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UEFA Champions League Playoff Preview

Photo courtesy of AP

THE CHAMPIONNNNSSSSS

Good god that’s the UEFA Champions League’s music! That’s right, the Champions League gracefully returns continues Tuesday and Wednesday as the competition moves into the playoff round to determine the final teams for the Group Stage.

In case you missed it, and let’s be honest, you did miss it since the first few rounds weren’t on TV, the competition got under way with the first qualification rounds beginning in late July. Now we move into the final playoff round where the big boys, the final qualifiers from the big countries like England, Spain, Italy and Germany, join the party.

Admittedly as a United fan, the final round of Champions League qualifying is not exactly my forte due to Arsenal’s usual monopoly on their “fourth-place trophy.” As such, I prepared diligently by sending a bunch of my Arsenal fan friends texts asking if I should actually be worried about United’s chances in the qualifying round. The answers ranged from “you have nothing to worry about” to “I always worry about the qualifying rounds, but then the game actually starts and it’s always a walk in the park for the English teams.”

So there you have it. That’s pretty much the way it goes for all the big boys. However, because of the nature of the random draw, we sometimes get treated to some big team vs. big team blockbusters. That also means you get some little team vs. little team games, meaning great little team stories have their chance to emerge (RIP 2014 Ludogorets).

But what’s a preview without some picks? Well nothing really, so let’s make some picks on some of the top games.

Manchester United (ENG) vs. Club Brugge (BEL) (2:45 p.m. ET Tuesday)

On paper this match isn’t even close, as United is way better than their Belgian opponents. This game shouldn’t even be remotely close but it will be. Why?

Despite picking up two wins in their two games so far this season, Manchester United has been bad, really bad. While they have uncharacteristically kept two clean sheets, they’ve still yet to essentially create a single scoring chance at their opponents’ goal. According to the official statistics, they’ve been credited with two shots on goal this season.

For those reasons I almost feel like an idiot for predicting Manchester United to win 2-0 especially since I have no idea where the goals will come from. However I think they’ll find a way to get one, and the atmosphere of the first European match in over a year at Old Trafford will be enough to suck another ball into the net.

Lazio (ITA) vs. Bayer Leverkusen (GER) (2:45 p.m. ET Tuesday)

This could easily be the best tie of the round, as we get two sides from two of Europe’s top leagues going right at each other. The two teams enter this match going in opposite directions.

Leverkusen enters the tie coming off a 2-1 come-from-behind win in their first Bundesliga match of the season. As for Lazio, it’s been a rough summer for the Italian side who haven’t really done much in the transfer market to improve their team. They won just one of their preseason friendlies, the first one, before losing five in a row, including their most recent 2-0 loss to Juventus in the Italian Super Cup, and failed to score in three of those five matches.

Of course you always hear people say “don’t look too closely into preseason results” but that’s really to prevent you from getting overconfident after defeating lower quality opponents then what you’ll see in your actual season. If you’re struggling to even score in those games, well that’s a problem. Give me Leverkusen to grab a 2-1 away win.

Valencia (ESP) vs. AS Monaco (FRA) (2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday)

The marquee match of Wednesday pits Spanish side Valencia against last season’s Champions League quarterfinalists AS Monaco. Despite having some monetary issues, Monaco has quietly hung around Europe’s top competition and gotten off to a quick start this season.

Assuming Nicolas Otamendi is still playing for Valencia on Wednesday (he will be) there will be talent on both sides of the ball for this one. Over two legs, this should be the best and most difficult tie in the entire playoff round. Valencia is a veteran Champions League team, but so is Monaco. Valencia will draw first blood with a 1-0 home win, setting up a fantastic return leg with everything to play for.

*UPDATE*

Since the time of writing less then 24 hours ago Otamendi has all but joined Manchester City. The deal isn’t official yet but he’s been dropped from Valencia’s team for this match and thus everything changes. Well not really everything, it’ll still be a really good game but the lack of Otamendi is making me flip things around, Monaco wins 1-0 and we still get a great game next week. 

FC Basel (SWI) vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv (ISR) (2:45 p.m. ET Wednesday) 

As much as I’d love to see Maccabi Tel Aviv advance to the group stages, sometimes it’s as simple as this. Basel are a Champions League group stage squad, period.

Every year they’re right there and people talk about dealing with a tricky trip to Switzerland where Basel will do just enough to make you struggle to get a 1-0 win. Well in order for that to happen, Basel need to advance out of this round and that will happen as they’ll be too much for Maccabi Tel Aviv. 

That’s all for this week. I’ll be back next week where we’ll touch on some of the other ties as well. Enjoy the Champions League everybody!

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