February - The Season Starts Here...Part 2

February: The second in the February series, this blog is to look at the Champions League, the favourites, the dark-horses and assess the chances of each of the sixteen final sides attempting to continue on the path to glory.

Today I'm going to look at:

The Champions League: Another year, another tournament. The usual suspects are all there, Barcelona, Madrid, Manchester United and Milan, but the first major surprise is the absence of last years' champions Chelsea. Di Matteo's failure to reach the knockout round, the first time a defending champion hadn't made the final 16 since Marseille in 1993/4 (only due to a max-fixing scandal following the 1992/3 final.)

Villanova has done a marvelous job at Barca
Each tie in this season's tournament is a mouth-watering prospect and some fixtures seemingly impossible to predict. The favourites are undoubtedly Tito Villanova's Barcelona. Why? Simple.  A record of 18 wins, 1 defeat and 1 draw in their current league season has all but silenced the critics, mainly in England, concerning their future without Pep Guardiola. Lionel Messi continues to spearhead the campaign for a 5th Champions League and to further extend the period of Barcelona European dominance. They face a domestically rejuvanated AC Milan side, but who in Europe struggled to qualify from a moderate group of which Malaga were their greatest threat. It seems an inevitability that Barca will make yet another quarter final where, incidently Barcelona defeated the Milan side 3-1 on aggeragate last season.

Battle of the Greats
Elsewhere the draw throws up four more major ties. Real Madrid v Manchester United, Arsenal v Bayern Munich, Celtic v Juventus and surprisingly Shakhtar against Dortmund. However, it is the tie at first the Bernabeu and then Old Trafford which will thrill the football neutrals. The prospect of Mourinho versus Ferguson and the return of Ronaldo to the club which built him into the "world's greatest second best player" offers a tie sure to split opinion. If Ronaldo can repeat the heroics of his namesake in 2002/3 we could be in for a cracker. Personally, the recent draw with a stronger Barcelona side may breath life into the disjointed Los Blancos and I believe despite Man United's Premier League dominance Mourinho's team is still higher in quality and will have enough to see them off.

The colossal Westfalenstadion will provide the
 backdrop to a mouth-watering second leg
Finally the last game to talk about briefly is between Shakhtar and Borussia Dortmund. Two years ago, people may have read this blog and been baffled at the idea of both teams even qualifying for the last 16. On the other hand, those who closely follow Dortmund would have seen the formation of a side consisting of Lewandowski, Gotze and Reus nurtured by Jurgen Klopp from youth and into a European powerhouse reminiscent of the Champions League winning side of 1996/7. Dortmund had to qualify the hard way including overcoming the closest thing to a group of death in recent memory. Ajax, Man City and Madrid all failing to dismantle a ruthless Dortmund. Shakhtar have qualified from another group of death consisting of an exquisite Juventus side and the European Champions Chelsea. The loss of Willian will have a big impact on their chances against a Dortmund side struggling in the Bundesliga but running riot in Europe. It will be down to experienced captain Darijo Srna and influential striker Luiz Adriano to lead Donetsk into an encounter sure to played at an attacking pace and could hold within it's clutches a real contender for this years' title.

The Predictions for Other Fixtures:

Celtic v Juventus: Juventus win 4-1 on agg.
Galatasaray v Schalke: Galatasaray win 3-2 on agg.
Arsenal v Bayern: Bayern win 5-2 on agg.
Valencia v PSG: PSG win 2-0 on agg.
Porto v Malaga: Porto win 2-2 (Pens) on agg.

What do you think? Have your say below or on www.top250.webs.com


By Ben Jones
Follow on Twitter @Benny_j


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