The Road to Madrid

Radoslav Ivanov

Two weeks before the restart of the UEFA Champions League, most of the powerhouses look primed to face the challenges of the elimination playoff rounds. Looking at the pairs in the Round of 16, we have three compelling matches, and five matches where we can almost certainly predict the winner.

The most interesting clash will definitely feature Jose Mourinho’s current team, Inter Milan, and his former one, Chelsea. Having lost to Manchester United at the same stage last year, Mourinho’s side will be eager to improve, especially now, that they are on the way to securing yet another title in the Italian Serie A. On the other side, Chelsea brought in new manager, Carlo Ancelotti, primarily because of his extraordinary record in the Champions League, both as a player and coach. His first half-season as Chelsea manager has been rather successful, as the Blues currently hold a two-point lead in the English Premier League. Yet, Inter just beat both Juventus and Milan in direct title-deciders and proved that they still have enough quality to fight for the trophy in any competition. It will be a very interesting clash between power and technique on the pitch, and a battle of two of the greatest tacticians of our time. In my opinion, Chelsea is simply too good for Inter at the moment, but we should never underestimate Jose Mourinho, especially against the team that kicked him out like a dog.

The second most interesting clash is another Anglo-Italian game, Manchester United vs. A.C. Milan. A month ago, I was convinced that United had no chance against a very much improved Rossoneri. However, the Red Devils have been in great form since then, boasting an impressive 3-1 win against Arsenal at the Emirates. Milan, however, just lost 2-0 to Inter two weeks ago, blowing their shot at the Serie A title, followed up by a 1-1 home draw to 16th place Livorno. Despite the recent differences in form, it is still going to be a very interesting match. Ronaldinho, if he can stay away from the bars, is approaching top form, while rising stars Alexandre Pato and Marco Borriello will be very anxious to finally show why people expect so much of them. The English side is still having trouble finding a replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo, but Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs have somehow managed to carry the team on their shoulders and keep hopes of yet another treble alive. In addition, the Red Devils finally recovered from multiple injuries in their defense, which cost them quite a few points during the holidays. I think that even though Milan might cause great trouble, United will manage to overcome this challenge, as they so regularly do in this tournament.

Finally, the last of the three big games features nine-time champion Real Madrid and Olympique Lyonnais. Even though neither side is the great power it used to be five years ago, they both have an excellent chance of winning the tournament, especially the Spanish side who recently purchased Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema in hopes reviving their old glory. Of course, as the Galacticos of old have shown, buying so many players does not guarantee a good team. The simple presence of all these stars, however, promises a great deal. Real Madrid have played some really good games this season but, expectedly, have been too dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo. Their game changes tremendously when he is on the pitch because his teammates know that he is the kind of player who can decide any game with just a single brilliant touch. As for Lyon, they have lost the top spot in the French League and are struggling to keep their play high at all times. Throughout the season, however, they have shown that they can play excellent soccer and can beat any team. I believe that this clash will be decided by the presence Cristiano Ronaldo. If he is on the pitch, Real Madrid will have no trouble advancing to the next round. If he is not fit, however, things might prove fortuitous for the French club.

As for the other five games, they are very much one-sided, with the exception of Bayern Munich vs. Fiorentina. Although Italian teams should never be considered outsiders, Bayern are playing very well this season and will prove too good for Fiorentina. Title holders Barcelona should have no trouble beating VfB Stuttgart, while Sevilla FC should make quick work of CSKA Moscow. Arsenal might face some stern opposition from FC Porto, but the Gunners are playing magnificently this season and it will take a much better team to defeat them. Finally, French champions Girondins de Bordeaux will probably not exhaust too much energy against Greek surprise Olympiacos.

Overall, it is a bit too early to make general predictions about the final stages of the tournament, but I do not think we’ll see any major surprises. It is very likely that the semifinals will, as has been common in the last three or four years, feature the three English teams and Barcelona, although Real Madrid remains a major threat in the tournament. It will all depend on the draw for the quarter-final, where there will be no seeded teams and anyone can play with anyone.