Well, mine has been an extended absence, so I think it's only appropriate to inquire if there's anyone out there. With the World Cup fast approaching, Champions League starting up again, and domestic leagues kicking it up into full throttle, I hope you are still out there. Out there or not, it's probably time to take a solid look at European football through the Champions League lens.
First off, you may not yet know, I certainly didn't (and UEFA seems to have done a poor job of advertising) Champions League has a brand spanking new schedule format. It's good for viewers, but questionable for the participating teams. Last year and in recent memory the round of sixteen would bless us with four games on Tuesday and four games on Wednesday, followed by a one week layover sans European footie. Now, this Tuesday will host two games (Lyon v. Real Madrid; AC Milan v. Manchester United) as will Wednesday (Bayern Munich v. Fiorentina; Porto v. Arsenal). Then, the following week, the first leg of the away matches are played, the second leg for Lyon, Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Manchester United is then completed the following week, and then the final second legs of the round of sixteen close out. In efect, we have a month of Champions League uninterrupted until the weeklong break between this round and the quarterfinals. As viewers this new format probably allows more people to watch more games. Whether or not the layovers and differing timetables for play between rounds affects the teams remains to be seen.
As for this week's matchups, an interesting pair. Oddly enough, Real Madrid may be the only true favorite in these first four games. Lyon lost Benzema this past summer, to Madrid no less, and last year also saw their six consecutive Ligue championships come to an end. They simply are not the team they once were. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo, this Champions League's topscorer is back with MAdrid after injury and red card setbacks this season, and will add his usual pace and skill to the merengues. More worrying for the French side however, will be the return from injury of team top goalscorer Gonzalo Higuain, who is on pace to become a top European striker this year. Similarly Kaka seems to have shaken off his sports hernia and be finding his form. Nevermind that the Madrid back four have adapted remarkably well to losing Pepe, and the midfield is slowly becoming a unit capable of success despite, or perhaps because of their flexibility (Kaka, Granero, Guti, Van der Vaart, Lass, Xabi Alonso, et al. have all played and well this season). The team has Barcelona on its sights in la Liga, but the club from the capital makes no bits about it - May 22nd at the Bernabeu would be the sweetest reward for los blancos. All that said, Real has never beaten Lyon in the Champions League, and has not gotten past the round of sixteen in five years. With Benzema likely out for the first leg, and Lyon expected to be snow covered and at below freezing temperatures this Tuesday, don't count Lyon out yet, at least not on the first leg.
Meanwhile Manchester United has hoisted themselves to within one point of Chelsea after a draw at Aston Villa and a Chelsea loss to Everton courtesy of Landycakes and Louis Saha. But the red devils may be facing AC Milan at their most dangerous. Seemingly out of contention for the Serie A despite being only eight points behind Inter, the rossoneri have hardly sparkled this season. But they are European regulars, and you can bet Ronaldinho will play his best against top opposition like Manchester. Well, at least for a few minutes, though it doesn't take much more from the Brazilian. Huntelaar has also found the back of the net recently, and may be looking to prove he's not a player meant to play in the Dutch league exclusively. Nonetheless, Manchester will stand behind the man that's carried them this season, and in impressive fashion, Wayne Rooney. Almost a force of nature, Rooney has done nothing short of put the red devils on his back amidst a series of defensive injuries and an erratic midfield that sorely misses Cristiano Ronaldo. Certainly Rooney has seen more of goal without the Portuguese, but the team has felt the loss. Nani is hit or miss, Giggs is injured, and Valencia though pacey, still has not found his form. It will be interesting to see if Leonardo, with his job likely on the line, will be able to expose Manchester United weaknesses on the biggest stage. But with Manchester United given almost a full week off with no EPL this weekend, it is hard to pick against the devils over the two legs, though a tie or even a one goal loss isn't out of the question at the San Siro.
On Wednesday the matchups are bit less thrilling on paper, but may prove equally exciting on the pitch. Beating Liverpool 1-0 last week, Arsenal appeared to get themselves back in the title race, at six behind Chelsea aka Team Drogba. But Wenger's boys have yet to prove that they can beat the big boys around town, having dropped games to Manchester United and Chelsea before the Liverpool match, and not in hotly contested games. The loss of Van Persie has certainly hurt the gunners, but truth be told the trade off Wenger has made seems to be one of adding youth to lose meddle and confidence. These last two attributes seem absent from both Arsenal sides fielded against the top two. Simply put, the gunners lack the verve to run with the big boys, and Arshavin's absence for their clash against Porto will not help. In my opinion, the gunners also seem to lack a holding midfielder, as Diaby remains unconvincing, and that position would seem to be essential for a team who needs to maintain possession. So will Porto test Arsenal the way the other seventeen EPL teams test them, or the way Chelsea and Man. U. have? Though they sit third in the Portuguese League, Porto always come to play in Champions League, lest we forget that Porto's two European Cups are two more than Arsenal have managed. Moreover, Porto has absolutely demolished its opponents in recent weeks, and despit losing several key players this summer, Porto still has Hulk and always finds a way to find suitable replacement for losses. This team took eventual runners-up Manchester United to the brink last season, and will look to do the same against Arsenal. Both teams will look to pass and play openly, so this should be an entertaining match to say the least. Over two legs, I'd bet on Porto over Arsenal though.
Finally, the Bayern Munich v. Fiorentina matchup. Here's what you need to know. Fiorentina are doing dreadfully in the Serie A, and have lost their last two (1-0 losses to Inter and Roma). Bayern Munich have gotten Ribery back, he's in a contract year (just not with Bayern Munich) and Robben is on form. The Germans will surely prove too much for the Italians, and should win easily. But no one ever wins easily against an Itlaian side, do they? If Inter and Roma could be held to 1-0 wins, what are the chances Fiorentina arrives at Allianz Arena looking for a tie or 1-0 loss and gamble on their chances at the Artemio Franchi? I say high. Very high even. Will it work? Probably not, as Fiorentina's been off form recently and Bayern should have enough firepower to get through, but it'll be interesting.
Next week I'll get to that mouthwatering Chelsea v. Inter clash, and the other three, rather less interesting matchups.
In other news, The Copa del Rey will be played between Atletico Madrid and Sevilla on May 26, 2010, four days after the Champions League final. Both teams play attacking open football and have several world superstars on their rosters. If Real Madrid, Barcelona and maybe Valencia weren't going to be in the final, these would certainly be your top choices. It's been ten yars since Atletico played in a final, and almsot fifteen since they've won anything. Sevilla on the other hand, has battled Valencia in recent years to take that third Liga spot Atletico once held. In the last five years the sevillistas have won two UEFA Cups, a Copa del Rey, a Spanish Super Cup and a European Super Cup. It's hard to gauge form and injury status this far in advance, but Sevilla should be the slight favorites in what I suspect may be one of the last, if not the last, competitive matches before South Africa. Hopefully no players miss the final due to national team commitments.
This weekend, Cristiano Ronaldo returns to action at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday against Xerex. Meanwhile, Barcelona travel to the Vicente Calderon to face an Atletico team on the ascent. "On the ascent" for Atletico Madrid usually means "before the fall." But despite Atletico's ability be alternatively amazing or horrifying, Aguero and Forlan will be facing a depleted Barcelona defense (no Alves, Pique, Marquez, Abidal, Toure, or Chygrynsky) that may start a youth club player or a modified winger as a defender in Jeffren. While it's hard to see Barcelona lose a game, if ever there was a time...