Champions League Preview: Chelsea, Bayern back home after 1st-leg draws
The Champions League is back, and three weeks after the round-of-16 first legs, action resumes in Europe's elite competition. This time around there is very little to separate the sides, as three of the four ties this week start on a level playing field.
Here is what to look out for this week:
Tuesday, March 10
Real Madrid (2) vs. Schalke (0)
The crisis is swirling around Madrid after the reigning European champion lost 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday to relinquish the top spot in La Liga for the first time since early November. This team's record-breaking run of 22 consecutive wins, which ended in January, feels a long time ago now. The team has suffered without two of its three first-choice midfielders–Luka Modric (back in the squad) and James Rodriguez–while the Benzema-Bale-Cristiano forward line is not working at the moment.
"There is no connection," said coach Carlo Ancelotti. "There is too much individual play. It's strange to say Madrid have a problem up front when we have scored so many goals but I think it's the truth."
There is also the Ronaldo factor: with only two goals in his last eight games, AS newspaper says that: "Cristiano faces the biggest challenge of his career." Perhaps it's a good thing that Real Madrid has a home tie against Schalke, whose first-leg tactic seemed nothing short of damage limitation. The tension caused by last week's 3-0 derby loss to Borussia Dortmund eased with a weekend win over Paderborn, moving it up to fourth in the Bundesliga (despite a banner from unhappy fans proclaiming: "Failure!").
Coach Roberto di Matteo dropped Kevin-Prince Boateng, with suggestions that the club wants to sell the midfielder in the summer, while rising star Leon Goretzka returned after seven months out through injury. This game might come too soon for Goretzka, but if fans see continued improvement from young talents like Max Meyer and Kaan Ayhan, even elimination will be bearable.
FC Porto (1) vs FC Basel (1)
The Swiss champion encountered a major surprise this week when club captain Marco Streller, 34, announced he would be retiring at the end of the season. The scorer of Basel's winning goal against Liverpool in the group stage, he added another to his season tally in the weekend's 3-0 win over Thun to help Basel maintain its seven-point lead in the league table.
Would his announcement undermine the team's chances against Porto this week? He was asked just that at a press conference. Quite the opposite, was the response.
"I wanted it out in the open so there is nothing to hide, and we can focus and prepare in the normal way," he said.
With Fabian Frei a future captain-in-waiting and Breel-Donald Embolo, 18, set for more chances in the side next season, FC Basel's succession policy is safe. For this week though, it is the slight underdog after Porto's away goal in Switzerland ended the first leg at 1-1. Champions League participants in Portugal often play on Friday nights to give them extra recovery time before European matches, an example of the national federation working together with the domestic league (it would never happen in England), but this time it backfired on Porto.
Yes, it beat Braga 1-0 to keep in touch with Benfica at the top of the table, but top scorer Jackson Martinez limped off with a thigh injury and will miss the second leg vs. Basel. While Vincent Aboubakar is likely to step in, Porto's hopes will rest with in-form winger Cristian Tello, who scored the winner against Braga one week after a hat trick against Sporting Lisbon.
Porto, along with Real Madrid and Chelsea, has yet to lose in the competition this season and if any team is to follow Dortmund and Atletico as a surprise dark horse, it could be Julen Lopetegui's side.
Wednesday, March 11
Chelsea (1) vs Paris Saint-Germain (1)
It¹s been a busy few weeks for Jose Mourinho since Chelsea's away draw in Paris last month. There was the row over Nemanja Matic's sending-off, the League Cup final win over Spurs and a crucial away win over West Ham.
Kurt Zouma has become a viable option to Matic (back for this one) in midfield, and Mourinho believes winning a trophy gives his players a boost as the season approaches crunch time.
For PSG, the memory of last year, when sub Demba Ba's late goal knocked the French champion out on away goals, will surely impact Laurent Blanc, who has too often paid the price for a cautious approach.
PSG missed the chance to go top of Ligue 1 after drawing with Monaco, and there have been suggestions that midfielder Blaise Matuidi will be looking to move to England in the summer.
"PSG don't want to sell him and for the moment, Blaise has not asked to leave," his agent, Mino Raiola, said unconvincingly. For the likes of Matuidi and striker Edinson Cavani, this is just the type of fixture that can add a few numbers to a transfer fee or salary package. Chelsea has shown it can win ugly in the past, but PSG might just give it a fright this time.
Bayern Munich (0) vs Shakhtar Donetsk (0)
Here's a question about Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu: Why is he never mentioned as a possible successor when the big jobs come available or even when they don't? Last week, Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini was under pressure and the two names under consideration were reported to be Diego Simeone and Carlo Ancelotti. Really? How did the braintrust at the Etihad come up with those unknowns?
Lucescu has experience, an attacking vision of the game, and a dry sense of humor, which has helped him cope at a club currently without a home.
His side did well to hold Bayern in the first leg, too, and managed to wind up the opposition: Xabi Alonso was sent off and is suspended for the second leg, while Franck Ribery was lucky to avoid the same fate.
This week, Bild newspaper suggested Pep Guardiola have a word with Ribery and tell him to calm down: he still reacts to provocation. He was sent off in the 2010 Champions League semifinal (and missed the final vs. Inter Milan) and could have been dismissed for a flying elbow in the 2013 final. The same happened in midweek against Braunschweig. Bayern also had Mehdi Benatia dismissed in the 3-2 loss at Manchester City. Keep 11 men on the pitch, and Bayern, still the favorite, should progress.
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