Bayern Munich, Barcelona face tricky Champions League foes
The second batch of Champions League round of 16 matches begin this week, and while there is no standout tie like last week's clash between Real Madrid and Manchester United, two of the favorites are in action, as are two dark horses. Here's the rundown:
Bayern Munich at Arsenal (Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. ET)
In last week's games, every away team scored and none lost. There is value in topping the group, and Arsenal's failure to do that, by losing to Olympiakos on Matchday Six, could cost it dearly. For finishing second in Group B, its reward is a tie against Bayern Munich, last year's beaten finalist who this season is on the verge of breaking every record going in the Bundesliga.
It is already 18 points clear of Dortmund in second, and its away form is astonishing: 10 wins and one draw in 11 games with only one goal conceded. Seven goals conceded in 22 league games is well on the way to shattering its record from 2008-09, when it let in 21 goals. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer concedes one goal every 167 minutes, better than any Bayern keeper in history (Hans-Jörg Butt, 96 minutes, Oliver Kahn, 93 minutes and Raimond Aumann and Jean-Marie Pfaff, 84 minutes). And it has achieved that without the injured Holger Badstuber and Arjen Robben for most of the season, though the latter is now back and scored in Friday's 2-0 win at Wolfsburg.
The Champions League is all Arsenal has left to play for this season after an embarrassing home loss to second-tier Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup. With an eighth straight trophy-less season looming, the pressure is back on coach Arsene Wenger. But Bayern should beware, he has a habit of pulling big results from his teams just when he needs them most.
Malaga at Porto (Tuesday, 2:45)
The future of Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini has dominated the buildup to this game after the English press linked him to job offers from Chelsea and Manchester City. The Sunday Times reported he rejected an offer from Premier League champion City because he had already given a commitment to another team for next season. Would that team be Malaga? It's unlikely, given UEFA has banned it from the next European competition for which it qualifies for outstanding debts (the club is appealing the decision). The financial troubles that dogged this season's buildup have not gone away. That in itself makes Pellegrini's achievement this season even more impressive than last.
In its first Champions League campaign, Malaga topped a group that contained AC Milan, Zenit St. Petersburg and Anderlecht and was the first team to qualify for the round of 16. It sits fourth in La Liga as well. This test against Porto, though, will be a tough one. The Portuguese leader, unbeaten in the league this season, is experienced at this stage of the competition and has, in James Rodriguez, Jackson Martinez and Silvestre Varela, one of the hottest front threes in Europe. Malaga may be the neutrals' pick, but it could come unstuck here.
Barcelona at AC Milan (Wednesday, 2:45)
Milan has been revitalized by the January arrival of Mario Balotelli, whose four goals in three games is another black mark against his ex-coach at Manchester City, Roberto Mancini. But he is ineligible for the Champions League and will miss the tie against Barcelona, which could be a problem for the side which, in the words of Italian paper Tuttosport, "is more and more Balo's Milan."
Despite that, Milan might fancy its chances, in the first leg at least, against a Barcelona side that has not kept a clean sheet in nine games and is not the same force without Xavi, who has a hamstring injury and might not make the game. Then again, Lionel Messi is on track to surpass last year's astonishing goal records: he has scored in 14 straight league games and already bagged 36 for the season. Milan's total for the season is 44.
Schalke at Galatasaray (Wednesday, 2:45)
When the draw was made in December, Schalke would have been the clear favorite, but since then, the fortunes of both teams have been reversed. Galatasaray has extended its lead at the top of the Turkish league to five points but more significantly, riding on the crest of increased revenues from moving into a new stadium, signed Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba, two players central to their teams' successes in previous years (Sneijder for Inter Milan in 2010, Drogba for Chelsea in 2012). Drogba scored five minutes into his debut on Friday night.
On the other hand, Schalke sacked coach Huub Stevens, sold key player Lewis Holtby and won just one of its last 11 games. "Sometimes you cannot hear yourself think for all the stuff that gets said around here," defender Christoph Metzelder told Bild. "The fans want answers, but even we are at a loss." With Klaas-Jan Huntelaar doubtful for Wednesday with an eye injury and backup Teemu Pukki in poor form, interim coach Jens Keller lined up against Mainz on Saturday with a strikerless formation. "Why do you think so many teams have problems facing Barcelona?" asked sports director Horst Heldt before the game. Schalke managed to draw 2-2.