Saturday 10 December 2016

THIS WEEK IN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Published 21/02/2010 | 05:00

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Stuttgart v Barcelona

Having triumphed in Rome last May, this season's Champions League is very much Barcelona's to lose. While they were never at their absolute best in a difficult qualifying group, they still managed to lead the final standings from Inter Milan, who they beat comfortably in the penultimate game.

If Stuttgart are looking for cracks, they could point to Barca's first defeat in La Liga, which came last weekend against Atletico Madrid. It was also the first time they had even trailed in a league game this season. Pep Guardiola's main reason to treat this tie with concern is down to Barca's ever-growing injury problems, with Seydou Keita joining a list that is populated mainly by defenders. It's fortunate then that Barcelona's game under Guardiola (pictured) is all about going forward.

Their big guns are all fit, and while they have failed to find the free-scoring form of last season (they scored just seven times in six group games), they shouldn't have too much trouble against a Stuttgart side who, having replaced Markus Babbel with Christian Gross as manager, are currently in the bottom half of the Bundesliga.

Olympiakos v Bordeaux

Bordeaux, managed by former Manchester United defender Laurent Blanc, reached the knockout stages by winning a group which contained both Bayern Munich and Juventus, and will be pleased with a draw which gives them every chance of reaching the last eight of the competition for the first time since it became the Champions League.

Marouane Chamakh, likely to be at Arsenal next season, and Yoann Gourcuff may be the star names, but all-round consistency is the key to their success. They dropped just two points (a 1-1 draw away to Juventus) in the group and a good result in Athens should set them up to reach the quarter-finals.

Olympiakos, on the other hand, seem to have prospered amid chaos, although they did reach the last eight via the weakest group. Brazilian legend Zico was sacked as manager last month, under the impending threat of violence from the club's fans. This was despite leading them to the knockout stages for just the third time in their history. His replacement, Serbian Bozidar Bandovic, will need to get the best from his star man Vasilis Torosidis if the Greek champions are to have any hope.

WEDNESDAY

CSKA Moscow v SevillA

SevillA are dark horses for this year's tournament, and while unlikely to win the competition outright, on their day they could surprise anyone.

Like Bordeaux, they dropped just two points in their group campaign, although they were in one of the easier sections with Stuttgart, Liverpool's Europa League opponents Unirea Urziceni and Rangers. With the likes of Luis Fabiano, Alvaro Negredo, Freddie Kanoute and Jesus Navas, they have plenty of goalscoring options, which can either come together in spectacular fashion, as witnessed in their 2-1 La Liga victory over Real Madrid, or fall apart completely, as it did in their 4-0 defeat away to Barcelona.

Whether Sevilla's mix of Latin talent will relish a trip to Moscow is another matter. CSKA's task is made harder by the fact that the new Russian Premier League season won't begin until mid-March. Serbia's Milos Krasic, wanted by a host of Europe's top clubs, is the stand out player in a squad that also contains former Liverpool winger Mark Gonzalez.

Inter v Chelsea

Following David Beckham's re-union with Manchester United, this week's Champions League games will be dominated by another returning hero. While the Chelsea fans will no doubt give Jose Mourinho (pictured) the kind of reception they normally reserve for a player living through a tabloid scandal, the relationship between the Inter manager and Carlo Ancelotti is likely to be much less warm.

The two clashed several times while they were in charge of the Milan clubs, although Mourinho's refusal (so far) to get embroiled in a war of words could be seen as an admission that he fears Chelsea will be too strong for his side.

Ancelotti's Chelsea at times look more impressive than they have done at any stage over the past few seasons, although they also appear to lack the consistency that became the hallmark of Mourinho's time in charge.

While their dropped points in the Premier League haven't come against the big sides, Inter, who are once again walking to the Serie A title, will be hoping they can make the most of some defensive uncertainty and triumph. Mourinho will need a clean sheet at the San Siro if they are to prosper.

Evan Fanning

Sunday Independent

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