AC Milan v Arsenal
An hour ago Cesc Fabregas tweeted “Woooow Arsenal vs Milan!!!! What a draw!!!!”
It is doubtful whether the Fab one would have been so delirious were he still a Gunner having to prepare to shackle the experienced nous of the Milan midfield and track the artful runs of Robinho and Ibrahimovic. From the safe confines of the Nou Camp however he can view the tie with the same relish and anticipation as we can. It is a mouth-waterer.
On paper at least it’s a daunting prospect for Arsene’s boys or it would have been only a few weeks back. Now though Arsenal have finally found their stride – the 8-2 debacle at Old Trafford is a fast-fading scar – and with arguably the best striker currently blazing a trail throughout Europe leading their line they have little to fear.
It almost goes without saying that a fit and firing Van Persie is crucial to their aspirations to progress past a side built on the imposing twin columns of Nesta and Thiago Silva. For the return leg at the Emirates in particular – when tactical reserve is loosened and possession is allied to all-out passion they require the Dutchman’s calm clinical finishing to tuck away the numerous chances they’re expected to make.
At the San Siro the attacking onus falls upon the searing pace of Walcott to trouble a solid rearguard that can deal with anything but speed in a game that will probably be chess-like and tight.
Both Arsenal’s club secretary David Miles and Milan’s director Umberto Gandini have already described this as the tie of the round. It undoubtedly is.
Last season Spurs squeaked through at the same stage against the same opponents. Arsenal must now mirror their neighbour’s fine achievement.
Andre Villas-Boas must put the transition on hold and go back to basics. A spine of Terry, Lampard and Drogba should see them through
Napoli v Chelsea
It has become boring to talk about Chelsea’s high back-line and Luiz’s propensity for living out his creative-midfielder fantasies. But now they’re now up against a formidable, interchangeable trio of Lavezzi, Hamsik and the imperious Cavani it must once again be broached. Lavezzi is a scurrying raging bull deceiving all with his demeanour by suddenly producing an exquisite touch. Hamsik may look like a pencil-top troll but his movement is all about intelligence and economy. The tall front man Cavani meanwhile is the master of carving out the pockets of space he requires to operate and punish.
Chelsea must keep things water-tight and solid throughout both ties. Considering their recent record can this be done?
Elsewhere Maggio is a grafting, crafting midfielder who will give Ramires endless runs for his money.
Andre Villas-Boas must put the transition on hold and go back to basics. A spine of Terry, Lampard and Drogba should see them through: they know what it takes to dispense with such tricky fare with such high stakes.
Drogba is back to his battering-ram beast-like best, waging a one-man war on the opposing defence. Lampard is astute enough to remain disciplined and know when to take risks. Terry will relish the challenge of Cavani assuming he has a partner alongside him to negate any clever lay-offs.
AVB would be wise to learn from Manchester City’s mistakes. Keep tight, plenty of energy and endeavour in midfield and let your quality up front grind down a well-organized but beatable back-line.
Ajax v Manchester United
Ajax are undergoing something of a mini-crisis at present. Their surprise exit from the Champion’s League, a struggle to maintain any consistency in the Eredivisie, and a potential exodus in the pipeline from some of their brightest prospects does not bode well for their short-term future. Full-back Gregory Van Der Wiel is playing hardball over a contract extension, their brilliant young schemer Christian Eriksen has recently flashed some ankle towards Barcelona while their imposing talismans Vertonghen and in-form Miralem Sulejmani are interesting Arsenal and Liverpool respectively.
The de Godenzonen seem to be in a permanently state of flux between potential greatness and having to start from scratch – a curse that has long hovered over the Amsterdam Arena – so on paper at least this could be an easier tie than first thought for Manchester United.
It won’t be anything of the sort however because what counts against United is the very prestige they have spent a lifetime accruing.
Were it Braga or PAOK paired with the Dutch outfit I would be tempted to have a punt on an upset. Against Fergie’s boys the very opposite applies as this encounter offers Ajax a high-profile opportunity to exorcise their demons and over-turn their recent woes.
It is a cracking tie that the under-valued Europa Cup needed and as you’re reading this a group of Five executives are presumably knocking one out in a circle wank.
For once that isn’t a dig at the media’s infatuation with the red half of Manchester. United v Ajax, with all the stylish combat it promises is a draw to be savoured.
The trip to the Dragao will be a immensely difficult proposition should Mancini opt for the Bridges and Kolos
Porto v Manchester City
Against Napoli Manchester City were able to study at close quarters two players who are repeatedly name-checked as possible replacements for Tevez. Now they must do likewise with the incredible Hulk and just hope that he fluffs his audition unlike the destructive Lavezzi and Cavani.
If City are to hold aloft some European silverware this term they will have truly done it the hard way. First a group of death containing Bayern, Napoli and the surprisingly awful Villarreal. Now they must take on the holders of the Europa Cup in arguably the toughest tie they could have been dealt.
The trip to the Dragao will be a immensely difficult proposition should Mancini opt for the Bridges and Kolos and employ the peripheral figures in a squad that will be stretched following an onerous January schedule. While Porto are somewhat of a faded force in comparison to last year they still have the capacity to rip teams apart.
My concern is that the second leg kicks off at 5pm. Should there be a deficit to be over-turned a half-empty Etihad will not generate the rousing call to arms that may be required.
Stoke City v Valencia
Stoke’s reward for their genuine application in a maligned tournament is a pairing with the current leaders of ‘the rest of La Liga’. Which as rewards go is up there with a sharp hard smack across the chops. Even so it lends itself to a culture shock cliché more than any other of their continental opponents thus far. The stylish Valencianistas won’t like it ‘up em’ on a cold February night at the Britannia and though the Spaniards’ quality is not in doubt their fortitude will certainly be tested to the hilt.
The passing and attacking verve in Pulis’s side is routinely under-estimated and let’s not forget their cup pedigree and nous from last year’s F.A Cup run. But it is hard to see them progressing past a superb Valencia outfit and it is a great shame that such a arduous – seemingly insurmountable – task immediately faces them in the knock-out stages. I hope I’m wrong.