UEFA Champions League Last 16: 10 Things We Learned

Charlie Melman@@charliemelmanCorrespondent IIMarch 16, 2012

UEFA Champions League Last 16: 10 Things We Learned

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    The UEFA Champions League Round of 16 has ended and we now move into the quarterfinals.

    With a thrilling set of fixtures behind us and some reflective time passed, we can better analyze the incredible events of the last week, what we learned and what it means for the next round of football's most prestigious club competition.

    There was much to watch and absorb in the Round of 16, and here are 10 things we learned as the competition wears on and we focus our attention on even fewer teams.

England Isn't Dead Yet

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    Everyone had presumed that this would be the year when English teams finally fell from European prominence, lending credence to the argument that the Premier League is not the world's best.

    Shockingly, Manchester City and Manchester United were both knocked out in the group stages, and Arsenal came agonizingly close to overturning an embarrassing 4-0 deficit against AC Milan.

    After Napoli thrashed Chelsea in the first leg of their tie in Italy, it appeared that not one team from England would make it to the quarterfinals.

    But in a thrilling performance, Branislav Ivanovic's extra-time goal kept Roman Abromavich's Champions League dreams alive against the swashbuckling Serie A side, showing that English teams still have the moxie to compete at Europe's highest level.

Lionel Messi Is Unreal

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    By now, unless you have been living under some sort of sound- and Internet-proof rock, you know about Lionel Messi's latest PlayStation performance: a five-goal haul vs. Bayer Leverkusen at the Camp Nou.

    There are few superlatives that have not already been used to describe the Argentine's brilliance at the highest levels of the sport. Suffice it to say that Messi is already one of the greatest to ever grace a football pitch.

    This player transcends earthly boundaries that we commonly hold to be unbreakable. He dismantles one of the best defensive teams in Europe like I would my grandmother's Sunday league team. 

    If someone told me that Messi leaps tall buildings in a single bound, I would be inclined to believe them.

Arsenal Are Back

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    Many forget that, not too long ago, Arsenal were languishing in a poor run of form that threatened the Gunners' season.

    In the middle of a crucial set of fixtures, the North Londoners needed to right themselves quickly if they were to avoid the type of collapse that has haunted so many Arsenal teams of yore.

    After crushing Tottenham 5-2, the Gunners thoroughly outplayed AC Milan at home to the tune of a 3-0 scoreline, restoring momentum and confidence in a side that desperately needed it.

    Even though Arsenal barely missed the greatest comeback in Champions League history, their performance served as a declaration to England and Europe that this is still a team to be reckoned with.

Football Is a Cruel Game

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    Not that we necessarily needed a reminder, but this last round of Champions League fixtures was a perfect example of the cruelty of football.

    Tiny FC Basel got their Swiss hopes up for an epic upset after a first-leg win, but Bayern Munich squashed them like a small bug by a score of 7-0 at the Allianz Arena. 

    As previously mentioned, Arsenal were absolutely gutted after missing out on a historic comeback against AC Milan by just one misplaced Robin van Persie strike.

    Inter did all they could in a thrilling tie with Marseille, but the Italians just barely lost out on a spot in the next round in stoppage time.

    This is an unforgiving sport, indeed.

"Smaller" Clubs Are Overperforming

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    As the usual names such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan advanced to the final eight, some other unusual teams moved with them.

    First, Benfica scrapped their way to an aggregate win versus Zenit. The Portuguese club is not in this position every season, but has come very far due to an abundance of young talent.

    Most notably, though, are APOEL—who somehow overcame Lyon in the crapshoot of penalties to move past the likes of Arsenal, Napoli and Inter into the quarterfinals.

    Nobody expected the Cypriot minnows to make it this far, but the outstanding play of those who do not frequent this competition is quite refreshing.

Roberto di Matteo Might Have Something at Chelsea

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    Many believe personality clashes with players who tried to run the dressing room caused Andre Villas-Boas' departure as Chelsea manager—although Juan Mata disagrees, as reported by The Sun

    If the Blues' performance against Napoli is anything to go by, caretaker manager Roberto di Matteo might want to let the old guard have their way.

    The trio of John Terry, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard each netted a goal for Chelsea in their dramatic victory, and there was a chemistry and tenacity not present during the reign of AVB.

    Perhaps, if Di Matteo lets the experienced men do their work, Chelsea can replicate past glories and somehow push themselves forward in the Champions League.

Real Madrid's Attack Is as Potent as Any in Europe

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    Real Madrid's unbelievably skilled, fast and clinical attack has vaulted the club 10 points clear of fierce rivals Barcelona at the top of La Liga, and continues to propel Los Blancos forward in the Champions League.

    Against CSKA Moscow, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema and the insanely prolific Cristiano Ronaldo each netted, with the latter bagging two goals in the rout.

    How any team will be able to halt such an incredibly potent trio, plus the threats of Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil, I have no idea.

    What I do know is that Madrid have the talent in reserve to overpower any defence when they can get possession.

AC Milan Have the Quality to Go All the Way

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    Even though the Rossoneri tried their best to throw away a seemingly impregnable advantage against Arsenal, AC Milan showed that they have stunning quality in their side.

    In the first leg of the tie, the Italians demolished a much weaker Gunners side in the San Siro by displaying incredible talent in almost every facet of the game.

    Their defence was typically solid, the midfield overran Arsenal (and began to toward the end of the second leg) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic provided great play from the striker position.

    When a little moment of magic was needed, there was always an unpredictable man like Robinho to turn to for some flair, and Alexandre Pato on the bench for raw striking power and a burst of pace.

    When they are on their game, Milan can truly go toe-to-toe with any side in Europe.

Bayern Munich Is the Team to Watch out For

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    Of the teams generally placed on the shortlist to win the competition—Real Madrid, Barcelona and AC Milan—Bayern Munich don't receive the recognition that they should.

    After warming up for the game against Basel with a 7-1 win over Hoffenheim, the thoroughness with which the Germans dispatched of a team that had just beaten them in the first leg of the tie was stunning.

    Now, Bayern have all their key players fit and ready to go for a final Champions League push. And with striker Mario Gomez rounding into incredible form, having scored 11 goals in nine CL matches this year, Munich will be a team to be reckoned with.

The Winner Will Have to Go Through Spain

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    With the way that both Barcelona and Real Madrid are playing right now, it is difficult to imagine the team winning the Champions League not having to knock off at least one of the Spanish powers.

    As previously mentioned, both sides dispatched their opponents in the Round of 16 with almost frightening ease. The brilliance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will be extremely difficult to overcome.

    The other remaining teams will hope that the two great rivals draw each other to eliminate one of the threats. Even so, the winner of that tie will be the clear favorite to claim the entire competition.

    If Bayern Munich or AC Milan are lucky, they will only have to beat one Iberian giant on their way to the big-eared trophy.