I’ve been waiting to post this because I didn’t want to steal Keeper’s thunder. But I've been sitting on it too long. So here we go!
NB: All point totals are as of 20 December 2008 because I started this then.
Chelsea v. Juventus
This is an extremely interesting match-up. It seems to me that Chelski have yet to play their best soccer this season, despite their 37 points and second place standing so far in the Premiership. And, coming off last season’s European success, the team should be confident. Naturally, most commentary will focus on John Terry and Frank Lampard but I think the key player for them is striker Didier Drogba. From this point forward, Drogba needs to come up huge for Big Phil. It is my opinion that Chelski cannot succeed unless Drogba scores at least 4 goals in the elimination stages.
Juventus, like Chelski, are in second place in Serie A with 33 points. For me, Juve is playing rather well so far and need to come up with a good run of form to get through their English opponents. Juve succeed with a balanced attack led by Amauri, del Piero, and Iaquinta. The attack, though, depends on the stupid haired Pavel Nedved. He might look like an 80s reject, but he is a quality player.
Prediction: Juve 4, Chelski 3
Villarreal v. Panathinaikos
This is a matchup of two somewhat disappointing teams. Villarreal lie in 4th place in La Liga with 29 points while Panathinaikos are in third place with 26 points. I think this will be a very even match, with Villarreal having a slight advantage because of their attacking prowess. The key is, of course, Giuseppe Rossi. The Italian international is on a quest to be a permanent call-up to the national team and a good showing in Europe will help that cause. Jozy Altidor is also intriguing. Panathinaikos will be overmatched despite the presence of Hélder Postiga and his potential and attacking mid Giorgios Karagounis, who leads the team in goals. I think Villarreal will see the Greeks off, though.
Prediction: Villarreal 3, Panathinaikos 1
Sporting Lisbon v. Bayern Munich
Bayern must be considered a favorite in the competition. In my opinion, they got a favorable draw with Sporting and should advance somewhat easily. The key player is the gigantic Luca Toni, who has 9 goals so far. Frank Ribéry and Bastian Schweinsteiger provide creativity on the wings while a solid defensive line is led by Lúcio and Willy Sagnol. Not even the much-discussed (and lusted after) João Moutinho will be able to save Sporting.
Prediction: Bayern 5, Sporting 1
Atlético Madrid v. FC Porto
This match-up must be all about 2 Argentines. FC Porto are led by Lucho Gonzá****, a very skilled player, while Atlético’s attack must revolve around the much-heralded Sergio Agüero. I don’t think Atlético is playing him enough or showing enough confidence in Agüero. Porto has enough to see off the Spaniards unless Agüero plays out of his mind. Plus, it is my opinion that any team with a player named Hulk has to be favored.
Prediction: Porto 2, Atlético 1
Lyon v. Barcelona
For my money, this is the most intriguing match-up. It pits a traditional power against a contemporary power, and that’s always good. It lends a David v. Goliath feel to the proceedings. Red-hot Barcelona must be considered the favorite. They are dominating La Liga with 38 points so far. Lionel Messi is emerging into a true number 10 and will be a contender for World Player of the Year in 2009 and beyond. Barcelona have the chance to rise to the top of Erope again with their current squad.
But don’t dismiss Lyon, the French Ligue 1 leaders with 35 points. Karim Benzema, who has been lusted after for a year, has built on his success of the last year in lighting it up for 9 goals so far. Benzema is a quality striker but Puyol will shut him down. Lyon will not go down without a fight and I’m predicting 2 hard-fought, wildly entertaining legs.
Prediction: Barcelona 4, Lyon 3
Real Madrid v. Liverpool
Holy crap! Everyone’s favorite chokers are in first place in the Premiership. I must admit that my pre-season prediction for Liverpool is looking a mite silly right now. Hopefully they’ll remember that they’re Liverpool and start choking away the lead. But that’s neither here nor there. In theory, Real Madrid has the players to see off Pool’s challenge. In practice, only one player consistently comes up big: Iker Casillas. As I’ve stated before,
Casillas is one of 2 keepers on the planet who can win games on his own (Buffon is the other). But can he stop the efficient and in-form Pool?
I don’t know. Little Stevie Gerrard is the engine that drives the team. Pitbull Javier Mascherano is also crucial to Pool’s hopes for success while Pepe Reina must match Casillas save for save. The key, then, is Fernando Torres. The Spanish striker must come through with goals against his national teammate for Pool to win. And I think he will.
Prediction: Liverpool 3, Real Madrid 1
Arsenal v. AS Roma
Who really knows what’s up with Roma and who knows if Arsenal’s team of infants will come through, especially without their leader, Cesc Fàbregas. Before his injury, I had Fàbregas down as the key player and someone who absolutely had to play well for the Arse to win. Theo Walcott has been developing rapidly lately and would have been an excellent sidekick for the Spaniard. Now, instead of a strong showing, he needs an amazing showing for Arsenal to win.
Thus, I think that Roma will go through. Doni, who may or may not collapse like a house of cards at any moment, will be a key player. The spiritual leader, though, remains Totti, who, in my opinion, wills Roma through.
Prediction: Roma 2, Arsenal 0
Internazionale v. Manchester United
This is the second best match-up even though it will get all hype in the press. Inter, one of the top teams in Europe and Italy, are in first place in Serie A with 39 points. United, the perennial power, has 32 points and is sitting in third place. Inter manager José Mourinho will be matching wits with his old nemesis, Sir Alex Ferguson. Both managers know what the other will do, which means closely fought, low-scoring games.
The scoring burden falls disproportionately on two players. For Inter, it’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is currently the only player scoring for Mourinho. For United, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, he of the 40+ goals. The difference is that Ibrahimovic is more of a finisher while Ronaldo can pass off to Rooney and know that the Angry One is able to find the back of the net. The games will be heart pounding for both sets of fans as two evenly-matched teams get it on. And, while United tends to play conservatively in Europe, I think Fergie will find a way to score one more goal.
Prediction: Manchester United 3, Inter 2