UEFA Champions League Playoffs: A Preliminary Look at Our EPL Opponents…

UEFA Champions League Playoffs Draw - Italian Teams

Fabio Capello dubbed it “diabolical“. Given the picks obtained by Inter, Juventus, and Roma in Friday’s UCL draw, the term might indeed be appropriate. For how else can we define the incredible “Serie A vs. Premier League” showdown bestowed upon us, as our beloved Italian teams face off against Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal in February?

With the matches still months away, a preliminary presentation of our EPL opponents is in order. In particular, a general guess on what kind of games we will be looking at in 2009.


Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo (R) celebrates with Wayne Rooney (L) and Anderson after scoring during their English Premier League soccer match against Newcastle United in Manchester, northern England, January 12, 2008.




José wanted the best; he got it. The current UCL and EPL champions were probably the toughest team of the lot for Inter Milan, but the Portuguese manager isn’t scared of the confrontation. Far from it. A long-time admirer of Sir Alex Ferguson, Mourinho will have to make full use of his tactical knowledge, as indeed the showdown between Premier League and Serie A champions may very well turn into a real “battle of wits”.

Domestically, Man Utd’s Premier League season so far could have been better. Two important (albeit away) losses vs. Liverpool and Arsenal, and a few unconvincing draws have kept Sir Alex’s boys a bit lagging behind from league leaders Liverpool/Chelsea. However, this is still the team of the reigning champions, both in England and in Europe (and potentially very soon, in the World). Tactically with the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney‘s role on the field has undergone further transformation, “Roo” now more than ever “assist-provider” in addition to “goalscorer”. And as far as goalscoring goes, the Red Devils can always count on the newly-elected Ballon d’Or laureate, the one and only Cristiano Ronaldo.

Lastly, with an experienced defence lead by the likes of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand (not to mention ex-Juve “reject” Edwin Van der Sar), this will again be the perfect opportunity for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to get rid of his “big-game choker” tag once and for all.

Expect a balanced, tactical encounter with not many goals scored.

Chelsea's Florent Malouda, center, celebrates scoring against Bordeaux with his teammates, captain, John Terry, left, and Frank Lampard during their Champions League Group A soccer match at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Tuesday Sept. 16, 2008. Chelsea won the match 4-0.




Compared to their playing style under Mourinho (and then partly, under Avram Grant), Scolari’s Blues have adopted a more spectacular approach to their football games. It’s one that includes scoring lots of goals, but which also seems to be leading toward the occasional surprise defeat. The 3-1 group stage loss suffered at the hands of Roma is but one example, as indeed Chelsea’s home record in the Premiership leaves somewhat to be desired this season. Liverpool and Arsenal came to Stamford Bridge and left with the full three points, and even “modest” teams like Newcastle and West Ham managed to grab at least a draw when visiting Abramovich’s powerhouse.

Nevertheless and despite their small share of problems, the Blues are topping the EPL rankings, just one point away from league leaders Liverpool and 5 points ahead of Manchester United. During Didier Drogba’s prolonged injury absence, Nicolas Anelka has efficiently stepped in as “Mr. Goalscorer” (he is first in the scoring charts with 14 goals, way ahead of 2nd-ranked Gabriel Agbonlahor at 9) and should give the likes of Chiellini and Legrottaglie plenty to think about. In midfield, quality is abundant with the technique of Deco, the physique of Ballack and Essien (however sidelined with a cruciate ligament injury), and the leadership qualities of Lampard. And since we’re talking about leadership, let’s not forget the true “heart” of the team and one of Europe’s top center-backs (not to mention Fabio’s official pick for the England captaincy), John Terry.

Also, while their home form has been inconsistent, the Blues have grabbed full points on all of their away encounters. Something to think about for Claudio Ranieri, who will surely return to his old Chelsea environment with a bit of nostalgia.

Expect a tough, physical battle in all parts of the field.

Arsenal's Dutch Striker Robin Van Persie (L) celebrates scoring his second goal with Spanish Midfielder Cesc Fabregas during their Premier League match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, London, on November 30, 2008. AFP PHOTO / Glyn Kirk.




Lastly, the encounter between Gunners and Giallorossi promises to be, for lack of a better word, spectacular. These are two teams geared towards offensive short-passing football, and in that sense Arsenal are probably the “least British” team of the lot. Quite litterally in fact, as indeed much ink has been used to describe the excessive “international” aspect (and lack of English presence) of Arsène Wenger’s roster, but even the naysayers can’t deny that the French manager has surrounded himself with a very talented group of youngsters.

Top of the list: ex-Barcelona product and newly-elected captain Cesc Fabrègas. He may be young, and may have already sold his soul to the Nike devil (with less than stellar results), but the Arsenal midfielder is already playing with the assurance of a veteran. His passes will be the main fuel provider for one Mr. Emmanuel Adebayor, especially since the Togolese striker has already scored more European goals than his 2007-08 season.

To the Giallorossi’s advantage, the Arsenal backline has shown bits of inconsistency lately (thinking of you Djourou) and has been marred by the fully publicized hara-kiri move of (ex) captain William Gallas. With the French center-back probably on its way out, Totti & friends will definitely want to use whatever ammo they can get.

Expect plenty of goals in this one.

So there you have it. Respectively TACTICS, BATTLING, and GOALS: three different recipes for some premium footy action. And who knows… come February these teams might have even grown stronger from their mercato signings.

Until then…

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Posted in Inter, Juventus, Roma, UEFA Champions League |

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  • 2 Responses to “UEFA Champions League Playoffs: A Preliminary Look at Our EPL Opponents…”

    1. Francesco says:

      Man U. right now reminds me of AC Milan right after winning the CL, Club World Cup, and World Player of the Year (Kaka): tired.

      While undeniably talented, the Red Devils seem a half-step slower and not quite as motivated & precise as last season.

      Inter by contrast, seems to be gaining strength & focus under Mourinho, a phenomenon fueled in part by hunger to taste the kind of feast of victory ManU just finished eating…

      Injuries will be a huge factor in the next rounds, but I’d give Inter a slight edge.

    2. I’d like to share your optimism Francesco, but in my eyes the European experience factor still runs largely in favor of Sir Alex’s boys.

      With that said I’ll still be cheering for Inter, because despite all my dislike for them I would like nothing better than Serie A claiming back “what’s rightfully theirs”. ;)