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Millennium Post

Battle of heavyweights

With the biggest prize in European club football on the line, heavyweights are feeling the pressure to keep up their respective league form in the knock-out stage ahead of the crucial second leg pre-quarterfinal clashes to be held in the second and third week of March.

Two former Champions League winners Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, both having trouble in their domestic leagues, suffered differing fortunes in their Champions League last 16 first leg ties. United’s woeful season, in manager David Moyes’s maiden campaign, took another turn for the worse as they went down 2-0 to Greek champions Olympiakos in Piraeus and the measure of the task awaiting the English champions at Old Trafford in three weeks time is that only one team has come back from a two goal first leg deficit before in the Champions League knockout stages.
United’s failure to score left English clubs goalless in this round, with both Arsenal and Manchester City failing to score last week although Chelsea can set that right against Galatasaray on Wednesday.

Manchester United had been just one of three teams coming into the knockout stages not to have lost thus far in this season’s competition but goals from veteran Alejandro Dominguez and a stunning curling effort by Costa Rican Joel Campbell, on loan from Arsenal, ended that record.

Dortmund, finalists last season, have also struggled to impose themselves in their league, they trail Bayern Munich by 20 points, but they can probably look forward to the quarter-finals of this competition as they beat Zenit St Petersburg 4-2 in Russia.

Meanwhile, Chelsea kept Didier Drogba well-shackled in his first game against his former English club but Aurelien Chedjou’s second-half goal earned Galatasaray a 1-1 draw in their last-16 first-leg  clash. Chelsea dominated the opening 45 minutes but just had Fernando Torres’ early goal as a reward. The Premier League leaders will play a very crucial home tie against Galatasaray with former star Didier Drogba threatening to strike at his old home ground.

Schalke’s hopes of progressing from last 16 were effectively ended as Real stormed to a 6-1 first leg win in Gelsenkirchen, with Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo each scoring twice.

While acknowledging the severity of the defeat, Brazilian centre-back Santana expressed confidence that the Bundesliga outfit will produce a stronger performance when the tie concludes at the Bernabeu on March 18. In quotes reported by UEFA.com, Santana said: ‘We knew how difficult this match would be and that you can’t afford to make any mistakes against Real Madrid. We gave them too much room and if you give players of that quality a millimetre, chances are you’ll be punished. It’s the knockout stage of the Champions League now and you have to concentrate and take your chances when they come. We didn’t do that and Real did, quite simple.’

Meanwhile, Borussia Dortmund had a convincing home victory in last season’s Champions League round of 16 encounter with FC Shakhtar Donetsk and will be looking for a repeat performance to complete their tie against FC Zenit. A year ago Dortmund won 3-0 against their Ukrainian visitors with Jakub Blaszczykowski on target. It followed a 2-2 draw in Donetsk when Mats Hummels notched a late equaliser and Robert Lewandowski also scored. Lewandowski added two more goals to his Champions League tally as Dortmund triumphed 4-2 at Zenit on 25 February to close in on a second successive quarter-final appearance.

Barcelona have a global superstar in Lionel Messi, and his game-changing genius has been augmented by the arrival of Neymar. And though that wonderful era of dominance, built on the axis of Xavi and Iniesta and their fabloured carousel, may finally be fading, the team is still in a good position to win all the titles on offer. Barca’s claim to be the world’s best is undermined by the age of many of their key players: Xavi, Puyol and Dani Alves have all past their peak. And their patchy league form (two defeats and two draws in seven matches) suggests they are more fallible than Real or Bayern at present. Yet the Catalans are one step away of qualifying for the quarter-finals after beating Manchester City. And of course they will contest in the final of Spanish Cup against Real Madrid as warm-up.

German giants Bayern Munich are doing likewise. In fact they are well on their way to repeating the treble they achieved last year, comprising Bundesliga, Champions League and German Cup.

Just like Real, Pep Guardiola’s squad has put one foot in the quarter-finals of the Champions League after beating Arsenal in London. Their domestic lead dwarfs Real’s (second-placed Bayer Leverkusen are 19 points adrift). In fact, if they win their next six games, they can set a new domestic record by winning the Bundesliga in March.And they have qualified for the semi-final of the German Cup, where they will face second-division Kaiserslautern.

Stars such as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery provide a fluid, dynamic spearhead along with Thomas Müller and Mario Mandzukic (third top scorer in the Bundesliga with 13 goals), who play well in every game. Yet it’s the midfield, where a player as feted as Toni Kroos struggles to hold down a regular place, which is the real trump card: few teams in history have boasted the variety of options Bayern currently possess at the core of their team.

French giants Paris Saint-Germain beat Bayer Leverkusen in the last 16 first leg tie in Germany 4-0 and just like Real, PSG’s second leg remains just a formality unless a miracle takes place at their home ground.  They are also leading the French league with 61 points, 5 points clear of Monaco, and Ibrahimovic is rampant, notching 22 league goals already this year. They have every right to set eyes on the quarterfinal.
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