European squads battle for prestigious tournament title
The Champions League, among the biggest sports tournaments in Europe, kicked off its Round of 16 games Tuesday.
Narrowed down from the initial 32 qualifying teams from last year’s round-robin games, only the top two finishers of each group advanced to the knockout stage.
These clubs compete all season to prove they are the best in their respective countries; now they are only six games away from a European title. When every match is a rivalry and every ball an opportunity to advance, fans shouldn’t expect to see a second wasted in upcoming matches.
The tournament began with English champion Manchester United playing Italian powerhouse AC Milan.
United coach Alex Ferguson had been sizing up Milan since they lost playmaker Kaka to Real Madrid. Kaka was a main force behind the 3-0 thrashing Milan gave United in their last match in 2007.
A pair of second-half goals from Wayne Rooney propelled Man-U past their rivals, giving fans a thrilling start to this year’s action.
Also playing on Tuesday was French delegate Olympique Lyonnais versus Real Madrid. Along with signing Kaka, Madrid scooped up Xabi Alonso and Cristiano Ronaldo to help it defend its title as FIFA’s best club of the 20th century. Lyon got a goal from Jean Makoun in the 47th minute and held off a late Madrid rally to take the 1-0 decision.
The action continues today, when FC Porto of Portugal takes on English side Arsenal. Arsenal will need a strong defensive effort after the loss of striker Andrey Arshavi. Robin Van Persie’s ankle injury only makes matters worse.
In 2004, FC Porto became the only club in the Liga Sagres to win the Champions League. A repeat might convince players to stay in Portugal instead of moving to the Premiere League or the equally popular Spanish league, La Liga.
Bayern Munich and Fiorentina will also be playing today. Munich has won nine straight games in the Bundesliga to keep them at the top of the table with Leverkusen. Statistically, Fiorentina is the worst team in the tournament. But after qualifying ahead of Lyon and forcing out Liverpool, they are a hard team to overlook.
The fifth matchup is between VB Stuttgart and Barcelona. The Spanish super club far overshadows Stuttgart, which might not have the experience to stop Barcelona from becoming the first club to win back-to-back Champions League titles.
Next is the sole Greek side, Olympiacos, which faces off against Bordeaux. Olympiacos may seem to be out of place among soccer strongholds like England, Italy and Germany, but it has never finished better than the quarterfinals in this competition.
Bordeaux is on top of the tables in Ligue 1, whereas Lyon has surprisingly fallen out of the title race.
CSKA Moscow plays Spanish side Sevilla next Wednesday. Larger clubs in their Leagues overshadow both, and few expect Sevilla to advance further than Spanish counterparts Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Last is the highly anticipated match between two teams that are at the top of their leagues, Inter Milan and Chelsea. With English sides Chelsea and Manchester United playing Italian sides Inter and AC Milan national pride will be on the line, as well.
To add to the occasion, Inter coach Jose Mourinho left Stamford Bridge to be in Italy, so expect the level of intrigue in their match to be especially high.