Champions League Last 16: David Luiz and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar putting former clubs to the test
It’s back. The greatest competition in club football returns to brighten up this dark, dank, freezing February, and how we have missed that euphoric anthem blaring into our living rooms.
As has now become tradition, the Champions League first knock-out round is stretched out over a month with the eight first-leg fixtures spread over the next two weeks. This week sees a razzmatazz of European heavyweights and also-rans battling it out: a re-run of a quarter-final from last season, East versus West, a Battle of the FCs and the Raul derby.
PSG win 33/20
Chelsea win 33/20
(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)
This tie brought one of Jose Mourinho’s finest moments in his first season back at Stamford Bridge, and the European heavyweights have been drawn together once again – this time at the first knockout stage. Not so much a battle of heavyweights as a battle of political capital between two of the richest clubs in world football. Egos are set to dominate in this first-leg clash at the Parc des Princes; Zlatan Ibrahimovic v Diego Costa anyone?
David Luiz faces his old club, for whose fans he still remains a popular figure, yet he will be up against a side much more ruthless and threatening than the one he departed in the summer. A late Javier Pastore goal gave the hosts a 3-1 advantage that they then squandered in the second leg; Demba Ba the unlikely hero in the rematch at the Bridge. Laurent Blanc’s men would do well to recreate that first-leg scoreline – Chelsea may have improved since, they started without a striker in that game – but the Parisians have regressed, and though their domestic form has picked up in recent weeks they remain unconvincing and Blanc’s position at the club uncertain. Expect an easier ride for Chelsea this year.
Shakhtar Donetsk v Bayern Munich
Shakhtar Donetsk (15/2 with AllYouBet.ag) have been perennial dark horses in the Champions League for years now – not so much a well-kept secret anymore, but their ability to regenerate their squad from the transfer upheaval of recent years has meant they retain that unknown factor in this competition. While Willian, Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have departed westwards, Luiz Adriano has remained, and grown ever more important to the Ukrainian side if his nine goals in the group stage are any indicator. The Ukrainian champions’ imperious home record in this competition will be integral to their chances of upsetting the odds against one of the tournament favourites.
While other sides in the competition may be running on fumes as we enter the final few months of the campaign, Shakhtar and Bayern Munich (9/25) will be refreshed and focused as a result of their respective breaks. While the home side have not played a competitive game since December, the 2013 champions have look underwhelming since their season re-started barely a fortnight ago. Pep Guardiola will be concerned at how the lack of competition in the Bundesliga derailed their Champions League campaign last season with the gap at the top standing at eight points at present. Such concerns may surface later in the competition, but for now the German champions possess enough in terms of squad depth, energy and purpose to see past Shakhtar over two legs.
FC Basel v FC Porto
How many times does a club have to upset the odds before their success becomes an expectancy and no longer a surprise? The forever unfancied FC Basel (43/20 with Intertops.eu) held on to a deserved draw at Anfield in their final Group D game to claim passage into the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time since 2011-12. The Swiss champions’ reward is a fairly favourable draw against knock-out round veterans and their manager’s countrymen FC Porto (13/10). The Portuguese club qualified with ease from Group H, and in the duo of the rejuvenated Ricardo Quaresma and the lethal Jackson Martinez they have the firepower to be too much for Basel over two legs.
Paolo Sousa is a novice at this level, taking the round about route of the lower English leagues with Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Leicester before traversing the Hungarian and Israeli leagues to reach the Last 16 of the Champions League. But the Portuguese has inherited a skillful, intelligent and under-appreciated side, who will always back themselves. And they have the 36 year-old Walter Samuel.
Schalke v Real Madrid
The Raul Derby, as this contest will probably never be known in years to come, is the fourth and final fixture of this Champions League week. Though the Spaniard may have long since departed Germany, you can always count on Klaas Jan-Huntelaar to provide the ex-club narrative. The Dutch striker spent one season with the current European champions, 2008-9, and despite his prolific five-year spell in the Bundesliga he continues to be written off on the basis of his nightmare at Madrid and then AC Milan. The Dutch international, 31 years-old, is the old head up front, supported by the prodigious talents of Max Meyer and Arsenal’s Julian Draxler, who are ready to announce themselves to a wider audience.
The meeting pits two Italian Champions League winners against each other, though Carlo Ancelotti can probably stake more of a claim for the influence he’s had on his three triumphs than Roberto Di Matteo can for Chelsea’s in 2012. Real Madrid’s astonishing early-season form brought 22 consecutive wins, two shy of the world record, and they have remained free-scoring if a little inconsistent since the winter break. No side has ever successfully defended the Champions League trophy, but Real should not be overly troubled here; they have too much firepower and tactical nous to be overturned by an inconsistent Schalke side.
Betting Instinct tip – Real Madrid to be winning at half-time and full-time is 11/10 with AllYouBet.ag
JAMES DUTTON is a freelance journalist who has written for The Mirror, The Guardian and The Times. James helps to run The False Nine football website, contributes to The Anfield Wrap and is a columnist for uMAXit Football. Follow him on Twitter.