The Champions League is only a week a way and as it falls into the last 16 it at last becomes interesting.
Manchester City and Chelsea were biffed out with barely a whimper joining Ajax and Benfica as the only real “big team” eliminated.
This leaves a very healthy looking draw with all of the big guns and some exceptional ties.
I’m going to go through them one by one and give a forecast/guess/punt:
1. Galatasaray A.S. (TUR) – FC Schalke 04 (GER)
Schalke have put their dreadful league form behind them and upped their game in this year’s CL.However Galatasaray did well to edge out Cluj to claim a last 16 spot, beating Man Utd on the process.
Much will depend on the 1st Leg and how the Germans can handle “hell”.
My pick : Galatasaray to progress through on away goals.
2. Celtic FC (SCO) – Juventus (ITA)
Celtic have been amazing so far and have proved to be a match for anyone at Celtic Park. If they can keep a clean sheet in Glasgow and protect a lead in Turin they could edge past a strong Juve. However I feel their midfield is too week to withstand the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio.
My pick: Juventus overpower Celtic in Turin.
3. Arsenal FC (ENG) – FC Bayern München (GER)
Bayern are simply too strong for a limited Arsenal. The Germans are running away with the Bundesliga thanks in main to the free scoring Mandzukic, Shaquiri and Muller (Gomez is injured).
The Arsenal defence looks porous with Mertesacker still to find his feet and goalkeeper Szczesny mercurial at best. Giroud and Walcott are impressing in EPL but that won’t be enough to overcome Bayern.
My tip: Bayern safely through by an aggregate of at least 3.
4. FC Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR) – Borussia Dortmund (GER)
Despite falling 12 points behind Bayern in the Bundesliga, Dortmund have played well in season’s CL topping the Group of Death.In Lewandowski and Marco Reus they genuine class and a top manager in Jurgen Klopp.
Shaktar are no mugs and have a mix a Brazilians( Luis Adriano) and leading Russian players. That being said Dortmund should progress.
My tip: Dortmund to close the show in Germany.
5. AC Milan (ITA) – FC Barcelona (ESP)
Despite their purchase of Mario Balotelli the Italian giants will simply not have enough to beat Barcelona over two legs. Serie A has weakened drastically in recent years and Milan even more so.
Expect a Messi hat-trick and another Iniesta/Xavi show.
My Pick: Barcelona to breeze through.
6. Real Madrid CF (ESP) – Manchester United FC (ENG)
The tie of the round sees Ronaldo return to Old Trafford and Mourinho back in his element. Real trail Barca in the league but I feel they still have too much for Ferguson’s reds.
Man United have chanced their luck in the EPL and benefited from a weak EPL. Ronaldo and Ozil will run rings round Johnny Evans and embarrass De Gea.
My tip: Real Madrid rout in Madrid
7. Valencia CF (ESP) – Paris Saint-Germain (FRA)
Free spending PSG have the tax dodging Beckham and a host of international stars in their squad. They should have enough to eliminate Valencia , but i hope not.
The French giants have a bottomless pocket of wealth while the Valencianistas are broke as a joke.
My tip : Ibra is sent off in first leg and Valencia prevail.
8. FC Porto (POR) – Málaga CF (ESP)
The 8th tie is perhaps the weakest but the most evenly matched. Both teams did well to progress and at the expense of better funded Eastern European giants.
Porto currently top their domestic league while Malaga lie in 4th in the stronger La Liga.
My tip : Porto to progress by the odd goal.
The draw for the champions league draw has just been made with Group D looking like the “Group of Death”.
After an underwhelming maiden tournament last year Roberto Mancini will be hoping to qualify for the next stage. However with Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund (all champions of their respective countries) in their group it will be a hard task to complete.
Celtic could of got it easier with Barcelona and Benfica but they can hold realistic ambitions of a 3rd place and Europa league spot along with Spartak Moscow. Their away form seems to be improving and they are a match for any at Celtic Park.
Holders Chelsea got Juventus,Shakhtar Donetsk and newcomers FC Nordsjaelland.
Arsenal face trips to Schalke, Olympiakos, Montpellier and Man Utd will play Braga, Galatasaray, CFR Cluj in Group H.
Group A: Porto, Dynamo Kiev, Paris St Germain, Dinamo Zagreb.
Group B: Arsenal, Schalke, Olympiakos, Montpellier.
Group C: AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg, Anderlecht, Malaga.
Group D: Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund.
Group E: Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, FC Nordsjaelland.
Group F: Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov.
Group G: Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic.
Group H: Manchester United, Braga, Galatasaray, CFR Cluj.
If one looks over the national football teams of South America, in general the majority of their players ply their trade in Europe.
Latin Americans like to boast that there families are closer than any other cultures (pretty much nonsense in my view), so a move to another continent must be a wrench for footballers, especially at such a young age. However the wages on offer in Europe’s bigger leagues far outstrip those offered in Latin America, except Brazil and maybe Mexico.This coupled with the opportunity to play at a far higher level attracts young footballers to Europe and possible wealth and glory.
Less than 20 years ago the EPL and SPL had a splattering of Latin Americans of which very few were overall successes. Usually, after a season or two they escaped back to their respective paradises complaining about the dreadful food and incessant rain in the UK. Players like Juan Sebastian Veron (Man United, Chelsea, Diego Forlan (Man United) and Jared Borghetti (Bolton), despite being heroes at home failed to set the heather alight in the bright lights of the EPL/Premiership and were unfairly labelled as South American duds.
In Scotland we had the likes of Emerson and Gabriel Amato (Rangers) or Rafeal Schiedt (Celtic) but admittedly their were some successes alike Claudio Cannagia (Argentina) and Ulysses De La Cruz (Hibernian).
But as the years progressed for every Robinho (Man City) there was at least another Juninho (Middlesborough and Celtic) and for every Crespo (Chelsea) a Gilberto Silva (Arsenal).
Now all of the best players from Latin America play in Europe’s top leagues and the Champions league. Whereas before Latin American’s were a lesser spotted novelty now they are the bedrock of many of the successful European club teams.
If we take the current “biggest” teams in Europe(free to disagree).
Real Madrid have Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina), Marcelo and Kaka (Brazil).
Barcelona have Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano (Argentina), Dani Alves and Adriano (Brazil) and Alexis Sanchez (Chile).
Bayern Munich have Dante, Rafinha and Luis Gustavo (Brazil).
Chelsea (as Champions league winners) have David Luis, Ramires and Oscar (Brazil).
Manchester United have Javier Hernandez (Mexico), Antonio Valencia (Ecuador) and Rafeal (Brazil).
and free spending Paris Saint-Germain have Thiago Silva, Nene, Alex and Maxwell (Brazil), Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi (Argentina) and Diego Lugano (Uruguay).
This is not to mention the imminent transfers of Neymar, Ganso, Lucas Ocampos and Alexander Mejja. It seems as if every team needs to have a South American player now (even 3rd Division dwelling Rangers recently acquired Brazilian Emilson Cribari).
With their shared languages Portugal and Spain have always found it easier to attract Latin Americans ranging from Hugo Sanchez to Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho however now La Liga has to contend with clubs in Russia and their immense oil wealth. Similarly many young players wisely seem to choose clubs in Ligue 1 or the Eredivise as stepping stone to greater things.
Whether these players are more determined than those before or maybe life is now more tolerable in the northern European countries is open to question but what is not in doubt is that Latin Americans are succeeding and entertaining in European football like never before. Scouts from every major and minor team now scour the American continent looking for the next Messi or Maradona and whereas before they were content to pay the high transfer fees, now the European clubs want the Latin stars as early and as cheaply as possible.
A recent statistic from Brazil claimed that over 1,000 young footballers leave Brazil alone every year. With only a small percentage destined for super stardom and eye watering contracts the rest will a journey man existence or return home to their barrios and favelas. It’s a harsh lesson to learn at such a young age and one hopes they can recover from being spat by a football industry that treats them more as commodities rather than entertainers or even artists.