner from a Sun Jihai cross, while Ali Benarbia and Shaun Goater played their final games for the club), it was but a glorified friendly. That tomorrow the two will face off in the pick of the Champions League’s last 16 ties—with City well fancied to progress—is testament to how far they’ve come.
In that 2003 match, one line from the BBC match report stands out: ‘Soon after Paulo Wanchope hit the post… Andres Iniesta’s shot was cleared off the line by Richard Dunne.’ As absurd as Iniesta v Dunne might seem, however, the reality is that City still have their defensive troubles ahead of tomorrow’s game. Though Vincent Kompany cuts a somewhat classier figure at the back than David Sommeil, his partner, Martin Demichelis, is a clear weak link. Sergio Agüero’s absence is another blow for City, though, as backups go, Negredo, Džeko and Jovetić aren’t half bad. One positive is the potential return of Fernandinho, sublime alongside Yaya Touré (in line to face his former club) since his summer switch from Shakhtar Donetsk.
For Barcelona, Lionel Messi is again starting to look his frankly unfair best after returning from injury; he scored twice in a 6-0 thrashing of Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, overtaking Alfredo di Stefano in the all-time La Liga goalscoring charts and sending the club back to the top of the table. The game also provides English fans with a welcome opportunity to muse on just how ‘overrated’ Neymar is: ‘all flicks and tricks, no end product.’ Perhaps City should bring back Dunne after all. ‘These foreigners don’t like it up ’em.’
Demichelis v Messi, Gaël Clichy v Pedro, Manuel Pellegrini v Tata Martino
Betting Instinct Tip – Manchester City to win the first leg and both teams to score is 4.40 with GR88.com
Arsenal to win – 4.75
Draw – 3.80
Bayern to win – 1.70
(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)
With Bayern not having lost for a record 4,737 games (close enough – ed.), and with this being played in Arsenal’s traditional meltdown month of February, one mightn’t fancy the Gunners to progress in this repeat of last season’s last 16 matchup. At least they’ll be rested, Arsene Wenger opting to field a weakened team in Sunday’s 2-1 FA Cup win over Liverpool. And they’ll be facing a Bayern team without both Xherdan Shaqiri, who injured his thigh after scoring in another 4-0 romp v Freiburg, and Franck Ribéry, who burst a blood vessel in his backside and is recovering from the subsequent surgery (yes, really).
Having said that, Arsenal have started to look a tad shaky of late, while Bayern remain imperious. The Liverpool win was impressive, but the result could have been very different had racist footballer (a necessary prefix) Luis Suárez been awarded the penalty his club deserved. Before that came a dull 0-0 draw with Manchester United, and before that an embarrassing 1-5 league loss at Anfield. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have at times looked shadows of their former selves, Mesut Özil’s form has quietly dropped, and Olivier Giroud, forced to apologise this week after an adulterous tabloid SCANDAL (yawn), remains their only Champions League pedigree striker.
Wenger will hope that his team can channel the sort of spirit that saw them nearly topple the holders this time last year. But Guardiola’s Bayern should prove too strong; not because their manager ‘specialises in failure’, nor because his players lack the sufficient mental strength to compete at this level, but simply because whereas Arsenal are Good, Bayern are Very, Very Good.
Özil v Philipp Lahm, Giroud v Mrs Giroud, Wenger v the crippling self-doubt brought on by Mourinho mind games
Betting Instinct Tip – After a comfortable first-leg victory this time last year, Bayern -1 is 2.70 with Intertops.eu
There are two other games, of course, as Bayer Leverkusen take on Paris Saint Germain on Tuesday and Milan face Atlético Madrid on Wednesday. PSG will be favourites for the first. Leverkusen, remember, are a team that lost 0-5 to a David Moyes Manchester United side. They’ve also lost five in seven domestically, including an embarrassing cup exit at the hands of second division Kaiserslautern, and in the battle of the charismatic strikers, Stefan Kiessling—author of cookery book ‘Recipes for Success: How to Score With Your Cookery Skills’—is comprehensively beaten by Zlatan Ibrahimović. Milan, meanwhile, could hand Adel Taarabt a first Champions League start against Atlético, which is ludicrous to the point of rendering all analysis pointless.
So, there we have it, the return of Champions League football. One word of advice, though: enjoy it while you can, for next year, with BT Sport’s acquisition of television rights, Andy Gray might well be back on our screens and in our ears. Football and Misogyny, together again for Valentine’s Day, AND IT’S LIVE.
KIERAN DODDS is a history student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others.