Sport

Champions League knockout stages off to exciting start

The first legs of the Champions League round of 16 were played last week. There were to be no more Celtic heroics, as they were soundly beaten 3-0 at home by Juventus. The Scots paid for their profligacy and poor defending as two late goals all but ended the tie.

Danny WelbeckDanny Welbeck. Photo: Fox Sports

German Bundesliga champions, Borussia Dortmund, twice came from behind to earn a credible 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk. Manchester City and Chelsea respectively were conquered by these sides in the group stages and therefore it was unsurprisingly that there was plenty of attacking quality on display in a thrilling match. Mats Hummels’ late header eventually ensured the tournament’s dark horses return to Germany as favourites to progress.

The other Wednesday match was described by Jose Mourinho as one “the world wanted to see,” as Real Madrid and Manchester United played out an absorbing 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu. Cristiano Ronaldo’s majestic header on the half-hour mark cancelled out Danny Welbeck’s first club goal since October.

Though both sides understandably appeared increasingly content to settle for the draw thereafter, there were still chances aplenty for either side to win the match. Manchester United’s David De Gea was in inspired form, acrobatically diverting Fabio Coentrao’s goal-bound efforts, before superbly holding Sami Khedira’s deflected drive.

The game’s best chance fell to Robin van Persie. The Dutchman’s typically sublime chest-control was not matched by the finish, with his scuffed volley routinely rescued off the line by Xabi Alonso to leave the tie tantalisingly in the balance.

The only other English club left in the competition, Arsenal, fared significantly worse, losing 3-1 at home to Bayern Munich. The Germans played with devastating intelligence and cohesion that has come to typify their increasingly illustrious football nation.

Arsenal enjoyed more possession and showed plenty of spirit in patches, but it was the limp manner in which they began the game that will surely frustrate their fans most, as they now look likely to end an eighth consecutive season without a trophy.

Arsenal were two down after just twenty-one minutes, with Toni Kroos and Thomas Mueller both afforded too much space to beat Wojciech Szczesny. Any hope reignited by Lukas Podolski’s scrappy goal after half-time was then extinguished by fine combination wing-play between Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm resulting in Mario Mandzukic meeting the full-back’s cross to score in bizarre fashion.

The shock of the round was undoubtedly saved until the end, as two former Portsmouth midfielders – Kevin Prince-Boateng and Sulley Muntari – scored for AC Milan in a ruthless 2-0 home win against tournament favourites Barcelona.

The Spanish giants predictably dominated possession, but were strangely subdued and barely created a chance of note as they succumbed to only their third defeat of the season.

Milan continued their superb recent form, defending in numbers but crucially managing to counter-attack dangerously on a number of occasions. It was a tactical masterclass reminiscent of Inter Milan’s 3-1 win against Barca almost three years ago; Messi and company face an equally difficult task this time around, but only the brave would bet against them turning it around.

22/02/2013

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