The first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 provided a few results that were surprising, and a few totally expected ones. Some teams proved that they were legitimate title contenders, while others slumped to embarrassing losses against worse teams.
Pretty normal Champions League stuff, right?
Right, except this year, Real Madrid isn’t among the “slumped to embarrassing losses against worse teams” category, but rather in the “legitimate title contenders category,” after scraping together a 1-1 draw at Stade Gerland in Lyon—a stadium where Madrid not only hadn’t won in years, but also hadn’t even scored a goal.
So let’s play contender/pretender with these teams—I’ll break down a team heading into the second leg, and then argue that they’re either a “contender” or a “pretender.”
Let’s start off with the team that’s least likely to win the Champions League.
There’s really not much to say about the Danes after their 0-2 home defeat against Chelsea. They have to go back to Stamford Bridge and try to surmount a two away goal deficit by scoring three times against the Blues. Despite how badly Fernando Torres has played in a Chelsea uniform (and despite how incredible David Luiz’s hair is—seriously, those are some intense locks), Copenhagen can kiss their chances goodbye.
I know it seems counter-intuitive to put Roma this far down the list—they’re a historically great team, and have played pretty well in Italy so far this year.
Well, they’ve played OK in Italy. But that’s not the point. After losing 2-3 at home against Shakhtar Donetsk, they have to go back to Ukraine, to a notoriously difficult stadium, and win by two goals (effectively). That’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow, especially considering how lethal Shakhtar can be off the counter-attack.
I’m not ready to write Roma off altogether, but it would take a miracle for them to get out of this round, much less win the Champions League.
Lyon hadn’t lost to Real Madrid in years at the Stade Gerland—they hadn’t even let the Spaniards score a goal in their last few trips.
This year was an exception, and it looks like Lyon will pay for it—with Madrid taking a 1-1 draw back to the Barnabéu, a stadium where they’ve won 17 out of 17 league games, have not conceded a Champions League goal, with a coach who hasn’t lost a home league game in nine years, things are looking pretty bleak for the Frenchmen.
This isn’t to say that they won’t scare the living daylights out of Madrid; it just seems unlikely that they’ll be able to come into Madrid and do what no other team has managed to do this year: win.
Their best hope, in my opinion, would be for a 2-2 draw—but again, los blancos haven’t conceded a home goal in the Champions League this year.
While a tie with Manchester United is always a feather in any team’s European cap, Marseille are now staring down a very uncomfortable-looking tie—they have to go in to Manchester, to one of the greatest stadiums in the world, with some of the most passionate fans in all of sports, against a team coached by one of the greatest coaches in all of sports and try to win (or pull off a 1-1 draw).
However, because Marseille only need a 1-1 draw to go through, I’m putting them ahead of Lyon and Roma. It’s not likely, but not inconceivable that the Frenchmen pull off a stunning result in this tie.
It’s sad for me to say this, but Valencia really aren’t the team they were a few years ago. After losing David Villa and David Silva because of the terribly-structured television contracts in the Liga BBVA (which essentially leave any team not called Real Madrid and Barcelona totally screwed over), they’ve had to rely on players like Juan Mata. While they’re a good team, they’re not a great team.
With a bit of luck, they might get out of this round, but they probably won’t advance any farther in the competition.
And with a 1-1 home draw in the books, they’ve already dug themselves into a bit of a hole. I’d love to see them come out of it, but I don’t expect it, especially considering that Raúl is playing against them.
What?! But they’re the defending champs, the reigning Italian treble-winners! They’re loaded with talent, with world-class players at almost every position! What’s this nonsense, Lezra?
OK, here’s what I’m thinking. Inter is suffering from two things: 1) Post-Championship hangover—they’re tired from having played so many games last year, plus the novelty has gone away slightly in the competition. 2.) Losing the best coach in the world syndrome—Mourinho leaves a pretty big hole, even in a team as good as Inter.
They haven’t played with the togetherness and guts of last year’s team, and they flamed out in a rough 0-1 home loss to Bayern. Now they’re facing a trip to Germany, knowing that they have to score twice to take home the tie. Not an easy task.
Sorry, Inter fans, the curtains are closing on this year’s Champions League run.
While beating Roma in a thrilling 2-3 away win at the Stadio Olimpico will get you on my radar, I need to see a bit more from this exciting Ukranian team to really think they have the chops to win the entire competition.
This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t be terrified if Madrid drew them in quarters—I would be—but just that one thrilling away win does not a Champions League contender make (especially if you concede twice).
They look poised to move on, but I don’t expect them to make a huge splash when they do.
Status: Pretender, but moving up
It’s hard to count out any team with the Champions League’s all-time leading scorer on the pitch. Raúl’s goals have pushed Schalke to another level in this competition, and have them in prime position to move on to the next round—they only need a goalless draw with Valencia to move through to the quarters.
They’re also a talented team with a lot of upside—I could see them making a run in this competition, if Raúl keeps scoring and if they get the right draw in the next round. We’ll see.
Status: Contender, but moving down
Ugh. That’s the only word that comes to mind when thinking of this superbly-talented, yet massively-underachieving team. Sure, they’re contenders—with that roster, how can you not be?—but they dug themselves into a pretty big hole in their first leg. And with Spurs playing great football and defending a 0-1 lead at home, well, Milan looks like they’re caught between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.
Still, you can’t count out a team with seven Champions League trophies.
Status: Legitimate Contender
Wow! I’ve loved Spurs’ play all year, especially in the Champions League, and their 0-1 win at the San Siro just put them over the top. They play with pace and gumption, and each player buys into their tactical scheme.
These characteristics, added on to the extremely talented Gareth Bale and Rafa Van der Vaart, make these Englishmen a real threat to win the title this year. I’ve tried to count them out at every stage, but they will just not go away!
Going home with a 0-1 lead to defend is always a nice thing to see, too.
Status: Legitimate Contender
After seeing the way the Gunners roared back against Barcelona—the grit, effort and belief it took to come back from a goal down to beat the Catalans—I had to catapult them back up my list of teams that might win this year.
Samir Nasri is a fabulously talented player (I’m on the record as saying that he was going to be incredible five years ago—so there!), and of course, Cesc is a brilliant passer. Plus, the team plays with a fluidity and pace that are rarely seen in Spain. They seemed to catch Barca off guard, enough to claim an incredibly exciting 2-1 win to defend in the Nou Camp.
At the same time, a 2-1 win isn’t as good as a 1-0 win, because if Barca scores, Arsenal will have to come out blazing to try to tie. They need to lock themselves down in the back, try not to concede and break hard on the counters—their task is difficult, but by no means impossible.
Status: Legitimate Contender
It must have been nice for the Germans to go to Italy and beat Inter in Milan—some revenge for last year’s final loss. This team hasn’t significantly changed since last year’s title run, and they still look strong as ever.
They may have tailed off slightly, but anyone who underestimates the German giants does so at their own risk—and with a 0-1 lead to defend, well, they’re looking like pretty sure things to advance.
Status: Title Threat
I’m jumping up a level with United. They’re a fantastic, battle-worn side with a great coach. They’re capable of absolutely anything in this competition, year-in and year-out. Even after their disappointing 0-0 draw at Marseille, I expect the Red Devils to come out swinging at Old Trafford and advance with ease.
They’re a very real threat to win the Champions League this year—and not just because Wayne Rooney has suddenly regained his form.
Status: Title Threat
Yup, the Blues are in the top three, and deservedly so. While their form hasn’t been fantastic, they’ve picked up the pace of late—and with late additions Fernando Torres and David Luiz finally beginning to contribute, this Chelsea side has one of the most frightening rosters in all of football.
With a coach who stresses discipline and defense and an attacking triumvirate that includes some of the best scorers in the world, Chelsea should be considered a very legitimate title contender.
After beating Copenhagen 0-2 in the first leg, they’ll probably be able to rest some of the players—which makes them all the more dangerous.
Los blancos have looked incredible in the Champions League so far. Not only have they not lost at home, they haven’t even conceded a goal in the Bernabéu. With Mourinho looking to make a deep run at the title again this year—and with the team extra-motivated to regain some of prestige they’ve lost in Europe since 2003—consider this team a favorite to make it to Wembley this Spring.
With Cristiano Ronaldo having arguably his best statistical season yet and Karim Benzema rounding into form in the Champions—and with injured striker Gonzalo Higiuaín scheduled to make his return to the pitch in the next few weeks—Madrid have a roster that should strike fear into most opponents.
It’s also hard to forget that Madrid have the important benefit of having José Mourinho as their coach—any team with him has a legitimate shot at winning the Champions.
While the Catalans slumped into their tie with Arsenal and coughed up a golden 0-1 advantage in England, they’re still one of the favorites to win the Champions League.
They play a beautiful, graceful football and have a roster full of some of the best players in the world—who have all been playing together for years. They know each other like the back of their hand and are always a threat to score, no matter where the ball is on the pitch.
Oh, and having Leo Messi on the pitch doesn’t hurt at all.
Though their defense looked suspect in the Arsenal game—especially on the break—the Gunners will need a superb defensive performance of their own to stymie Barcelona for the second time in a row. If Arsenal doesn’t manage to eliminate Barca next week, I would expect this team in the final this spring, no doubt.