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Champions League Round table: Knockout Edition

Tuesday kicks off the most exciting playoff in all of sport. No, its not March Madness, the NFL playoff or even its much ballyhooed NCAA cousin.

At 2:45 pm est on Tuesday, February 17 the most watched competition on this planet, The UEFA Champions League knockout stages will begin, with every European giant playing for their lives, an 180 minute clock separating the proud juggernauts from the path to immortality to a long off-season of self-loathing and soul-searching.

The road to the beautiful game’s ultimate prize can be fickle, and dynasties are unheard of as odds on favorite Real Madrid hopes to be the first repeat winner.

Despite the large field, this first knockout round will see heavyweights Barcelona face reigning EPL champions Manchester City, and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side find themselves in a rematch with Ligue 1 Champions Paris St. Germain.

It’s tough to look into the crystal ball with too much clarity, as a certain amount of luck (or chance, if you will) tends to tip each fixture, not to mention perpetual and shameless match fixing in favor of media darlings Barcelona dissection of the influence of referees’ judgment in these tense as hell clashes.

Editors Steve Pearson and Joey Scarborough will answer a 4-pack of questions as well as tip our hand on where we will would be placing our money if gambling were legal.

What European power is on upset alert this round?

Steve: The PSG project stuttered to a halt since Demba Ba’s quarterfinal winner last season. Laurent Blanc’s sophomore slump broke the promise of the potentially seismic rematch. Instead, Mourinho’s new mold should slice apart the remnants of the Ligue 1 chasers. Upset hopes remained until this weekend’s well documented injury bonanza. With the newly shortened squad and the quick ticking time bomb of David Luiz dealing with Diego Costa, the PSG upset now requires even more of a miracle. Instead, a matchup which seemed deserving of a semi-final likely settles to its deserved resting place in the Round of 16. Elsewhere, heavy favorites Arsenal matchup with a downtrodden Monaco. Sales of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao have stunted the growth of the club, but a stout defense backed by Danijel Subasic co-leads Ligue 1 in goals allowed and only allowed one through the group stage. Scoring has been a swelling concern, but even what remains of Dimitar Berbatov may be enough to snag a result from the inevitable lapse in Gunner concentration. If Monaco can maintain their diligent defense, the surging Arsenal may crest.

Joey: Given their elite talent and a manager with champions league acumen, Juventus would be wise not to overlook Borussia Dortmund. Jurgen Klopp’s side may be enduring a shockingly poor domestic campaign, but German Internationals Mats Hummels and Marco Reus will be determined to make the most of the European stage as they look towards the Dortmund exit for greener and more lucrative pastures. How they perform in these matches will determine just how much lucrative said pastures will be. The Dortmund faithful know they won’t see European play next year as Klopp hopes to navigate the promising side out of the indefensible Bundesliga relegation zone, but the men in yellow and black have shown (albeit rare) signs of life. Never count out a side with nothing to lose.

Which dark horse will make the most noise?

Steve: While the knockout round requires a different skill set than the group stage, Atletico Madrid’s topping Juventus in Group A suggests their having the next gear.  Both teams threaten to steal any tie from the top dogs, but Atletico deserves the extra respect from last year’s run and this year’s results.  Diego Simeone kept his underdog status sending three stalwarts to European rivals Chelsea, but the reinforcements of Antoine Griezmann and reinvigoration of Fernando Torres helped to maintain their hopes. Short of a rematch with their best customers, Atletico should supply sneaky value in any potential tie.

Joey: They’ve become experts in coming up short ever since their ill fated collapse to Barcelona in the 2006 final, but this team’s ceiling may be higher than any Arsenal side since Wenger’s Invincibles took England by storm. The broken record says The Gunners biggest obstacle is overcoming their constant slew of injuries, but this team seems to be getting fit at the right time. The youngsters have amassed enough experience to not be spooked by the height of the stage, and Alexis Sanchez and Mesuit Ozil are proven winners.

Who has the most to prove this round?

Steve: The Nou Camp’s new guard finally found its form in the last month plus. An aging golden generation, a litany of short term coaches, and post-Guardiola tactical confusion ceded to the world’s most in form squad. Questions linger throughout defense and beyond, but the magical Barcelona attack appears to be peaking once again. Carles Puyol can no longer clean up the spilled milk, and Xavi no longer the match winner of yesterday. Instead, slow to settle Luis Enrique has patched up his perceived backroom spat with Messi & co. to enter 2015 mes que un club scorned. The shadow of the “Greatest team ever” lingers, while Messi looks to take his team back to Europe’s elite stage. A lot has changed at Barca in a short couple of years, but barely the expectation of both glimmering football and glutton for trophies. Time for a return to glory if only to outrun yesterday’s shadow and write their own chapter.

Joey: Despite domestic glory, Sheikh Mansour dumped hundreds of millions of pounds into his Manchester City project to make waves in Europe. Six years in, City has done nothing but fall on their face, being eliminated in group play twice and being smacked 4-1 by their upcoming foe Barcelona. If City falls short again, expect massive shakeups at the Emirates.

Who will win the whole shebang?

Steve:  This year’s tournament boasts a bizarre sanctuary for the flawed. Typically this stage offers a steadfast favorite, but no team grants such confidence this year.  Each squad shows a fatal flaw, even the heavy favorites. Bayern Munich’s 7-0 loss to Real Madrid last year cannot be dismissed. Real appears to have lost their grip on La Liga and the sublime style of earlier this season. Rivals Barcelona may be form favorites, but the questions along the back line which ended recent campaigns remain. Fourth favorites Chelsea arrive with the fewest flaws, but perhaps the lowest ceiling. League-mates Manchester City must find a way to maneuver around both their own internal concerns and a tie versus last year’s kryptonite. Still, the following favorites (Arsenal, Atletico, Juventus) cannot be expected to bury these behemoths. Despite the recent run-of-form, Carlo Ancelotti knows how to hit the switch for the final months. Certainly unrest at the Bernebeau threatens the title defense, but five-time winner Ancelotti is the man to guide the Galacticos. Real must develop a pragmatic third gear, but expect him find it via Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. Los Blancos certainly have questions, but probably the best man to answer them.

Joey: The safest bet is the Real Madrid show or the well oiled machine that hails from Munich, but the team carrying the most intangibles happens to be the most versatile…and they have the best manager alive. Chelsea may not boast the eye popping talent of Real, Bayern, or even their current foe PSG, but that talent disparity isn’t great enough to tip the scales against Jose Mourinho and co. Chelsea exhibits a dedication to discipline, maintaining their shape while playing with attacking flair and an unmatched defensive work rate. John Terry and Cesc Fabregas will be comfortable even in the most pressured moments, and Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luis are all looking to quench a painful thirst for glory that Real Madrid snatched from them at the death during last tournament’s final.

 

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