By Clemente Lisi
The start of the Champions League’s knockout rounds represents the competition’s main course. Following a banquet of savory opening stage, round-robin games for fans to feast on — not to mention a summer antipasto of preliminary round matches — the tournament entered its meat and potatoes portion with a medley of appetizing clashes.
The continent’s top clubs have been paired together in the round of 16, the start of an elimination process, which will culminate with the May 22 final in Madrid.
Here is a preview of upcoming matches:
AC Milan vs. Manchester United
First-leg: Manchester United 3, AC Milan 2 on February 16 in Milan
Second-leg: March 10 in Manchester
Who to watch: The globe-trotting David Beckham, on loan once again to AC Milan from the Los Angeles Galaxy, will face his former club on his Old Trafford stomping grounds.
The skinny: Both these clubs have historically been very successful at the Champions League level, but only one can advance to the quarterfinals. Given United’s resources (as opposed to Milan’s aging lineup), the edge goes to the English.
Prediction: Manchester United advances
Lyon vs. Real Madrid
First-leg: Lyon 1, Real Madrid 0 on February 16 in Lyon
Second-leg: March 10 in Madrid
Who to watch: Kaka has plenty of Champions League experience given his AC Milan past and he will use that, plus his amazing skills, to make mincemeat out of Lyon.
The skinny: Lyon may be the toast of France after its 1-0 win at home, but big spenders Real Madrid are the real deal with their star-studded roster, especially at home. Any lineup that features both Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo has to reach at least the semifinals.
Prediction: Real Madrid advances
Bayern Munich vs. Fiorentina
First-leg: Bayern 2, Fiorentina 1 on February 17 in Munich
Second-leg: March 9 in Florence
Who to watch: Franck Ribery is recovering from injury and this will be his first chance to shine.
The skinny: Fiorentina may be the Cinderella club at this tournament, but Bayern Munich has a powerful enough attack to withstand whatever the Italians can throw at them. Manager Louis van Gaal has the players to pull this off.
Prediction: Bayern Munich advances
Porto vs. Arsenal
First-leg: Porto 2, Arsenal 1 on February 17 in Oporto
Second-leg: March 9 in London
Who to watch: Cesc Fabregas remains a potent force and has often single-handedly carried this team on his shoulders this season. He’ll need to do the same this time at home.
The skinny: Porto is no pushover, especially at home, as they showed with their home win. Arsenal has been in this position before and ultimately they have what it takes to advance to the quarterfinals.
Prediction: Arsenal advances
CSKA Moscow vs. Seville
First-leg: CSKA Moscow 1, Seville 1 on February 24 in Moscow
Second-leg: March 16 in Seville
Who to watch: Brazilian striker Luis Fabiano has helped Seville get this far and could prove to be the difference in the return leg.
The skinny: Seville is often overshadowed domestically by Real Madrid and Barcelona, but they have enjoyed their own success. Winners of back-to-back UEFA Cups in 2005 and 2006, Seville are a solid side.
Prediction: Seville advances
Inter Milan vs. Chelsea
First-leg: Inter Milan, 2, Chelsea 1 on February 24 in Milan
Second-leg: March 16 in London
Who to watch: Manager Jose Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge (where he helped Chelsea win two Premiership titles) for the second-leg, only this time he will try to help Inter win and show that they’re dominance isn’t just domestic.
The skinny: Under Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea has been a tough team to beat. If Didier Drogba remains healthy, Chelsea will have the edge going into Stamford Bridge.
Prediction: Chelsea advances
VfB Stuttgart vs. Barcelona
First-leg: Stuttgart 1, Barcelona 1 on February 23 in Stuttgart
Second-leg: March 17 in Barcelona
Who to watch: Lionel Messi was the best player last year and will continue to shred defenses in 2010 with his speed and superior ball control abilities.
The skinny: The Spanish club won six trophies (out of six competitions it participated in last year) and the Germans certainly aren’t the team to stop that juggernaut even after they put together an impressive showing at home.
Prediction: Barcelona advances
Olympiakos vs. Bordeaux
First-leg: Bordeaux 1, Olympiakos 0 on February 23 in Athens
Second-leg: March 17 in Bordeaux
Who to watch: The Bordeaux defense has been the strongest of all at this competition.
The skinny: Bordeaux dropped only two points during the group stage (despite being grouped alongside Bayern Munich and Juventus) and also conceded the fewest goals. The French will use the favorable draw – and its road goal advantage — to move on to the next round.
Prediction: Bordeaux advances
Clemente Lisi is a freelance writer based in New York. He is the author of “A History of the World Cup: 1930-2006.”