The purported gulf between the group winners and 2nd place finishers did indeed manifest last week, with all four group winners in last week’s fixtures winning on the road, and that despite the two strongest 2nd place finishers in action (Arsenal and Man City). The aggregate score of the four matches was home sides/2nd place finishers, 0, traveling sides/group winners, 9: Man City 0-2 Barcelona, Bayer Leverkusen 0-4 PSG, Arsenal 0-2 Bayern Munich, and AC Milan 0-1 Atlético Madrid.
The same could happen this week, with 4 of the “smaller” clubs remaining in the competition taking on some of the big boys. But names can be deceiving, and a few of the big clubs have not been convincing as of late, so perhaps we’ll see some surprises this week.
Tuesday, February 25
Zenit St. Petersburg vs Borussia Dortmund (12pm ET, Fox Sports 1)
This tie pits the beaten finalists from last season (Dortmund) against the club that qualified from the group stages with a record low total for a side that progressed to the knockout round of the Champions League. Zenit gained only six points in their group but still managed to finished second behind Atletico Madrid, but they have not played since their final match against Austria Vienna on December 11th, which they lost 4-1. With the Russian league – which Zenit currently lead ahead of Lokomotiv Moscow by virtue of their head-to-head record – on a winter break, two months out of action will either see the club from St. Petersburg well rested, or very rusty from a lack of competitive action.
Coached by Italian Luciano Spalletti, Zenit will be without their Portuguese winger Danny, but they will have Anatoliy Tymoshchuk in their midfield, who has experience of beating Borussia Dortmund in this competition, having lined up for Bayern in the Wembley final last May. Up front, for the Russians main scoring threat is Brazilian striker Hulk, who made his name with Porto before moving to Zenit in 2012 for a fee of 60m Euros as their main target man and he has repaid them with an average of a goal in every other game, scoring 16 in 32 appearances for the St. Petersburg club.
Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund side have won many fans with their attacking style of play and in Robert Lewandowski, they have one of the best goal-scorers in Europe. However, with the Polish striker set to join Bayern Munich this summer, this season’s Champions League is the best chance this current crop of players has of winning another trophy, since they sit 20 points behind Bayern in the Bundesliga. Dortmund will be hoping to shrug off their weekend 3-0 defeat to struggling Hamburg, but prior to that they had won three in a row and they should like their chances of progressing against Zenit, having taken twice as many points in the group stages, despite facing much tougher teams.
Olympiakos vs Manchester United (2:45pm ET Fox Sports 1)
Manchester United come off the heels of a now-uncustomary away victory at Crystal Palace. As their fans start to talk about their way into next year’s Champion’s League as winning this one’s, they now face a similarly intense defensive minded unit in Olympiakos, the perennial champion of Greek soccer. In a way, it’s Pulis Crystal Palace to another magnitude, and as for winning the league, I don’t know that most have a disjointed United even as odds-on favorites to best Olympiakos, at home and without Juan Mata, who is cup-tied from previous involvement with former club Chelsea this season in the competition. Add to all that a full Athens stadium and this poses a difficult away if not overall two-leg fixture for United, brittle all season anywhere.
Of all years, Olympiakos fared well with Manchester United in their possible draw. Van Persie, Rooney and Januzaj can all deliver on the night, but in light of the recent past Premier League campaign, the frequency and value payout of that delivery has been called into legitimate question of late. For Olympiakos, the scoring onus will likely be on aging Argentine striker Javier Saviola, after selling Kostas Mitroglu to Fulham a month ago in the January transfer window.
Further reading on Olympiakos: Sid Lowe travelled to Athens last week to interview Míchel González, the Greek side’s Spanish manager.
Wednesday, February 26
Galatasaray vs Chelsea (2:45pm ET, Fox Sports 1)
Mourinho faces former hit man Didier Drogba on Drogba’s new home turf at Galatasaray’s stadium in Istanbul. Chelsea will set up to defend and counterattack, but Istanbul is a another tough away match cauldron. Drogba, 36 next month, has collected a few Champions League goals already at Galatasaray’s and won’t be unfamiliar with coming up against the Chelse back line setup in trainings past. He also scored for Galatasaray against Jose’s Real Madrid in Istanbul this time last year. The matchup could prove tasty. Again, Chelsea are the better side, but home field advantage could prove crucial.
Chelsea have Hazard, Oscar, Willian, Ramires, Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, Azpilicueta at the back, and really whomever at the front. It seems like it doesn’t even really matter anymore, the Chelsea number 9, it’s just a waiting game until next fall in terms of the Chelsea striker role, which seems a pretty weird thing to say in a title run in (though it’s still probably trust Eto’o). Playing at home, Galatasaray will likely play in more open and attacking style, so while Jose will want to contain he will look to break for the odd away goal or two on the counter, something custom made for Hazard, or a combo of himself and Oscar or Willian. Chelsea’s defense has become rock solid, with large due to Matic, who shows in a single player buy the sort of blueprint Mourinho has for a team and how successfully he achieves it. And I hate praising Mourinho…
Schalke 04 vs Real Madrid (2:45pm ET, Fox Soccer Plus)
Cristiano Ronaldo set the record for most goals scored in the recent group stages (9) and that shows no sign of slowing. He’s just served a three-match suspension in La Liga, so fresh legs can’t hurt his already insane pace and he’ll doubtless connect just as devastatingly with Gareth Bale, Angel de Maria, Jese or whomever else Madrid throw at the unsuspecting Schalke defense. Not that Schalke will be too clueless about the Spanish armada on its way–just unable to do anything about it. At any rate, those interested to see present and future multiclub transfer target Julian Draxler in action, this is your chance. Schalke come in a strong run of form, having won five of the last seven in the league, drawn two. Nevertheless, Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo go into this tie as enormous favorites.