Predicting the UEFA Champions League Round of 16's 1st- and 2nd-Leg Scores
While the group stages of the Champions League are all well and good as an aperitif, it is the knockout stages that satisfies football fans' hunger for a main course.
This round of 16 in particular looks a bit special. There are some fascinating ties between closely matched teams, as well as a couple of gigantic names facing each other head on, at an unnaturally early stage of the competition.
It wouldn't be football if there weren't some surprises along the way, but nevertheless I've had a go at predicting the scores from the matches a month from now.
AC Milan vs. Barcelona
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Both Milan and Barcelona finished second in their respective leagues last season, but their fortunes could not be more different this term. While Barca are running away with La Liga, Milan are seriously struggling in Serie A.
That’s not to say that AC Milan don’t pose a threat. Stephan El Shaarawy has burst onto the scene this season with 16 goals in 25 games, while Riccardo Montolivo could be key to Milan getting a result. His accurate long passes are Milan’s best chance of setting El Shaarawy free, especially with Dani Alves prone to leaving space behind him, for the left-sided attacker to exploit.
Yet when you’re describing how a team could beat Barcelona, you always feel like you’re clutching at straws. The records might say that Chelsea are currently the strongest team in Europe and Cruzeiro the best team in the world, but we all know that it’s really Barcelona on both counts.
First Leg: AC Milan 1 Barcelona 2
Second Leg: Barcelona 2 AC Milan 0
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich
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The Gunners were in the pole position to top their group, only to suffer two poor results against Schalke and finish second.
It’s an aberration they surely regret now that they have been drawn against Bayern Munich. Bar a slip-up against BATE Borisov, Bayern qualified impressively and are romping home in the Bundesliga, where they enjoy a nine-point lead at the top of the table.
Arsenal have the pace, skill and guile to trouble Bayern, but aren’t clinical enough in front of goal to finish them off. In contrast Bayern should experience no problems in cutting through Arsenal’s lightweight midfield and an error-prone defence. The Germans came incredibly close to winning the Champions League last season and have to be rated amongst the favourites to make the final again.
First Leg: Arsenal 1 Bayern Munich 1
Second Leg: Bayern Munich 3 Arsenal 0
VERDICT: Bayern Munich
Celtic vs. Juventus
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In many ways Celtic have already scaled the greatest heights that they could aspire to, having beaten Barcelona in the group stage. Now they have to raise their game for a lesser, yet still extremely talented set of opponents.
The reigning Serie A champions Juventus are on course to retain their title and managed to stay unbeaten in their Champions League group that included both Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk.
We can expect another raucous atmosphere at Celtic Park in the first leg, but the Italians are unlikely to be overawed. Given that Celtic’s triumph against Barcelona was strongly against the run of play, it might be too much to expect lightning to strike twice.
First Leg: Celtic 0 Juventus 1
Second Leg: Celtic 0 Juventus 3
Galatasaray vs. Schalke
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Some teams will be looking to strengthen their Champions League squads in January with a new acquisition, but Schalke's most important signing is a player that was already in their squad.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar signed a new contract with the Germans, amidst speculation that he was likely to be sold in January. His goals will be crucial to their chance to progress to the quarterfinals, having been given a winnable tie. Schalke were unbeaten in their group games, despite facing Arsenal and Huntelaar was on target in four of their six games.
In contrast, Galatasaray qualified from a weak group, though they did of course beat Manchester United along the way. They have their own sharpshooter in the form of Burak Yilmaz, who is the joint top scorer in the competition with six goals, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.
Regardless, I think that it will be Huntelaar that makes the difference. With the Dutchman leading the line and the likes of Julian Draxler prowling behind him, I think that Schalke will have too much of a cutting edge for the Turkish giants.
First Leg: Galatasaray 2 Schalke 2
Second Leg: Schalke 2 Galatasaray 0
Porto vs. Malaga
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Malaga have the best defensive record in La Liga by some distance and kept three clean sheets during their group games. They are less effective offensively. Isco is a prodigious creative talent, but Malaga lack a top-class finisher.
So this may well be the lowest scoring of the last-16 ties. Key for Porto will be whether they can hold onto Joao Moutinho in January, having almost lost him to Spurs in the summer.
The promise of a Champions League quarterfinal should be enough to keep the Portuguese international at the club. He is exactly the type of player with the sort of guile to unlock the Malaga defence and I think that Porto will just edge past in this one.
First Leg: Porto 1 Malaga 0
Second Leg: Porto 0 Malaga 0
Real Madrid vs. Manchester United
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If you knew nothing about the two teams, you might think that the top team in the Premier League against a side well off the pace in La Liga would be a routine victory for the English.
However, when the struggling Spanish team is Real Madrid and their manager is Jose Mourinho, then we all know that anything can happen.
Madrid have struggled in their domestic league, but in Europe they have only lost away at Borussia Dortmund and finished second in the toughest group in the competition. In contrast, United should have sailed through their group, yet still managed to lose two of their round-robin games.
Only the most ardent Manchester United fan would argue that they can field a stronger team than Real Madrid these days. United’s EPL form has been largely built upon the goal-scoring exploits of Robin van Persie, and their midfield in particular will struggle to handle their counterparts in Mourinho’s side.
With a certain Cristiano Ronaldo every bit the equal of van Persie in the goal-scoring stakes, I’m backing Madrid to progress.
First Leg: Real Madrid 3 Manchester United 1
Second Leg: Manchester United 2 Real Madrid 2
VERDICT: Real Madrid
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Borussia Dortmund
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Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Dortmund might not be considered as quite as stellar as some of the other names in this season’s Champions League, but nevertheless this could well prove to be the tie of the round.
Both sides were excellent in the group stages, with Shakhtar finishing second above the reigning champions Chelsea, while Dortmund emerged unbeaten from a Group of Death that included Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax.
It should be a pulsating tie between two attacking teams, but ultimately, I expect Dortmund to proceed. Having won the German "double" last season, Jurgen Klopp’s team have looked like they could be the dark horses in this competition.
First Leg: Shakhtar Donetsk 1 Borussia Dortmund 1
Second Leg: Borussia Dortmund 3 Shakhtar Donetsk 2
VERDICT: Borussia Dortmund
Valencia vs. Paris St-Germain
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Valencia qualified extremely impressively from their group. Having been paired with last season's runners-up Bayern Munich, the Spanish side were only beaten into second on goal difference.
Their main danger is the former Real Madrid striker Roberto Soldado, who has scored goals with ease wherever he's played. That description could of course, also apply to PSG's dangerman Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Zlatan and his teammates topped their group, winning five games and only losing to Porto. This is one of the toughest ties to predict between two evenly matched teams and I'm going for an away goal victory for the French, though I wouldn't be surprised to see it go to penalties.
First Leg: Valencia 2 Paris St-Germain 1
Second Leg: Paris St-Germain 1 Valencia 0
VERDICT: Paris St-Germain