Christmas is around the corner, bringing with it a few highlights in the football calendar. The rumour mill is cranked up a few gears as teams are linked with every player under the sun – usually by The Sun; players wear ill-informed fancy dress costumes and fall over at Christmas parties; Premier League teams play a game every 582 minutes; even the British players start wearing gloves (but not snoods); and UEFA get their balls out.
Yes, the Champion’s League draw for the knockout stages rolls into to an unsuspecting European glamour spot and former legends of the game are wheeled out to audition for a spot presenting the National Lottery.
This year’s draw saw the inclusion of four German balls to England’s three – after plucky Liverpool’s gallant but thwarted attempts to overcome the superpowers of Ludogorets and FC Basel resigned them to budget airline travel on Thursday nights. This is not the time to speak of the Bundesliga usurping the Premier League in terms of European stature, but rather to look at the fate dished out to the teams from Deutschland.
Shakhtar Donetsk v Bayern Munich
Rampant in the league, you could get the impression that Bayern’s players need European football to avoid feeling guilty about picking up their paycheck. Guardiola’s team have been impressive in the competition so far and would have feared nobody as the draw was made. After coming close last season Pep has improved the team further – most notably with Lewandowski, Alonso and Mehdi Benatia – and the 2013 winners have to be among the favorites again.
Shakhtar Donestsk, on the other hand, are one of Europe’s worst-kept best-keep secrets – often surprising bigger teams whilst not really surprising anybody by doing so. They have a recent tradition of fielding teams of talented Brazilians and in one of the current crop, Luiz Adriano, they have the competition’s top scorer. The Brazilian has already notched 9 goals and will be looking to find a leak in Bayern’s near watertight back line. However, although Shakhtar are at home in the first leg, the situation in the Ukraine dictates they must play their home games elsewhere – potentially wiping out any sense of home advantage. I fully expect Bayern to progress fairly comfortably.
Borussia Dortmund v Juventus
This is one for the neutrals, pitting one of the continent’s most glamourous teams against an underperforming yet unpredictable BVB. While Klopp’s XI are struggling domestically they have shown their qualities in Europe, apart from an abject display at the Emirates. Juventus have dominated in Serie A recently, crowned champions the last three years and top of the tree at the time of writing. However, despite their dominance at home the Old Lady has been unable to kick on in Europe and failed to get out of the group last season.
Having won their group, Dortmund may have been hoping for a more straightforward tie – but this is one they can certainly win. Although Juve are Italian champions, Serie A has fallen from grace in recent years and its clubs have consistently flattered to deceive in Europe, resulting in them being overtaken by the Bundesliga in terms of Champion’s League places awarded to the respective leagues.
In my opinion, the key factor is which Borussia Dortmund take the field in February. If they have some of their big-hitters back fit and can rediscover their mojo, they are a decent bet to reach the quarter-finals. The first leg in Dortmund will be definitive.
Atlético Madrid v Bayer Leverkusen
Last year’s finalists, Atlético negotiated a fairly tricky group to make it into the draw as group winners and will undoubtedly be happy with the card they’ve been dealt. Domestically, the La Liga champions have regressed to the mean and sit behind the familiar duo of Barcelona and Real. Still, they have recruited well, successfully replacing Chelsea-bound Costa and Courtois and remain a formidable outfit. And in Mario Mandžukić they possess a striker who knows German defenses inside out.
Leverkusen, for their part, will appreciate that having finished as runners up in their group, things could have been worse. Underdogs they may well be, but their front three of Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Son Heung-min and Stefan Kießling represent a tricky test for any team. The Werkself are unbeaten at home in the league this season and if they can escape from the Vicente Calderón relatively unscathed, they’ll stand a chance of pulling off an upset. A recent poll showed that only 7% give the Germans any chance of going through – I wouldn’t be so sure.
Real Madrid v Schalke
Oh dear. Oh Scheiße! Roberto Di Matteo’s reward for recovering from a hammering at the hands of his old mates from Stamford Bridge is a daunting tie against Europe’s in-form team. Not only are the boys from the Bernabéu the holders, but they have won the last 20 matches in all competitions. What’s more, their forward quartet of Rodriguez, Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema reads more like the result of a Football Manager cheat than an actual team – and the players behind them aren’t bad, either.
Schalke, in comparison, have been largely uninspiring this season and Di Matteo is their second manager this term. Results have been hit and miss and this second round matchup is arguably the most one-sided of the draw. Outlandishly optimistic fans may be inclined to talk of parking the bus in Madrid, and hoping for the raucous atmosphere created by the Schalke following to produce a magical European night. But, as romantic as this may sound, a quick glance at last year’s corresponding fixture serves up a large dose of realism. Although Schalke did manage to put one past Ancelotti’s men in Gelsenkirchen, they also conceded six in the process.
photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/geralds_1311/6209508381/”>Georg Sander (GS1311)</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>