After all the qualification rounds it’s time to finally narrow down who will be making it to the UEFA Champions League group stage upon the completion of the two legged playoff ties.
The first leg didn’t offer much in terms of surprises, save for the Basel-Tel Aviv match, and it’s looking like the second leg will give us more of the same (sorry no Ludogorets stories this year). Let’s get on with the picks.
AS Monaco (FRA) vs. Valencia (ESP) (2:45 PM Tuesday: Valencia leads 3-1 on AGG)
I’ll admit I bit the bullet on this one in the first leg. Monaco looked like they would enter with too much fire power and Valencia was in too much disarray. Instead, Valencia came into the match and pretty much curb stomped Monaco right back to France.
While I was wrong about Monaco grabbing a win, I still believe this will be the best match of the round as both teams still have everything to play for. Thanks to their vital away goal a 2-0 win would sill be enough to send Monaco through. The question is how will Valencia play? Will they park the bus and hold on to their two goal lead, or will they go after the crucial away goal to level the playing field. I think it’ll be more of the former, therefore Monaco will grab a 1-0 lead and Valencia will go to the group stage.
Maccabi Tel Aviv (ISR) vs. FC Basel (SWI) (2:45 PM Tuesday: 2-2 AGG)
This was surprisingly the match of the first leg last week and could very well be the best match on tap this week thanks to the Israeli side’s never say die attitude. Maccabi Tel Aviv went to Basel last week and brought the game right at the Swiss side, earning not only a last minute draw, but two vital away goals. Now they return home needing only a 0-0 or 1-1 draw (or a simple win) to move on to the group stages. The problem is, they’re taking on a Basel side that’s simply better than them. I’m expecting the Israeli’s to come out and park the bus, but I’m also expecting Basel to find a way to win this.
Club Brugge (BEL) vs. Manchester United (ENG) (2:45 PM Wednesday: Man UTD lead 3-1 on AGG)
Here’s what we learned in the first leg of this one. Manchester United’s new signing Memphis Depay has loads and loads of talent. He hasn’t been able to settle in to the Premier League quite yet, but against less-physical sides the kid is a star. Even though Sergio Romero has been playing over David de Gea, and one of their starting center backs is the pace-less Daley Blind, this team actually can defend as the only person who has scored against them in four matches was their own Michael Carrick. But we also learned that a side with as much pace as Brugge has in their attack can quite easily give United’s defense problems, just like they did at Old Trafford. Therefore, this won’t be the walk in the park that many United fans are hoping for.
The good news for United fans is United are by far the more talented side, and things are slowly but surely starting to click for them as their form continues to improve. Furthermore, they have a fantastic backup plan of when all else fails just put Marouanne Fellaini in the box and cross it to him, which as we saw last week doesn’t need a lot of time before it works. Brugge will bring the game to United, but the Red Devils prevail 2-1.
Bayer Leverkusen (GER) vs. Lazio (ITA) (2:45 PM Wednesday: Lazio lead 1-0 on AGG)
A much more fascinating game than the scoreline suggests, Lazio’s 1-0 win at home sets the second leg up for a doozy. As a neutral fan, this is exactly the scenario you hope for in a second leg, as a one-goal lead is too close for Lazio to park the bus and try to hold on for 90 minutes but is certainly not enough for the hosts to be comfortable with. That means we’re going to get a repeat of the open match we had last week, which makes us all winners.
As for the actual game, there is bad news for Lazio, who will be without four key players including German striker Miroslav Klose and club captain Lucas Biglia, due to injury. That’s going to make it a tough task for Lazio to hold on and grab another win in Germany, and unfortunately for them, they won’t as Leverkusen wins 3-1.
Rest of the Games;
Dinamo Zagreb over Skenderbeu Korce. Shakhtar Donetsk over Rapid Vienna. Celtic will have their work cut out for them in Sweden, but they’ll get by Malmo (though that may be more along the lines of “I hope Celtic get through because the Champions League is better with Celtic in it). CSKA Moscow overcomes their deficit to Sporting Lisbon and moves on. Apoel Nicosia gets past Astana 1964 in the “who the heck are these teams are you sure you’re not making them up” match. Finally Partizan Belgrade gets past BATE Borisov, mainly because I think Partizan is a Champions League team and BATE is a Europa League team, so I’ll let the universe ensure that that’s how it plays out.
Enjoy the games everyone.