When gi­ants col­lide

The Uefa Cham­pi­ons League is again of­fer­ing fans a few ut­terly mouth­wa­ter­ing clashes

CityPress - - Sport - MONDLI MAKHANYA mondli.makhanya@city­press.co.za

Sports writ­ers re­fer to the knock­out stages as the “busi­ness end” of a com­pe­ti­tion. This week, the busi­ness end of the Uefa Cham­pi­ons League be­gan with what would, in the past, have been a mouth­wa­ter­ing cross-chan­nel clash of gi­ants. The match pit­ted French Ligue 1 kings Paris Saint Ger­main (PSG) against reign­ing English Premier League cham­pi­ons Chelsea.

But with the English side hav­ing fallen from grace and now strug­gling to make the cut for even the se­cond-tier Europa League next sea­son, many ex­pected this to be an av­er­age game, which would end with a walkover for PSG. It was not to be.

Al­though PSG emerged 2-1, Chelsea would have been happy with their away goal life­line for when they host Les Rouge-et-Bleu at Stam­ford Bridge. In the other big game of the week, Real Madrid cruised past Roma.

This week the at­ten­tion will turn to the re­ally juicy clashes. Arse­nal vs Barcelona (Tues­day, 9.45pm) This is the one we’ve all been wait­ing for since the draw was made in De­cem­ber.

Arse­nal will be seek­ing to em­u­late their epic 2011 per­for­mance of the last-16 first-leg en­counter at the Emi­rates Sta­dium when they tri­umphed over a Pep Guardi­ola-man­aged Barcelona side that was at the height of its pow­ers. On that night – still cited by fans and play­ers as one of the most mem­o­rable at the Emi­rates – Arse­nal de­fied Barcelona’s to­tally su­pe­rior ball pos­ses­sion to emerge 2-1 win­ners and bol­ster its dreams of go­ing all the way to the fi­nal. How­ever, the dream was to be short-lived, as Barcelona crushed the Gun­ners’ hopes with a 3-1 win at the Camp Nou.

Five years later, Arse­nal will come up against a Barcelona side that is just as – or even more – for­mi­da­ble than that 2011 side. While the MSN (Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Ney­mar) up­front com­bi­na­tion is scor­ing goals at will, the team’s over­all ap­proach makes most of their op­po­si­tion gen­er­ally look like school­boy teams.

With the sea­soned Petr Cech in goal, Arse­nal’s de­fence has been a lot stingier than usual this sea­son and long­time man­ager Arsène Wenger will be hop­ing this can some­how tame the MSN ma­chine. But con­cerns have been raised as to whether the oth­er­wise per­cep­tive Per Merte­sacker’s famed lack of pace will be the chink in the armour.

Barcelona’s Luis En­rique will be hop­ing to sta­bilise his own sus­pect de­fence, whose blushes have been saved by the starkly skewed bal­ance of power in Span­ish foot­ball.

Ju­ven­tus vs Bay­ern Mu­nich (Tues­day, 9.45pm)

Ju­ven­tus shocked ev­ery­one by mak­ing it all the way to the 2014/15 Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal.

Af­ter push­ing Borus­sia Dort­mund and Monaco aside in the last 16 and the quar­ter­fi­nals, the Ital­ian gi­ants were given no chance when drawn against Real Madrid for the semis. An all-Span­ish fi­nal was on the cards if Barcelona man­aged to get past Bay­ern Mu­nich in the other semi. Barcelona did their bit to set up an El Clas­sico in Ber­lin, but Juve spoilt the party with their 3-2 over­all score. Their own party, how­ever, was to prove a dream too far when they were out­played by Barcelona.

Bay­ern play­ers have promised to give their much-loved coach, Guardi­ola, a great send-off by let­ting him join the ranks of elite coaches such as Carlo Ancelotti and José Mour­inho, who have lifted the tro­phy with clubs from dif­fer­ent leagues.

Mu­nich go into this game with Robert Le­wandowski and Thomas Müller in the middle of a goal-scor­ing feast. Of the Bun­desliga lead­ers’ 53 goals this sea­son, the pair have scored 36 be­tween them.

On the Juve side, this will be a chance for the young Paul Pogba to prove his worth as a tal­is­man on the big stage.

The 22-year-old has be­come the face of Ju­ven­tus, both as a match win­ner and a mar­ket­ing tool. With mas­sive stars such as Ar­turo Vi­dal, Car­los Tevez and Juve leg­end An­drea Pirlo hav­ing moved on, the spot­light has fallen on the young man, per­haps un­fairly.

When he has not come to the party, he has been ac­cused of in­con­sis­tency – but for­tu­nately, the club’s man­age­ment – con­scious of the in­tense in­ter­est in him from Europe’s big spenders – has al­ways been there to shield him from crit­i­cism.

If he per­forms on Tues­day, he will ce­ment his value to the Old Lady, along with fur­ther fu­elling the big-money race for his sig­na­ture.

For­tu­nately for him, coach Mas­si­m­il­iano Al­le­gri’s newlook Ju­ven­tus has de­pend­able sol­diers in Paulo Dy­bala, Mario Mandžukić and Álvaro Mo­rata. And, of course, there is the liv­ing an­ces­tor in the form of goal­keeper Gian­luigi Buf­fon, who is now 38.


MAE­STRO Lionel Messi has been in good form for Barcelona POINT TO PROVE Alexis Sánchez will come against his for­mer side EYE FOR GOAL

Robert Le­wandowski will hope to hurt Ju­ven­tus

YOUNG WAR­RIOR Paul Pogba car­ries Ju­ven­tus’ hopes

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