Champions League Tournament Preview

Chris Dell'Amore

The climax of the soccer season for most fans is the UEFA Champions League tournament, which pits the most talent­ed club teams from Europe against each other. Why? To see which club can lay claim to being the best team in Europe, of course.

The games offer some of the most in­tense sporting venues in the world and unlike the American definition of home field advantage, entire cities stop func­tioning when the local club is playing. Although the majority of us Americans prefer traditional American sports, I highly recommend viewing the Champi­ons League games while we hit the dol­drums of the sporting year. In the next two weeks, the tournament will kick off and here are my predictions on some of the highest profile matches in the first round.

Defending champion Internazionale de Milan has its work cut out after prov­ing itself as the most dominant club in the world last year. Its victories over Bar­celona and Bayern Munich capped off one of the franchise’s best seasons ever. However, this season Inter has endured instability as its initial loss of world-renowned coach José Mourinho to Real Madrid and subsequent firing of Rafael Benitez this December resulted in the hiring of former AC Milan coach Leon­ardo. Also, despite the questionable an­tics of striker Mario Balotelli, his depar­ture to Manchester City has caused Inter to increasingly rely on the phenomenal Samuel Eto’o for offensive fire power. With Diego Milito scoring a pedestrian five goals this season in Serie A play, Inter has struggled to generate goals in times of need and will need World Cup standout Wesley Sneijder to play at the level he did last year in order to contend for another UEFA title.

Hopefully, the recent signing of strik­er Giampaolo Pazzini provides a viable weapon for the Nerazurri to defeat first round opponent Bayern Munich. The immensely talented German powerhouse has had recent issues as teammates Ar­jen Robben and Thomas Muller were at each other’s throats in a game against Werder Bremen.

Pick: Inter’s experience on the big stage allows them to pass Bayern and move on to the next round. The teams play the first of their two game series in Giuseppe Meazza on Wednesday, February 23 at 2:45 p.m.

In what is to be the most entertain­ing first-round matchup, Arsenal will have a chance to seek retribution for last year’s Champions League loss to Barce­lona. Time and time again, Arsenal has proven itself as one of the preeminent programs in the Premier League and the trio of Samir Nasri, Cesc Fábregas and Andrei Arshavin will be the catalysts of the dangerously talented Gunners. However, Arsenal will have to play flaw­lessly if it intends on knocking out the gold standard of football clubs in the world, Barcelona. As Barcelona seems to be on its way to yet another La Liga title, the majority of its players have cease­lessly pursued their quest for perfection. A large portion of Barcelona’s roster won a World Cup this summer and would love to cap off an incredible year with a Champions League title.

The defense, anchored by defender Carles Puyol and goalie Victor Valdés, has been impenetrable in the few occa­sions that the talented Barcelona offense loses the ball. Although Andrés Iniesta, Pedro and David Villa were all able to hoist a World Cup trophy this summer, while one vital member of Barcelona’s at­tack was not as fortunate, Lionel Messi.

Pick: Pep Guardiola’s squad plays at a level no team in the world can match, which makes Barcelona a hands-down favorite to win the tournament. Arsenal and Barcelona face-off on Wednesday, February 15 at 2:45 p.m. at Arsenal’s home, Emirates Stadium.

The last matchup worth noting in the first round is between Real Madrid and Lyon. To say that Real Madrid has underachieved yet again this year would be an understatement. Madrid was bombarded with injuries of superstars Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín throughout the season and the star-studded cast never seemed to gel. The recent acquisition of striker Em­manuel Adebayor to repair the hole left by Higuaín , who underwent back sur­gery, will look to jumpstart the Madrid offense and Adebayor’s career after a disappointing stay in Manchester City.

Los Galacticos were knocked out of the tournament last year by Lyon. Their tandem of Yoann Gourcuff and Michel Bastos will look to continue their domi­nant play this season in order to redeem themselves for Lyon’s sub-par play in the French League.

Pick: Madrid unites to avenge their loss last year, but do not expect them to advance much further. Madrid travels to Stade de Gerland on Tuesday, February 22 at 2:45 p.m. to face Lyon.

While the aforementioned match-ups are the most interesting in the first round, make sure to keep a close watch on Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United (vs. Marsi­elle), Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s AC Milan (vs. Tottenham) and Chelsea (vs. FC Copen­hagen). Chelsea’s recent signing, Fernan­do Torres, when paired with Didier Drog­ba could be the deadliest duo of forwards in the world, but Chelsea must come to­gether quickly if it hopes to dethrone the Red Devils from their position as the top team in the Premiership. No matter the outcomes, this year’s first round match­ups are much more competitive than in recent years and all gamess should prove to be entertaining.