UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Preview (Part 1a): Arsenal-Bayern, Milan-Atlético Madrid
We posted Part 1 of our Champions League MegaMix preview before yesterday’s two convincing road wins by two of the contenders. Here we break off previews of today’s two matches, which very well could result in two more road wins: defending champions Bayern Munich have travelled to London to take on Arsenal at the Emirates, while emerging power Atlético Madrid take on fading European power AC Milan:
Wednesday, Feb 19:
Arsenal vs Bayern Munich (US TV: Fox Sports 2 & Fox Deportes)
Arsenal will take some solace from a response victory to the demoralizing 5-1 loss at Anfield last week with Sunday’s defeat of Liverpool in the FA Cup, which sees them progress to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup and their most likely piece of silverware this season, provided they can get past Everton in the next round. But memories of Bayern’s visit/3-1 mauling of the Gunners at the Emirates at this exact stage almost exactly one year ago provides a stark reality check memory, and the squad lacks players like Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey (injury) and Mikel Arteta (suspension), which makes the task that much harder.
Arsenal will look to skilled and slick-passing midfielders Jack Wilshere, Tomáš Rosický, Santi Cazorla, and Mesut Özil to provide striker Olivier Giroud with scoring chances. Though he hasn’t played many minutes of late, Lukas Podolski offers another potential source of strikes–and Podolski would no doubt love score against the club where he played for three seasons, not quite living up to expectations, and against so many of German national side teammates (ditto for Özil and Arsenal central defender Per Mertesacker).
Arsenal’s return result at the Allianz Arena that turned last season around may provide some hope, but if anything, this year’s Bayern is amazingly even stronger with Pep Guardiola at the helm, so optimism is not running high for the home side. Bayern lack artery-buttock-busted Ribery and young Swiss Sherdan Xaquiri for the visit but Guardiola has more than enough options: Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Mario Götze, Thiago Alcântara, and Toni Kroos are all world-class attacking midfielders, while Mario Mandžukić is a skilled striker–if Pep decides to play a striker, that is. And as if Bayern didn’t already have enough midfield options, Bastian Schweinsteiger and young Spanish international Javi Martinez are fantastic deeper-lying midfielders, but Guardiola also moved Philipp Lahm from right back–where he was perhaps the best in the world–to defensive midfield as well, in effect building the side around him. (An amazing quote from Guardiola last summer, after he started training Bayern: “Lahm is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career. He is at another level.”)
In sum, Bayern are relentless, merciless, fire-breathing dragons, and the odds-on favorite to become the first club to win back-to-back Champions League titles.
Further reading: Jonathan Wilson asks “The Question: how can Arsenal’s tactics tame Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich? From locating Philipp Lahm to bypassing Bayern’s high press, the Champions League challenges facing Arsenal are daunting” & Rafael Honigstein lists “Five things Pep Guardiola has done to improve Bayern”
AC Milan vs. Atlético Madrid (US TV: Fox Soccer Plus; rebroadcast at 5pmET on FS2)
As for AC Milan, the 7-time European champion is fading fast. They floundering in the Serie A table (9th, but an seemingly insurmountable 18pts off 3rd place, meaning a return to the Champions League next year is very unlikely), but they last Italian side in the competition, since Napoli and more surprisingly Juventus finished 3rd in their respective groups.
Milan’s own words may soon come back to haunt them. When asked who they wanted in the draw, they said Atlético, and Atlético they got. But this is the year of the three-horse race in La Liga, and the Madrid side is looking to make some noise on this European stage as well. Diego Costa, David Villa, Koke, Gabi, Arda Turan and others have done manager Diego Simeone–and Atléti’s passionate fans–proud this season, thwarting Barcelona and Real Madrid at every turn domestically, and cruising through their group to qualify for the knockout stage in this competition. They did recently slip up in the Copa del Rey, as well as a slight wobble in the league that cost them the lead, but they were foolishly underestimated by the Milanese ahead of the draw, something the rossoneri can ill afford to do on the pitch. Mario Balotelli will need to have his shooting boots set not for stun but for destroy to power his side through this one. As if playing Simeone’s intense, high pressing counterattacking Atlético side weren’t a big enough challenge, Milan will go into battle bereft of a long list of important players: forwards Robinho and Stephan El Shaarawy are injured, midfielder Riccardo Montolivo is suspended, and recent arrival Keisuke Honda is cup-tied. So they will rely on an aging group (Kaká, Nigel de Jong, perhaps Michael Essien) to deal with Atlético’s intensity in midfield–sounds like a recipe for Milanese disaster. Atlético combines a pressing midfield with the clinical finishing of Villa and especially Diego Costa up front, backed by a rough and tumble defense–a squad in Simeone’s own image. Newly installed manager Clarence Seedorf will have to get his squad to play their crazy-like-a-fox best, not at their craziest, against his only slightly older but considerably more experienced counterpart Simeone. The two have gone head to head on the European stage before, but that in the ’90s on the pitch (see photo above–now they will eye each other from the touchline.
Further reading: SB Nation’s AC Milan Offside blog has a handful of preview posts collected here, including an Atlético Madrid 4-2-3-1 drinking game .