Four clear favorites, subplots mark second batch of UCL knockout ties

Monday February 24th, 2014

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, left, will have to gameplan for his former star, Galatasaray's Didier Drogba, ahead of their Champions League matchup this week.
Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

The next batch of Champions League round of 16 matches kick off Tuesday and while there may not be as many potential competition winners as last week, there will be no shortage of drama and storylines to keep an eye on.

This is what we will be looking out for this week:

Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Borussia Dortmund, Tuesday

It is a regular refrain that Russian (and Ukrainian) clubs struggle in these knockout rounds because they have been on winter break since December. Not only is this true in the case of Russian champion Zenit, but it is also ended up with one of the lowest points tallies to reach this stage, with just six points (and one win) from its six games: so spare a thought for Napoli, eliminated from its group with 12 points.

The biggest story in the build-up to the game is the weather: so much snow fell in St Petersburg in January while in recent weeks, the frost has come. On the weekend, the pitch, unused since Dec. 6, was a white-out. The grounds crew has been preparing for this moment: adding fertilizer throughout January and covering a special film on the turf in February. It's impossible, though, to gauge Zenit's form in spite of its training camp in Turkey.

At least we know what to expect from Dortmund, or at least we thought so, until its surprise 3-0 defeat at crisis club Hamburg this weekend. Dortmund has been without its first-choice back four for most of the season -- hence only three clean sheets in 19 games -- and key players Ilkay Gundogan, Neven Subotic and Jakub Blaszczykowski will miss this tie. Mats Hummels and Marcos Reus will be available after injury, but will they be match fit?

There are other concerns for manager Jurgen Klopp: Sven Bender is now out for 10 weeks with a cartilage problem and Robert Lewandowski has a cold and is a doubt. It will almost be a second-string Dortmund side, but if it can come away with a draw in this first leg, should still have enough to progress.

Decisive player: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Dortmund

The Gabon striker scored the crucial goal that edged Dortmund past Napoli in their group stage Matchday Five meeting, and he has bagged five goals in his last five games. Thirteen goals in 16 league starts for his new side is a decent return and with Lewandowski not certain of starting, Aubameyang will carry Dortmund's best chance of that all-important away goal.

Tipped to progress: Borussia Dortmund

Olympiakos vs. Manchester United, Tuesday

Kostas Who? Since Olympiakos sold top scorer Kostas Mitroglou to Fulham for a record fee of €15 million, the Greek champion has not stopped scoring: 13 goals in its last three games, to continue its unbeaten run in 26 league games and extend its lead in the table to 23 points (with a Manchester City-esque goal difference of +69). That in itself creates two narratives: one, the unstoppable local force, and two, a team rarely given a challenge that might wilt when up against tougher opposition.

Olympiakos' Spanish coach Michel has made it clear that he is not daunted by United's reputation and there may be no better time to welcome the current (but for not much longer) Premier League champion. United may have persuaded Wayne Rooney to commit the rest of his career to the club, but the lack of fluidity between Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata has been a source of concern since the three men have played together.

David Moyes is learning that three into two does not go and Mata, whether playing on the left, as he did against Arsenal, or the right, as he did against Crystal Palace, will always drift into his favored central position, which is where Rooney plays. Unless Moyes puts Rooney into midfield, or Van Persie gets injured, Mata will have to play second fiddle -- which seems tough on a player who cost £37 million. Of course, Mata is cup-tied to Chelsea and cannot play for United the rest of the way in the competition this season, freeing Moyes of making the personnel call in Greece.

The hope for United is that it can replicate its best two performances of the season, which came in the Champions League group games against Bayer Leverkusen. Numbers produced by Bloomberg Sports show that United's pass completion and shot efficiency is better in Europe than the Premier League this season. Moyes will be praying that continues in Greece.

Decisive player: Wayne Rooney, Manchester United

For all the rights and wrongs of Rooney's contract extension, this tie is crucial for the message it sends out about the club. Given that Manchester City and Arsenal, on account of the draws they faced, are unlikely to remain in the competition, United, along with Chelsea, could be the Premier League's remaining representatives in the competition.

Is that a big deal? Well, yes if United remains stuck outside the top four places and wants to recruit top-tier players in the summer. It may yet sneak into the top four but if not, a Europa League side that was eliminated in the round of 16 is a harder sell than, say, a Champions League semifinalist. Rooney has sold himself to United, now he has to help sell the club to future teammates.

Tipped to progress: Manchester United

BERLIN: Rooney proves his worth in Man Utd's weekend win

Galatasaray vs. Chelsea, Wednesday

For all the talk about Didier Drogba, who has described this reunion with Chelsea as like playing in two home legs, the other tasty subplot concerns the coaches. It was Mourinho who replaced Roberto Mancini at Inter Milan in 2008, after two Champions League round of 16 eliminations were deemed not good enough, and when Mourinho won the 2010 Champions League, Mancini insisted it was with his team.

The knock on the Italian has always been in Europe: Inter reached the quarterfinal in 2005 and 2006, then those two round of 16 knockouts, and in two seasons at Manchester City, elimination at the group stage. Admittedly, the two groups City were in were tough (Bayern, Napoli and Villarreal; then Dortmund, Real Madrid and Ajax), but Mancini did himself few favors with his tactics, not to mention the fallouts with the likes of Carlos Tevez (a row that started in a Champions League tie at Bayern).

Compare this to Mourinho, who ended Real Madrid's run of five round of 16 eliminations by reaching the semifinal three seasons running. Mourinho reached the same stage twice with Chelsea and of course, has won it twice too, with Porto in 2004 and Inter 2010.

It's a feather in his cap that Mancini has helped Galatasaray get this far: parachuted in after a surprise 6-1 Matchday One loss at home to Real Madrid, it was only Wesley Sneijder's late winner against Juventus on Matchday Six that earned its place. Already Mancini has done his job -- which could be just as well, as Mourinho's fine record in the competition should continue here.

Decisive player: Eden Hazard, Chelsea

Drogba will generate all the headlines but Hazard is Chelsea's new star. The Belgian winger has enjoyed a breakout season but does not yet have the consistency to dominate opponents game after game. This is his first Champions League knockout match and is the moment for him to show that he deserves to be talked of as among the world's best players.

"Everyone always expects more from my side, but this could be something I need: people who criticize me," he told Het Laatste Nieuws. "If your coach always says: 'Well done Eden, keep it up,' then you risk losing form. You have to question your current form, every day."

Tipped to progress: Chelsea

Schalke 04 vs. Real Madrid, Wednesday

This tie could be the closest of all the first leg games, as it comes just as Schalke, which only sneaked into the last 16 courtesy of a Julian Draxler-inspired Matchday Six win over FC Basel, have found its form. Schalke has won its last four of its last five home games and clawed its way back into the Bundesliga's top three.

The upturn has coincided with the return from injury of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who had an ill-fated six-month spell at Real Madrid back in early-2009 (but then again, which talented Dutch forward did not?). The spell has come at a good time for coach Jens Keller, the former Under-17 coach who, despite being in charge for 15 months, has still not won over the fans. Too often Schalke has needed to rely on Draxler, who is also returning from injury but might not be ready to start games yet.

In Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jefferson Farfan, Schalke has players who can hurt Madrid on the break. The big decision for Keller will be whether to keep faith with his center back partnership of Felipe Santana and Joel Matip, and if so, leave out fit-again captain Benedikt Howedes. The latter two are both academy graduates, just like Draxler and Max Meyer, the 18-year-old attacking midfielder who has impressed this season.

Madrid's academy hope, Jese Rodriguez, a pacy winger who has stepped in for Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, looks set to sit this one out. Carlo Ancelotti's side took leadership of La Liga for the first time this season and is in very good form at the moment. For all the concerns over Bale's injury record, when he has played he has looked unstoppable at times. Schalke's defense will be tested -- especially with first-choice fullbacks Atsuto Uchida and Denis Agogo likely to miss out -- and while Madrid should progress, it might not be the cakewalk many are predicting.

Decisive player: Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid

The best player in the world, Ronaldo has not won the Champions League since joining Real Madrid but lost in the semifinal three times running. For all the hype over Bale -- who did score a brilliant goal at the weekend -- Ronaldo is still Madrid's go-to man for goals, and has already scored nine in only five group games this season.

Tipped to progress: Real Madrid

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