“Mr. Hunt, this isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible. “Difficult” should be a walk in the park for you.“
This is a famous line from a very famous flick – Mission Impossible.Ai??Well, that was Ethan Hunt, this is Arsenal and Bayer Leverkusen. When the matches were lined up for the round of 16 in Nyon, three fixtures stood out from the rest, Arsenal v AC Milan, Chelsea v Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen v Barcelona.
While neutrals were drooling over these fixtures, fans of these clubs were spending sleepless nights. But when the whistle blew after 90 minutes of the first leg, most of theAi??anticipations, derived from the expectations of competitive and breath-taking football, were replaced with disdain andAi??despair.
The away team failed to turn up at the San Siro and the home team at the Bay Arena. AC Milan and Barcelona won with ease, as if they were playing against teams from the bottom of their domestic leagues; not to say even those teams show more passion (if not skill) on the field than what Arsenal and Leverkusen showed that night. Now they face a daunting task, not only of winning the fixture, but winning their pride back, making a statement more than anything. Tomorrow might not be a night of romantic results, but it might just the night of “going out with a bang”.
TheHardTackle previews the first round of 2nd leg matches, as teams look to make a safe passage into the quarter finals.
Zenit Saint Petersburg
Ai??EstA?dio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon
Ai??March 6, 2012; 20:45 GMT
While battles of the “Goliaths” grabbed all the lime-light and media attention, it was the battle of the “Davids” that has illuminated this first knock-out round of the champions league.
When Zenit and Benfica met at the Petrovsky stadium on a cold Tuesday night match on a ice-covered pitch, very few would have expected that a proper football match will take place. In fact, the settings seemed more suitable for a NHL match, and free coffee/tea that was distributed by theAi??organizersAi??looked likely to be the only highlight of the night. But a group of 22 men had other ideas.
By the end of 90 minutes, these two sides played a match that became the highlight of this round.Ai??Roman Shirokov put a wonderful display from the midfield, scoring a brace in the process, to give the Russian side a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Benfica. Ai??At the moment, this is perhaps the most balanced tie in this group of matches. Even in loss, Benfica would be pleased about scoring two away goals, which might turn out to be crucial come the end of the second leg. Zenit, on the other hand, would beAi??quietly confident of scoring in Portugal when these two sides meet again.
Zenit comes into this match on the back of a 17 -match unbeaten streak; not that they have played much over the last few months as is the norm in Russia.Ai??Vyacheslav Malafeev has returned from calf injury as he featured in a friendly match against CSKA. Sadly though, Danny has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee ligament injury.
Aleksandr Bukharov’s participation in this match is still in doubt, while Criscito, who missed the first leg due to food poisoning, has featured in the recently concluded international match between Italy and USA, and is sure to play a part in this game. Andrei Arshavin, who has joined the Russian side on loan from Arsenal, is ineligible to play in the Champions league, as he is cup-tied.
Benfica, contrary to Zenit’s unbeaten run, haven’t won in their last 4 competitive matches. The Portuguese side, who are currently in second position in the Liga Sagres, comes into this match on the back of a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Porto. To make matter worse, Pablo Aimar will be unavailable in this match, as he serves a one match ban. Garay and Yannick DjalA? are doubtful for this match, with knee and thigh problem respectively. One good news is the fact that Rodrigo, who was substituted in the 30th minute of the first leg due to a hip injury, is expected to be back in the starting line-up.
Zenit are in good form and high on confidence at the moment, while Benfica are lacking both. It is expected to be another high scoring match, as both the team’s defense are quite unstable. Zenit might just nick it in the end on away goals.
Benfica 2-2 Zenit St. Petersburg (Zenit to win 5-4 on aggregate)
Ai??Emirates Stadium, London
Ai??March 6, 2012; 20:45 GMT
A match that promised so such couldn’t have been more one-sided in the end. Arsenal produced one of their worst European performances ever against a clinical Milan side. For the eternal optimists though, it is the perfect script for one of the greatest comebacks in the history of European club competition! Ibrahimovic turned in a man of the match performance on that night at San Siro as Milan rolled over Arsenal for a 4-0 victory.
Arsenal though, comes into this match on the back of two impressive victories against Tottenham and Liverpool. While the Gunners crashed Spurs 5-2 in the London derby, they were somewhat fortunate in their 2-1 victory over Liverpool. Sadly though, the goods news over the Gunners, ends over here.
Arsenal’s injury list at the moment, nearly equals the number of players who are actually fit for this match. This obviously means, Arsene Wenger won’t have any selectionAi??dilemmas. While Wilshere, Santos, Mertesacker, Coquelin, Squillaci are nowhere near any possible return, Ramsey and DjourouAi??are out for at least another two weeks. Things got worse after this match on the weekend against Liverpool, as Arteta suffered from a heavy concussion and Diaby, who made his first appearance for Arsenal after nearly 25 years, has somehow managed to injure himself once again. Rosicky, Gibbs and Benayoun will undergo late fitness test, to confirm their availability.
Milan are currently the table toppers in Serie A at the moment. They come into this match on the back of an impressive 4-0 away victory over theAi??dangerousAi??Palermo side. Ibrahimovic returned to the starting eleven in the match, and he returned with a hat-trick. For Milan, Ambrosini will serve a one match ban in this match, while Seedorf and Boateng haven’t featured in any of Milan’s matches after sustaining injury in the first leg. Maxi Lopez is nearly sure to miss this match with a calf-injury, while Nesta is still doubtful to feature in this game. Mario Yepes has returned to the substitute bench after his ankle injury, but he has not been used for the last three games.
Arsene Wenger has talked about “belief” before this game, but the fact remains that Arsenal might very well take this match as a one-off game as their priorities have firmly shifted to getting 3rd place in the league. Gooners may remain pessimistic about this match, but deep down they doAi??harbor hopes of a comeback, because they know they have a certain Robin Van Persie in their team – Arsenal’s very own Ethan Hunt.
But they must also know that AC Milan are also coming into this match in impressive form. This will be an open game, as the home side don’t have much options other than to go on an all-out attack, while Milan might just try and kill this match (if it is still alive, that is) on the break. Either way, expect goals, and plenty of it.
Arsenal 3-2 AC Milan (Milan to win 6-3 on aggregate)
GSP Stadium, Nicosia
March 7, 2012; 20:45 GMT
APOEL, who in many ways have been the most wonderful story of this year’s champions league, are now in with a good chance to qualify for the next round. Not only are they backed by their own support, they are being egged on by the millions of football romantics, for whom this small team from Cyprus represents everything that is still beautiful about this game.
Lyon might, at times, feel they are fighting a losing cause, as even in defeat, APOEL will come out of this fixtures as winners. 1-0 victory for the French club in the first leg means the tie is in the balance and set up absolutely perfectly. APOEL got exactly what they came for. They defended as if their lives were on the line, with their captain Jorge leading from the front with a gladiator like performance. Lyon dominated the match in possession, but even in victory they must have left the pitch frustrated at being just one goal up. Lacazette was the star performer for Lyon in this match, and inevitably, he was the one who popped up with the goal.
APOEL comes into this match on the back of an impressive performance in the league against Ermis Aradippou. They ran away as 4-1 winners on the day with Solari scoring a brace. For the Cyprus side,Ai??HAi??lio Pinto will serve a one match ban in this match.Ai??TriA?kovski, who missed the first leg of this match due to a leg injury, is still doubtful for this match, despite being rested over the weekend.Ai??Oliviera and Aldo Adorno, who were also absent from the first leg due to injury, have made their recovery and are available for the second leg.
Lyon’s run of form has been less than impressive coming into this match. In fact, their last victory in a competitive game was that of the first leg against APOEL. This weekend they lost to Nancy 2-0, which isn’t the perfect build-up, is it?Ai??Yoann Gourcuff’s absence since the first leg due toAi??an adductor problem has not helped their cause either. John Mensah is also doubtful for this match, following his hamstring problem.Ai??But there is some good news on the injury front for Lyon. RAi??my Vercoutre and Dejan Lovren have returned from their spell in the sidelines and will provide them with more options ahead of the match.
APOEL knows, that the first thing they must do is to keep a clean sheet, because an away goal from Lyon could end their dream run. Expect this to be a very tight match, with APOEL keeping it tight at the back. This match looks destined for a penalty shoot out.
APOEL 1-0 Lyon (APOEL to win on penalties)
Camp Nou, Barcelona
March 7, 2012; 20:45 GMT
If Arsenal are on ‘mission impossible’, Leverkusen are on an equal or tougher mission. When the German side were drawn against theAi??reigningAi??European champions,Ai??Leverkusen chief executive Wolfgang HolzhAi??user said, “How to beat them? I have no idea.“.
Their performance in the first leg, at home, reflected that thought of his -Ai??no idea. Nobody would have given Leverkusen any chance of defeating Barcelona, even at home, but everyone knew the Germans will have a go, and if they do so, they will cause the Spanish champions lot of problems. The best part of it was, Leverkusen did have a go, in the 52nd minute of the match, and they not only caused Barcelona problems, they scored a goal, a good one at that.
But the sad part was, that was the only moment in the match when the German side justified the phrase ‘having a go’. You expect Barcelona to dominateAi??possession, but 75% of it? After all, this was the second best German team in the league last year. Barcelona in the end won 3-1; a formality. Arsenal for their part are at least playing at home, which means, people are at least still talking about them. Sadly for Leverkusen, they are travelling to the Nou Camp. Game over!
Barcelona have snatched three impressive victories in the league, since the first leg at Bay Arena. They have decimated oneAi??of their toughest opponents Valencia 5-1, but their 3-1 victory against Gijon with 10 men, was something special. What Leverkusen can take heart from is the fact that Barcelona have conceded in each of their last 5 games.
Thiago Alcantara missed Barca’s last game against Gijon with a shin injury and remain doubtful for this match as well. Eric Abidal is undoubtedly out of the second leg, after suffering an injury during his international duties. Alexis Sanchez,Ai??Ibrahim Afellay and David Villa are also missing due to injury as well. But the good news is, Xavi, who missed the first leg of this match, due to a calf injury, made his comeback against Valencia.
Since their defeat against Barcelona, Leverkusen have been on a roll. They have scored 8 goals and conceded just once in 3 matches. They come into this match with lot of their belief and restored confidence, following their 2-0 victory of Bayern Munich this weekend. On the injury front, Ai??orluka andAi??Danny da Costa are suffering from thigh problems and are doubtful for this clash.
Sidney Sam,Ai??RenAi?? Adler andAi??Tranquillo Barnetta are all set for a long stint on the sidelines due to injuries. Michael Ballack has not featured in any of the matches since he got injured in training on 12th of February.Ai??Derdiyok returned to the bench in saturday’s clash with Bayern Munich, after recovering from an ankle problem that he sustained during Switzerland’s match against Argentina.
The match at Camp Nou will be a daunting task for Robin Dutt’s men. As for Barcelona, winning the Champions league is a forced priority, since they have fallen well behind in the race for the La Liga title. The only thing Leverkusen fans can ask of their team is to go down fighting.
Barcelona 3-1 Bayer Leverkusen (Barcelona to win 6-2 on aggregate)
we can make it if we Hv faith n determination and also the shooting boots.
Well this is going to be a supreme test for our Gunners!! AC is looking in fine form and our boys are suffering a bit of fraility…But being ever the optimist i feel that Arsenal could snatch 1 tonight as there fighting tenacity of late has been very encouraging^_^….My cherished Barca shall have no trouble sending there opponent to a sure defeat___Mark it!!
The Zenit v Benfica match should be interesting,
The big worry for Milan is their entire Midfield is out. It’s going to be tough, especially with 3 forwards, like I said before Milan blew their chances at the San Siro, and will probably paay for those misses.