UEFA Champions League preview

The UEFA Champions League returns after its lengthy winter break with a star-studded fixture list. No fewer than five former holders of Europe’s most coveted club crown will be gracing this week’s four first-leg ties as the Round of 16 commences.

The pick of the bunch is the meeting between continental heavyweights AC Milan and Manchester United. Fellow giants Real Madrid and Bayern Munich would appear to have slightly easier tasks against Lyon and Fiorentina respectively, both of whom have been struggling on the domestic front of late. The fifth and final member of the illustrious group of former champions are Porto, who will be out to launch another trophy bid at the expense of Arsenal.

For the first time, the Round of 16 will be played over four weeks, with four games being played each week through to Wednesday 17 March.

The fixtures
Tuesday 16 February (return leg on 10 March)
Lyon-Real Madrid
AC Milan-Manchester United

Wednesday 17 February (return leg on 9 March)
Bayern Munich-Fiorentina

The four remaining first-leg matches will be played next week.

Match of the day
AC Milan-Manchester United, San Siro, 20.45
This enticing meeting brings together two clubs who have won the competition ten times between them. The men from Milan have become something of a bogey team for the Old Trafford side, having eliminated them on all four occasions that the two have met. The Italians failed to win a single home game in the group phase, while United won all three of their away games and have not lost on the road in the Champions League since going down in the semi-finals in 2006/07. Their conquerors on that occasion? Milan.

Rossoneri coach Leonardo will be relying on Ronaldinho to be at his most productive and Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to find his scoring touch, while Alexandre Pato has the task of matching compatriot Kaka’s ability to rise to the occasion. Adding extra spice to the evening is David Beckham’s reacquaintance with his one-time team-mates.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been an interested spectator at Milan’s recent games and has said he believes it is a good time to be facing them. Part of the reason for his confidence is the rich form of Wayne Rooney and Nani, although the English giants will have to make do without the injured Ryan Giggs.

The other matches
Though currently a shadow of their former selves, Lyon are intent on chalking up a third straight win over Real Madrid at the Stade Gerland. Boosted by the growing understanding between Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, and with the lure of a final at the Santiago Bernabeu spurring them on, the Spaniards appear to be a different proposition this season. They also have the added incentive of advancing beyond the last 16 for the first time in six seasons, a barrier that has also proved insurmountable for Lyon in the last three campaigns. Karim Benzema’s transfer to Madrid has also robbed the Frenchmen of firepower. The Bleus international struck 43 goals in 112 Ligue 1 outings for Les Gones.

Bayern Munich earned their place in the knockout phase with a  spectacular 4-1 defeat of Juventus in Turin back in December. The Bavarians have been in irresistible form since then, with the return of Franck Ribery from injury giving them even more momentum. After ending Liverpool’s hopes, opponents Fiorentina have not been faring quite so well and now lie 11th in Serie A after a 2-0 reverse at Sampdoria at the weekend. To make matters worse, a shoulder injury will keep their Italy defender Alessandro Gamberini out of Wednesday’s match.

Porto and Arsenal will face off for the third time in four seasons. The Portuguese club, who are six points behind leaders Benfica in the league, are last-16 regulars, having qualified from the group phase six times in the last seven seasons. Making their tenth consecutive appearance in this phase of the competition, the Gunners also lie third in the league and are banking on a lengthy run in Europe to keep their season alive.

Player to watch
is hoping his Champions League performances can persuade Seleção coach Dunga to give him a place in the squad for South Africa 2010. Milan’s Brazilian playmaker has nine goals to his name this season and ten assists, a tally that reflects his priorities on the pitch: “I prefer making decisive passes to scoring.”

The stat
The number of years since Fiorentina last reached the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club competition. La Viola have been going well in the competition this season, winning five games in a row. They have never won in Germany, however, and lost 3-0 away to Bayern in the group phase last season, drawing 1-1 with the Bavarians at home.

What they said
“Real Madrid are stronger this season both individually and collectively. They are more than a collection of stars now. They are a genuine team that defends and goes in search of the ball as a unit,” Lyon coach Claude Puel

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