Two Nights in Europe

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And so the Champions League knockout rounds come rumbling round, and it finally gets interesting. Everyone’s talking about whether Barca can do it again, or whether Real’s cold, hard Euros can pave their way to triumph. All eyes on reunions – for Becks back at Manchester United, Mourinho conspiring to bring down Chelsea and Ancelotti returning to the San Siro dugout.

The heavyweights are taking their places, but – for the first time in a number of years – I fancy a relative outsider to make at least the last four. In two ties, four clubs will all consider that the draw’s been kind to them.

2004 was the year of the underdog. Monaco and Porto battled their way to the final in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, by repeatedly turning up the odds. The French side needed away goals to progress in both last 16 and quarter-finals, the latter a 5-5 aggregate epic with Real Madrid. Chelsea were seen off 5-3 in the semis. They were finally conquered, 3-0, by Jose Mourinho’s Portuguese, though, who had beaten Manchester United, Lyon and Deportivo la Coruna to get there. Dutch side PSV were heartbreakingly close to the final in 2005, while Villarreal made the last four the following year. Since then, though, it’s been the usual suspects.

This time round though, Bordeaux and Sevilla will fancy their chances, and Olympiakos and CSKA Moscow shouldn’t be counted out.

Laurent Blanc takes his Bordeaux side to Athens to face the Greek champions Olympiakos tomorrow. The French – at the summit of Ligue I after beating St Etienne at the weekend – earnt more points than anyone else in the group stages, topping Group A by ahead of Bayern Munich and Juventus. They drew 1-1 in Turin in the opening game, but went on to win the rest, including back-to-back triumphs over Bayern. Their defenders have been potent at both ends – only two goals conceded in six group games – and Michael Ciani and Marc Planus both netting for a side very dangerous from the set piece.

Olympiakos should do their homework – the second in a 2-0 win at home to Bayern Munich, from striker Marouane Chamakh, was their first goal from open play – in their fourth game. The rangy Chamakh, linked with clubs across Europe, will be a pivotal man, especially if creative Czech midfielder Jaroslav Plasil – who resembles Pavel Nedved in appearance and playing style – fails a late fitness test.

This is the first time Bordeaux have made it past the group stages in recent seasons, with a great deal of their success – which also includes knocking Lyon off the perch back at home – attributed to the coach, former France centre-half Laurent Blanc. He’s got plenty of admirers across Europe, while the French Football Federation has recently been scorned for publicly approaching him to take the national job after this summer’s World Cup. He’d be a mad man to leave his Bordeaux project too soon.

Their opponents Olympiakos have had a tumultuous season in managerial terms. Bozidar Bantovic is the third man to take charge of a side currently sitting second in the Greek Super League. Both Temuri Ketsbaia and Zico – who was dismissed as recently as January – only got four months to leave their imprint. The Greeks have been serial group-stagers in the modern Champions League era, most recently making this stage in 2007-08, where they were brushed aside by Chelsea. It’ll be a long season if they’re to make it much further this year, with 10 European games already played after they entered in the third qualifying round. Olympiakos were comfortable runners-up in Arsenal’s group, with three home wins built around a formidable defence.

Raul Bravo and former Juventus man Olof Mellberg are at the heart of it, while veteran national ‘keeper Antonios Nikopolidis – now 39 – is on his day unbeatable between the sticks. All three of their group stage wins came at home, the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium proving a difficult place to visit. The Greeks don’t travel well though – they’ll need to have something to defend in Bordeaux in two weeks’ time. The games don’t promise to be classics, what with the French side’s penchant for set-piece goals and Olympiakos’ incredible group stage record – finishing second by scoring four and conceding five.

Sevilla make a very difficult trip to Moscow to face CSKA on Wednesday in the first leg of their last-16 tie. This is the first time the Russians have made it to the knockout rounds of Europe’s premier club competition, though they have pedigree in the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League), winning it in 2005 – before Sevilla took home the trophy in 2006 and 2007. They progressed in dramatic fashion this time round, beating Besiktas 2-1 in Turkey in the final game, to finish second behind Manchester United.

The ‘Army Men’, as they are known, will be lacking match practice, as the Russian Premier League doesn’t start again until March. Manager Leonid Slutski also used the off-season to shake up the squad, notably sending Brazilian attacker Daniel Carvalho out on loan. The midfield’s got goals in it though, with 19-year-old Russian Alan Dzagoev an exciting prospect, and Serbian Milos Krasic having bagged four in the group stages. Igor Akinfeev is an excellent goalkeeper whose battle with the Spanish side’s Luis Fabiano should be intriguing.

Sevilla cruised through a weak Group G to book their place in the last 16. Away wins, 4-1 at Rangers, and 3-1 in Stuttgart, were highlights, as they won four of six. The last time they made it this far in 2008, Fenerbahce eliminated them on penalties after a scintillating 5-5 aggregate draw. Manuel Jimenez’s side are currently fourth in La Liga, after a hot-tempered 3-1 win at Real Mallorca that they finished with nine men over the weekend. Goals are on the cards, with Fabiano accompanied by Fredi Kanoute up top and ably supported by winger Jesus Navas, who was capped by Spain for the first time in November. CSKA will need to hit the net several times to challenge a strong Sevilla side for a place in the last eight.


Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: tomsheldrick@hotmail.com
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