Champions League knockout action is upon us, so let’s take a look at what might be the most evenly matched tie of the round: Valencia CF vs FC Schalke 04.
Valencia made their way into the tournament this year on the strength of their two Davids: Villa and Silva. Both moved on at the end of last season, but Valencia hasn’t missed a beat, sitting third in the table at this point and with a fantastic home record (thanks in no small part to the screaming maniacs sat up in the Estadio Mestalla). Still, Los Che don’t have a great record against German teams, having drawn five and lost one in their last six home encounters with teams from der Fatherland.
Who to look out for from the side in orange, you ask? Éver Banega, 22 yr old Argentine in the center of the pitch will look to start the forward movement with well-placed balls into the wing channels. In back the Dutch/Portugese duo of Hedwiges Maduro and Ricardo Costa (respectively) hold down the back line, while 29 yr old Frenchman Jérémy Mathieu likes to attack from his position at left back. Mehmet Topal (aka the Spider) hasn’t seen much love from his Turkish national side of late, but he’s a mean defensive midfielder who will be responsible for breaking the wave of the German offensive movement.
Up the right wing we’ll see the crafty Spaniard Pablo, who is always looking to lob a keeper he spots off his line (his matchup with Schalke’s left back Schmitz will be key). And at the point of the spear are Soldado and Aduriz (the later tending to come off the bench of late, but he’s also the teams top scorer this season). Soldado is particularly fired up, “This is the most important match of our lives and we must go for the jugular in order to try to take the tie.”
FC Schalke 04
Schalke sit at 10th in the Bundesliga, but that position is a bit deceiving. They have arguably one of the top goalkeepers in the world with the young world cup hero Manuel Neuer (sure to be in the running at Man United when Van der Sar wanders out to pasture at the end of the season), and a back four anchored by Christoph Metzelder, who, though almost always injured, has still managed to pick up 50 caps for his home country while also playing in two World Cups.
In midfield we hope to see Anthony Annan, a recent transfer into the squad during the mid-winter break, and a standout for one of our favorite World Cup sides: the Black Stars of Ghana! Also in midfield, where he should really keep his width on the left but instead tends to duck inside, exposing his left back to waves of overlapping attacks, is Jose Jurado, who plied his trade at Atletico Madrid before moving to Die Königsblauen. His opposite side is occupied by the Peruvian Farfán (there’s your line hugger).
Up top is the off-again/on-again dutchman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, once a fixture at Real Madrid, alongside another fella a lot of folks may know from his time at Los Blancos — Raúl González Blanco. Obviously the team is more than one player, but this one in particular has struck at the heart of many a Spanish side over his sixteen years with Real Madrid (323 times to be exact). He’ll draw quite a few marks, and if fit we may see him play a full 90 minutes, a luxury he didn’t often receive with the young challengers on rotation in the Spanish capital.
A balanced game but the key will be Pablo up the right wing for Valencia. Put history aside for this one as the men in orange will work themselves a 2-0 victory to take into the second leg.