Euro giants back on glory trail
Nine different countries are represented in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League, which begins on Tuesday and Wednesday with the first four first-leg matches. The round’s remaining first legs will be played next week, with the return fixtures taking place between 6 and 14 March.
For the eighth season running Italy have three representatives in the last 16 (Napoli, Inter and AC Milan), more than any other nation. That honorary title usually goes to England, who have just two teams left in the running (Arsenal and Chelsea), the first time that has been the case at this stage of the competition since 1999-2000.
Also of note is the fact that five of the teams who came through the qualifying rounds are still going strong (Bayern Munich, Benfica, Lyon, Arsenal and APOEL Nicosia), and that the Cypriot underdogs are making their first appearance at this stage of the competition along with Napoli and Zenit St Petersburg.
This week’s fixtures
Tuesday 14 February
Wednesday 15 February
Zenit St Petersburg-Benfica
Match of the day
Bayer Leverkusen-Barcelona, Bay-Arena, Leverkusen, 20:45
The European champions and their star asset Lionel Messi go into this game under something of a cloud, having seen their form in the league desert them and Real Madrid pull away at the top of the table. Judging by the much-changed team he sent out in the 3-2 defeat at Osasuna on Saturday, one that contained a clutch of youngsters deputising for the likes of Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi, Pep Guardiola is now channelling his resources into successfully defending Barça’s European title and winning the Copa del Rey. Iniesta and Xavi are likely to return against the Germans, restoring some balance to the side.
For their part, Bayer saw a six-game unbeaten run come to a sticky end against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday, a match coach Robin Dutt began with a 4-4-2 formation before switching to a three-man front line (Andre Schurrle, Stefan Kiessling and Karim Bellarabi), while leaving Michael Ballack on the bench for the third time running.
The Germans won all three of their home games in the group phase, while Barcelona won their three away matches. The Catalans also have a formidable record against German opposition in the tournament, going undefeated in 15 matches, with 12 wins and three draws.
The other matches
Though not the superstitious type, Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri had good reason to grimace when his side were paired with the Londoners. The Italians have lost their last three home ties against English opposition (Arsenal in 2008, Manchester United in 2010 and Tottenham last season) in the knockout rounds of the competition. Nevertheless I Rossoneri are nothing if not resilient, as they showed in winning 2-1 at Udinese at the weekend to move back to the top of Serie A, all in spite of the absence of several first-teamers. Arsenal also won by the same scoreline on their visit to Udine in qualifying for the group phase of this year's competition. Despite losing centre-half Per Mertesacker to injury, they also earned a morale-boosting 2-1 win at Sunderland on Saturday to climb back into the top four in the Premier League. That result sets them up nicely for a game in which most eyes will be on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robin van Persie, two of Europe’s top strikers.
Through to this stage of the tournament for the ninth time running, Lyon will not be underestimating the unfancied Cypriots, especially after only scraping into the knockout phase with a 7-1 win at Dynamo Zagreb. Key to the chances of Remi Garde’s side will be the form of Lisandro Lopez, the man who makes them tick. APOEL have an impressive record in this season’s competition, winning six of their 12 games so far, drawing four and losing only two. Notable victors at Porto and Zenit St Petersburg in the group phase, the Cypriots owe much of their success to striker Ailton and his seven goals, and the consistency of Nuno Morais and Marcelo Oliveira, the only players to have appeared in all their Champions League outings so far.
Zenit St Petersburg-Benfica
The fourth Russian club to reach the Round of 16, Zenit have been out of action since qualifying at the expense of Porto at the end of the previous round, the midwinter break in Russia keeping them sidelined for the last few weeks. Their preparations for this game have been hindered by the long-term injury suffered by Portuguese attacking midfielder Danny in training. Coached by Luciano Spaletti, who has just renewed his contract, Zenit find their path to the last eight blocked by a Benfica side back in the knockout phase for the first time since 2006 and riding high in the league, eight points clear of second-placed Porto.
Player to watch
Arsenal’s leading all-time goalscorer, with 229 goals, Thierry Henry is set to play what will almost certainly be the last European match of his career before rejoining New York Red Bulls. The 34-year-old French striker has had a productive loan spell with the Gunners, scoring three goals in all, two of them turning out to be winners. “His performances show that talent never dies,” said Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. “I hope he will add to his legend in the Champions League.”
2 - The number of teams England, France and Germany still have in the competition. Curiously, the reigning league champions from all three countries (Manchester United, Lille and Borussia Dortmund) have all been knocked out.
What they said
“Some people have rated me up there with the very best, while others have given me a lot of criticism. The key is not to attach too much importance to comments like that, whether they’re positive or negative,” Pablo Aimar, Benfica’s Argentinian playmaker.
Have your say
Can Bayer Leverkusen cause an upset against the reigning champions?