UEFA Champions League 2012-'13: Predicting the Last 16
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The image of Didier Drogba slotting home the winning penalty for Chelsea over Bayern Munich on May 19th is still fresh on many a football fan's mind (even in a summer that staged a rather engrossing Euro 2012 tournament).
Outside of the FA Cup, there may be no longer or more precarious road to glory in club football than the UEFA Champions League.
From the slate of qualifying rounds that begin in late June to the final in late May, the illustrious tournament has become one of the world's most watched yearly sporting events (some 300 million viewers tuned in for the 2011-2012 final).
32 teams from 52 associations make it to the Group Stage. Eight group winners and eight runners-up advance to the knockout round.
Yes, the draw for the Group Stage is not too far off (August 30, 2012), and with so many top players still on the transfer market, predictions at this point could amount to little more than educated dart-throwing. While we may be setting ourselves up for more slideshow scorn in anticipation of next year's prestigious event, we simply don't care how nasty our fellow digital scribes get.
Interwebbers seem to like interactive prediction pieces, and being the devotees of Philly Soul that we are, we take our cues from The O'Jays rather than some snide sports blogger who thinks the Internet sandbox is his alone.
We'll start off with who we see as potential locks and filter our way down to possible surprises/debutantes. In other words, the selections will be made in order of highest qualification probability to lowest.
Calling all respectful, spirited debaters (online bridge and tunnel trolls need not apply), here's an early look at a possible 2013 CL Last XVI.
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In the not-so-immortal words of Ken "The Hawk" Harrelson, "you can put this one on the board..." With Jordi Alba joining ranks among the likes of Messi, David Villa, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, it's no wonder Barca are 2-1 pre-season favorites to win the whole shooting match.
Remember, we're just predicting the Last 16, not the champions here, but we're willing to attach a vice grip lock to this pick.
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Another no-brainer. CR7 could not have been satisfied with his side falling to an albeit strong Bayern Munich club in last year's semifinal. Ronaldo tends to shine in the Champions League, and surrounded by Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil, Gonzalo Higuain and Iker Casillas, Los Meringues could also be a finalist at Wembley.
Jose Mourinho would love to brandish the Champions League trophy with a third club, and Madrid's rabid supporters are hungry for a 10th title (and first since 2002).
Manchester City F.C.
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Sheik Mansour bin Zayed and Roberto Mancini built this City. They built this City on paying top dollar for top talent. The money footie experiment required the better part of four years and upwards of £426 million to produce an EPL title, but the light blue loyalists aren't complaining at the moment.
Though they haven't been particularly active in the transfer market at the time of this report, adding to the likes of Mario Balotelli, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Edin Dzeko almost seems unsporting.
After securing an FA Cup in 2011 and the Barclay's Prem top spot in 2012, some will point to a Champions League trophy in 2013 as a logical progression. We won't venture to assume City will achieve that feat, but we do like them to advance to the knockout stage.
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Losing the Premier League title on the final match day (in stoppage time no less) and a dreadful 2-1 loss to FC Basel in their final group stage match in the Champions League made 2011-2012 one of the more forgettable seasons for a club accustomed to amassing hardware (they did win the Community Shield).
While transfer rumors will swirl around The Red Devils until the window closes in late August, so far the only major addition to the squad is Shingi Kagawa. The talent level is still too choice to think United will miss their third Last-16 appearance since 1996-97.
Wayne Rooney, Chicarito, Nani, Nemanja Vidic, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young. This type of quality for Man. U makes another Europa League appearance relatively unthinkable.
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Losing the title on their own ground last season was something of an embarrassment for the Mensches of Munchen.
The addition of players such as Xherden Shaqiri and Mario Mandzukic to a side already replete with talent (Ribery, Robben, Gomez to name just a few) should help Der FCB advance deep into the Champions League.
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The Serie A champs look like excellent contenders for a spot in the Last 16. Despite pushing into their mid-30's, Andrea Pirlo and Gianliugi Buffon are still at the top of their game.
The bianconeri's back line could be considered one of Europe's best with Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini patrolling the penalty area.
An attacking corps that includes Fabio Quagliarella, Alessandro Matri and new signing Sebastian Giovinco is also formidable.
We wouldn't quite bet the oil field on La Vecchia Signora's passage, but we feel this is a reasonably safe suggestion.
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Landing prized transfer Eden Hazard, check. Adding more sought-after talent in Oscar, Kevin De Bruyne and Marko Marin, check (x3). Shipping off dead weight like Salomon Kalou, Jose Bosingwa and Didier Drogba, another triple-check. Retaining Peter Cech...OK, we'll spare you that one.
While destiny may not be on the Blues' side again in 2012-2013, with Roman Abramovich's blank checks, Roberto DiMatteo's Jedi Mind Football and a roster brimming with quality, a spot in the Last 16 seems "written on the stars"—and for Pete's sake, nobody let Gary Neville near a broadcast booth this season.
Paris St. Germain F.C.
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Having landed three of the most coveted transfers on the market in Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a side that flirted with relegation just a few short seasons ago is now among one of Europe's more imposing clubs (on paper).
While probably not ready for a title run, they should have enough quality to emerge from the group stage.
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Like most of the previous eight teams listed, the Rossonieri will benefit from their league's UEFA coefficient. Serie A ranks third among all European leagues behind only the EPL and La Liga.
While finishing second in the scudetto race last season, Milan made it to the quarterfinal in Europe before falling to Barcelona. The talent level has slipped just a bit in recent years for il Diavolo (we're talking very lofty standards here), but it's hard to leave off a seven-time winner of the trophy simply on principle.
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Even in a down year, the Gunners still managed a top-three finish in the Premier League and a Last 16 appearance in the Champions League. There's little reason to believe the side will ascend any higher than this level in 2012-2013, but Arsene Wenger's men should be able to manage a repeat of their previous campaign.
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Spain's reign is mostly a plain truth to world football cognoscenti. While Los Che did not make it out of the group stage a year ago, they did manage one of the more impressive performances of the tournament in a 7-0 victory over Genk.
Valencia went to back-to-back CL finals in 2000 and 2001, losing to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively. Many see Malaga and Atletico Madrid supplanting Els Taronja in the years to come, but they still have quality all over the pitch with the likes of Roberto Soldado and new signees Andres Guardado and Fernando Gago.
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Portuguese sides tend to be a factor as the Champions League campaign unfolds. Chances are prized striker Hulk will not be returning to the capital city club for the 2012-2013 season, but Porto will still be a force to be reckoned with.
It was rival Benfica that made it to the quarterfinals against Chelsea last season (Porto never made it out of the group stage), but we're sticking with last season's Primeira Liga (and 2004 trophy winners under Jose Mourinho) champs.
Zenit St. Petersburg
The Russian Premier league has come a long way in just over a decade, and Zenit are three-time champions. The club narrowly missed an appearance in the quarter-finals last year after a 4-3 aggregate loss to Benfica. Wouldn't put too many rubles on a repeat performance, but we won't lose too much sleep over this pick either.
FC Schalke 04
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We're getting into Paul The Octopus territory of analysis (if we can be even remotely as accurate as the late Paulie, we'll be happy), but Schalke has had some success in the CL in years past.
A roster that boasts of the prolific Klaas Jan Huntelaar (who could easily be headed to the EPL before summer's end) and other quality players like Jefferson Farfan and rising young defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos makes this selection not so far-fetched.
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We're just trying to have a little pre-season fun with this exercise, and these last few picks are certainly taxing the old noodle. Ajax's recent heyday was the mid-90's, winning the Champions League over AC Milan in 1995 and losing on penalties to Juve the following year.
We're pretty sure some upstart side is going to make it to the Last 16 (see APOEL Nicosia) again this year, but we're going to hedge our bets just a bit with last season's Eredivisie champs.
Shakhtar is making a habit of churning out results in European competitions. The Ukranian outfit who hoisted the UEFA Cup in 2009 did well to invest in some of Brazil's lesser known stars such as Willian and Fernandinho. They were also able to pluck a recovering Eduardo away from the EPL.
They get the final nod on the basis of recent reputation in the tournament.
Snub Level Seating
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Wow, my brain hurts. No, we didn't forget about these squads, all of which could easily make it to the Last 16:
Borussia Dortmund, Malaga, Benfica, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Spartak Moscow, Galatasaray, Lille, Braga, Udinese, Basel, Olympiakos.
We'll let you tell us about these and other snubs in the comment section. Grab a Heineken and tell us how you really feel.