Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Europa League Round of 16 Preview Part One

As a new feature, here is a brief look ahead to some of this week's Europa League Round of 16 ties.

Cahiers Du Sport blogger and IBWM co-editor Ben Shave talks us through the chances of the remaining three Portuguese sides in the UEFA Europa League.

Benfica vs PSG

An eighteen-match winning run came to an end for Benfica on Sunday, as the Eagles finally succumbed at Braga. It took a shameful piece of simulation from Alan and a wonder goal from Mossoró to overcome Jorge Jesus' side, who have been in largely-scintillating form since, well, September time. With the title now virtually impossible, Benfica's attention will turn to the three cups that they are still involved in, with the Europa League an undoubted priority.

Given the club's rich history in European competition, a trophy would be the perfect antidote to losing the title, and this was reflected in the absence of three key Argentines (Pablo Aimar, Eduardo Salvio and Nico Gaitán) from the starting line-up at Braga. The latter two should return for the PSG tie, with Carlos Martins (a more physically dynamic presence than Aimar) likely to keep his place. Benfica have been formidable at home in the Liga, but somewhat shaky against European competition. Expect Jesus to prioritise not conceding for the first hour or so, before looking for a goal to take to Paris.

Likely line-up: Roberto; Maxi , Luisão, Sidnei, Coentrão; García, Salvio, Martins/ Aimar, Gaitán; Saviola, Cardozo.

Last five matches: WWWWL.

Prediction: 2-1 Benfica.

CSKA Moscow v FC Porto

F.C Porto travel to CSKA Moscow knowing that, barring a catastrophe of wholly-unexpected proportions, they should reclaim the domestic title that Benfica wrestled from their grasp last season. Eleven points clear with eight rounds remaining, André Villas Boas stands on the cusp of a superb debut season at the Dragão, one in which his side have lost just three times in all competitions. One of those defeats came at home to Sevilla in the second leg of the Europa League round of thirty-two, and whilst Porto sneaked through on away goals, their youthful coach admitted that such mistakes must be cut out should they wish to progress to the latter stages of the competition.

Porto arrive with no major injury concerns, and should field the same 4-3-3 formation that has served them so well for the best part of a decade. A solid defence, technically outstanding midfield and potent forward line makes the Dragons one of the most complete sides left in the competition, and their ability to score should stand them in good stand for what will be a tricky trip to the Russian capital.

Likely line-up: Helton; Sapunaru/Fucile, Rolando, Otamendi, Fucile; Fernando, João Moutinho, Belluschi; Varela, Falcao, Hulk.

Last five matches: WWLWW.

Prediction: 2-1 Porto.

Braga v Liverpool

Braga host Liverpool with a clear blueprint for victory over a big European name already laid down – the Minho club qualified for the Champions League back in August 2010 with a smash and grab aggregate victory over Sevilla, which displayed their finest qualities: collective defending and rapid counter-attacking play. The Arsenalistas have been inconsistent in both domestic and European competition this season, and given Liverpool's resurgence under Kenny Dalglish, have to be viewed as major underdogs.

However, Domingos Paciência and his men earned a morale-boosting 2-1 home win over Benfica this past weekend, and Liverpool would do well to keep their wits about them at the Estádio AXA. The absence of midfield enforcer Custódio through injury and on-loan winger Ukra (who is cup-tied, having represented F.C Porto earlier in the competition) are blows, but Braga should field a combative 4-2-3-1 formation.

Likely line-up: Artur; Sílvio, Kaká, Rodríguez, Miguel Garcia; Vandinho, Hugo Viana; Alan, Mossoró, Paulo César; Lima.

Last five matches: LLWDW.

Prediction: 1-1.

You can follow Ben on twitter at @cahiers_dusport and check out his excellent blog on Portuguese Football : http://cahiersdusport.blogspot.com/

Continuing from Braga's clash with Liverpool, Graham Ruthven looks at the chances of Liverpool and Manchester City this week.

Braga v Liverpool

So often when a club is in crisis they will call upon the fans favourite, in a desperate attempt to appease those exasperated at what state the club has fallen into.

However, equally as frequent are the failures of such schemes. Newcastle are serial offenders, having appointed Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer in the same season at a time when relegation was a very genuine threat. That threat became an equally genuine realisation. Invariably when the hysteria wears off, so does the effectiveness of the appointment.

However, the return of Kenny Dalglish to Anfield in their time of need has not followed the aforementioned trend, with Liverpool enjoyed an emphatic renaissance since the departure of Roy Hodgson.

Ironically this revival of Liverpool’s season has coincided with the sale of talismanic striker Fernando Torres, which was seemingly symbolic of the very slump they had endured in the first half of the season.

The impact of Luis Suarez, signed for £23 million from Ajax as a replacement for Torres, has gone some way to mitigate the repercussions felt from the departure of the club’s top scorer for the past three seasons. The recently installed most expensive English player of all time, Andy Carroll had his Liverpool bow delayed due to injury, eventually making his debut in Sunday’s dismantling of Man Utd, but one player who has been reinvigorated more than most by the return of ‘King Kenny’ is Portuguese midfield dynamo, Raul Meireles. Billed with being the perfect foil for captain Steven Gerrard in the centre of midfield, Meireles failed to match up to the standard set by himself during the World Cup in South Africa.

Victory at Stamford Bridge and Sunday’s convincing 3-1 win over Manchester United have demonstrated the potential Dalglish has gone some way to uncover and with the Europa League Liverpool’s sole chance of silverware this season, emphasis will be placed on overcoming Braga and reaching the last sixteen of the competition.

Likely line-up: Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Meireles, Gerrard, Cole, Maxi, Lucas, Kuyt

Prediction: 2-1 Braga

Dynamo Kyiv v Manchester City

When Carlos Tevez made the controversial switch from United to City two seasons ago, it was labeled as the symbolic switch of footballing power in the city of Manchester. It hasn’t quite turned out as definite as some had expected but Roberto Mancini’s side have indeed made strides which have taken them into the Premier League’s top four.

Tevez has been able to translate his bustling and spirited nature that was revered for at Old Trafford to his form at City, and despite publically announcing his desire to return to his homeland, Argentina in December, he has become a favourite with the City support for his enigmatic qualities.

However, Tevez is not the only enigmatic quantity at Eastlands with controversial striker Mario Balotelli completing an unpredictable line-up in attack. Since his signing from Inter Milan in the summer, the Italian international has made a big impact, although not entirely a positive one. Renowned for his disruptive behaviour, self-righteous ego and questionable taste in haircuts as much as his irrefutable ability on a football pitch, Balotelli has scored six times in eleven starts for City this season but has also been involved in training ground bust-ups, on the field bust-ups and even bust-ups with his manager.

The arrival of Spanish World Cup winner David Silva has been comparatively somewhat smoother than that of Balotelli, with the former Valencia man quickly becoming a key influence under Mancini’s compact and narrow system.

League success looks to be beyond City for this season and despite still remaining in the FA Cup, they find themselves in similar circumstances to that of Liverpool. This could be their best chance at silverware this season.

Likely line-up: Hart, Richards, Zabaleta, Lescott, Kompany, Barry, Silva, Yaya Toure, De Jong, Viera, Tevez

Prediction: 1-0 Manchester City

You can follow Graham on twitter at @grahamruthven and can read some of his work at http://www.grahamruthven.com/

In part two, we focus in on the Dutch sides in action including PSV Eindhoven v Rangers.

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