Friday, February 26, 2016

European Roundup: England Rebound After Rough Start

The knockout stages of Europe’s two biggest competitions started rather poorly for English sides, with Chelsea going down 2-1 at PSG, after a decent effort, Arsenal playing Barcelona tough for 70 minutes while missing good chances to win before ultimately falling 2-0 at home, Liverpool played out a dull 0-0 draw with FC Augsburg in the first leg of their Round of 32 matchup, Tottenham were held to a 1-1 draw at Fiorentina and, most shockingly, Manchester United actually lost to minnows FC Midtjylland. The dread of potentially losing their fourth Champions League place to Italy was moving closer to reality with every poor result. And then England made something of a comeback. Manchester City headed to Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday for a very winnable Round of 16 tie and left the park 3-1 winners, all but ensuring progression to the UCL quarterfinals for the first time in their history. Then all three of the remaining English teams in the Europa league won their return fixtures yesterday to progress. Manchester United crushed a team that has only existed since their treble in 1999 5-1, Tottenham cruised past Fiorentina 3-0 (4-1 on aggregate) and Liverpool scraped out a 1-0 win.

Arsenal are, barring a miracle, heading out in the Round of 16 for the sixth straight year while Chelsea certainly have a chance to turn their tie around in the second leg. Man City looks certain to get through to the Final 8 and could help the EPL out considerably by turning their huge investment over the past few years into a run toward the crown. In the Europa league, at least one English side is guaranteed to head to the final 8, as United and Liverpool square off in the most exciting Europa League match for EPL fans since Chelsea won the crown (I didn’t even watch one of those matches but will try to catch these two). Tottenham have a tough draw themselves, facing off against a Dortmund team that has moved on nicely from Klopp’s departure, currently in second in the Bundesliga, though 8 points back of Bayern Munich. One could certainly see two teams from the EPL getting through, though, and Italy has a solitary representative left in Europa and might well be out of the Champions League in a fortnight. 

Speaking of Munich, they were cruising to a road victory that could have all but settle their tough Round of 16 draw against the Italian leaders Juve. Juve recovered and garnered a valuable 2-2 draw that means a win in Munich could see Guardiola fail to even get to a Champions League final in three tries, though I think Munich are favorites to take care of business at home. Atletico Madrid appeared to have the easiest draw alongside City, but were unable to break through a ten-man PSV that was far below their best. Last week, Wolfsburg had a tougher time of it with KAA Gent than many would have predicted, but were ultimately able to win 3-2 and take three valuable away goals back home to Germany. Real Madrid took care of Roma 2-0 as they seek to win the only truly viable piece of silverware still available to them this season and Benfica beat a flat Zenit 1-0, with the cost of a two-month layoff seemingly affecting the Russian side.

In the Europa League Round of 16, the other matchups include Shakhtar Donetsk against Anderlecht, FC Basel v. Sevilla, Fenerbahce v. Braga, Atletico Bilboa v. Valencia, Sparta Prague v. Lazio and Villareal against Bayer Leverkusen. The good news for England is they could have two teams through to the next round, and are guaranteed at least one, while Italy’s only hope left in the competition is Lazio. In the Champions League, Roma looks set to exit the tournament and Juve are certainly less likely to match their march to the finals last year, though it is certainly still a possibility. That leaves England with a chance, for the first time in several years, to pick up some coefficient points on the Italians and more firmly ensconce their position in the Top three leagues in Europe. The easiest way to do that is to keep winning these ties, and one hopes City, Tottenham and Chelsea can keep a small upward tilt in momentum going their way.

Below are my predictions for the second legs of the UCL and the Round of 16 in the Europa league (I still like the old title “UEFA Cup,” for what it’s worth):

UCL Second Leg

Zenit v. Benfica: I would have chosen Zenit before this tie began, but Benfica is now in the driver’s seat. While Zenit can still certainly win it, any victory by a solitary goal would mean losing out on away goals (except for 1-0) and I thus think the Portuguese side have a great chance to progress. (Benfica 2, 1 Zenit 1 Aggregate)

Chelsea v. PSG: if Chelsea play as they have in the past few weeks, they have every chance of turning this tie around. On the other hand, PSG has already all but wrapped up the French league and their focus is on improving their performance in Europe. I think they have just enough to get past Chelsea. (PSG 4, Chelsea 3 Aggregate)

Wolfsburg v. Gent: Wolfsburg is off their pace of last season, in no small part because their best player is now in Manchester (sitting on the sideline with a major injury, of course). But I still think they have enough to take care of Gent in the second leg. (Wolfsburg 5, Gent 3 Agg)

Barca v. Arsenal: I would like to pick my beloved Gunners to pull off the impossible and win 3-0 at Barca to progress, but I have all but given up on this season in Europe and am more interested in the matchups against United and Tottenham in the league. I think the Gunners might score, but will have a hard time keeping Barca out. (Barca 4, Arsenal 1 Agg)

Bayern Munich v. Juve: this was the pick of the Round and the first leg lived up to the hype. Unfortunately for Juve, Munich are relatively imperious at home and, though they have injury troubles at the back, have shown an ability to get through the tough Italian defense. I see a chippy affair, with Munich prevailing 2-1 (Munich 4, Juve 3 Agg)

Manchester City v. Kiev: City have all but settled this tie and can probably even rest some of their starters in the return leg. Kiev showed some spirit in the second half but are more than a couple of rungs below City. (City 5, Kiev 2 Agg)

Atletico v. PSV: Atletico failed to convert their chances in a poor performance against 10-men PSV. However, Simeone has instilled real belief in his players and has another world-class goalkeeper between the sticks (who knew?). This sets up as a perfect Atletico 1-0 win (Atletico 1, PSV 0 Agg)

Europa League

Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Anderlecht – Shakhtar (3-1 Ag)
FC Basel vs. Sevilla (Sevilla 0-2 Ag)
Villarreal vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Bayer 1-0 Ag)
Athletic Bilbao vs. Valencia (Valencia 3-1 Ag)
Liverpool vs. Manchester United (Liverpool 4-3 Ag)
Sparta Prague vs. Lazio (Lazio 4-0 Ag)
Borussia Dortmund vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Tottenham 2-1 Ag)
Fenerbahce vs. Braga (Braga 4-2 Ag) 

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