Mon, Mar 4, 1:43am by Kevin Pitstock
After a brief return to Domestic Competitions, Europe’s best football clubs return to European action to mark the beginning of the end of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16. Half of the group plays the second leg of their competition this week, whilst the other half play next week with the aggregate winners advancing to the Last 8. Some clubs have a lot of work ahead of them if they are to save their European ambitions, whilst others sit on a commanding lead.
Dortmund returns home for the second leg of their battle with Shakhtar. The first match ended in a 2-2 draw on Ukrainian soil and playing the return leg on German soil with two away goals gives the distinct advantage to Dortmund. Over the weekend in League play, Dortmund took a double by Robert Lewandowski to win against tenth place Hannover 96 3-1 while resting a few key players for the mid-week Champions League match. The Ukrainian Premier League resumed from their winter break and looked as if they have not missed a beat in their 4-1 dismantling of eighth place Volyn.
Dortmund are one of four teams to emerge through the group stages with all points intact. Moreover, they played in what is widely considered the Group of Death and defeated Ajax, Real Madrid, and Manchester City in matches played at BVB Station. Their unblemished home record in this year’s Champions League combined with holding two “away goals” make it quite difficult a task for Shakhtar to get it done this week.
Worth noting, Shakhtar have won in their last two trips to Germany. In the Group Stages, Shakhtar accumulated four points in three away matches (won at FC Nordsjaelland, draw vs. Juventus, loss at Chelsea). In their last three Champions League appearances, they have netted 22 goals in eleven away matches. Only once in those eleven matches did they fail to find the net when playing away from home.
To state the obvious, Shakhtar must either win the match or score two or more in a draw if they are to go through to the Last 8. They set the pace in the first leg, as Dortmund came from behind twice to earn the draw. Robert Lewendowski was the first for Dortmund to answer the call, as he hit the equalizer in the 68th minute as an answer to Shakhtar’s opening goal via a Darijo Srna free kick struck just before halftime. Mats Hummels equalized in the 87th by going airborne for a header that offset Douglas Costa’s 68th minute strike.
Whilst Shakhtar set the pace in the opening leg, they will find it difficult to do so in the return match. Expect to see Dortmund with more of the ball and advance to the next round. Mario Götze will be the difference maker for Dortmund, as he has played a role in four of the last six Champions League goals for his side.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho each took different paths to prepare for this clash of the titans match. “The Special One” made seven changes from his mid-week Classico Copa del Rey encounter with Barca and rested Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, and Mesut Ozil in anticipation of their midweek trip to Old Trafford. Sir Alex chose to play his biggest names – giving Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie a full day’s work. Van Persie was expected to miss the weekend match due to injury.
Whilst both approaches were very different – the result was the same. Real Madrid defeated Barcelona 2-1, which marked the second time in the week that Real got the best of their Liga rivals. Manchester United displayed their firepower, as Shinji Kagawa delivered a hat trick and Wayne Rooney added a fourth goal, as Manchester United capitalized on defensive mistakes of Norwich in their 4-nil stomping of the Canaries. United moved to 15 points clear on the top of the English Premier League table, whilst Real Madrid edged closer, albeit 13 points behind Liga leading Barcelona. Real Madrid are in third place on the La Liga table.
Manchester United have won three-quarters (nine in twelve) Champions League ties in which they earned a draw on the road in their first leg. Jose Mourinho has dropped merely two out of 15 away matches since taking control of Real Madrid. His lifetime record against Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford is 2 wins, 2 losses, 2 draws.
Stats and facts aside, this match is set to be the most exciting and anticipated one of the week. I expect Manchester United to field a strong offensive-minded line-up, although surely not to the extent they did in the opening leg of this fixture. Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie are locks to earn the start up top. However, Antonio Valencia and either Antonio Valencia or Nani will likely start on the wings, with Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck being saved on the bench in case Sir Alex needs to raise the stakes after halftime.
Defensively, I expect the “normal” back four with Rafael and Evra flanking Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans. It will be a race to see if Phil Jones will be fit by kickoff, as he was instrumental in keeping Ronaldo at bay in the first leg. Perhaps optimistically, I expect to see Jones line up with Michael Carrick in the centre of the pitch playing just in front of Rio and Evans.
For Real Madrid, Luka Modric impressed me late in the first meeting. He looked dangerous in picking his passes. Had he logged more time on the pitch, the score line may well read “clear advantage Madrid”. I would not be the least bit surprised if Modric’s place in the Starting XI was the only change to the Real Madrid line up to add an extra layer of attack.
The Old Ladies are in a dominant position having three away goals and a 3-nil aggregate lead. Neil Lennon and his Celtic side looked the better side in every aspect save the score line in the opening meeting between these two clubs. However, even if their strong display translates to the score line this time around, Juventus is virtually unbeatable on their home grounds. It has been more than three years since Juventus has lost a European match on their home soil.
In the opening leg, Juventus found goals from Alessandro Matri, Claudio Marchisi, and Mirko Vu?ini? and were strong on the counter attack. In this leg, I expect they will have more say in the attack and whilst Juve need not win this match, they should do so in a convincing manner to build a case on why they are one of Europe’s best clubs.
The good news is that PSG earned two away goals in the opening leg. The bad news is that PSG superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovi? earned himself a straight red card because one lunge with evil intentions was simply not enough. In the closing minutes of the first leg, right after Valencia got on the score sheet, Ibra lunged studs first not once, but twice at his opposition. His above and beyond the call of duty efforts earned his a red card and an invitation to stay in the stands for the return leg. Ibra has been instrumental in PSG’s European and domestic successes this season and the side will not be the same without him. David Beckham has impressed since signing with PSG and he could be called upon to fill the hole that Ibra’s absence has created.
In league play, Valencia earned a draw against Levante UD, whilst PSG dropped a 1-nil result to Stade de Reims.
Valencia’s track record against French clubs is quite impressive, as they have 13 wins, four draws, and 1 loss in eighteen matches against Ligue 1 opposition. Additionally, there has never been a French Club who has managed to keep a clean sheet against Valencia in European competitions.
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