Sportsnet’s soccer panel offer their picks, predictions and analysis of Tuesday’s marquee UEFA Champions League group stage matches.
Thomas Michalakos: The image of a teary-eyed Rod Stewart is just one of many memorable scenes inside Parkhead after Celtic toppled mighty Barcelona last November. Celtic also impressed in the away fixture against the Catalans, taking an early lead at the Camp Nou, only to be denied a famous result through an injury-time winner by Jordi Alba. The Hoops, for the most part, proved to be worthy opponents, despite their obvious inferiority. On Tuesday, they will hope to use the psychological edge over their visitors and repeat the feat. Manager Neil Lennon will be without both of his goal-scorers from the momentous night 11 months ago, having loaned out 19 year-old Scottish forward Tony Watt to Belgian side Lierse SK and sold Victor Wanyama to Southampton over the summer. Barcelona are once again heavily favoured (even with Lionel Messi out injured), and fully intent on extracting a bit of revenge for their humbling defeat. Judging by Celtic’s dismal performance in Milan on Matchday One — losing 2-0 from late goals – a lot needs to be improved upon, or last season’s heroics will quickly be erased by an embarrassing defeat.
Prediction: Barcelona wins 3-1.
James Sharman: Although he didn’t go as far as stating Tuesday’s match is decisive, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger did say a positive outcome against Napoli would be a huge boost in its hopes to qualify for the knockout round. Both teams are coming off Matchday One wins, Napoli with a famous victory over fancied Borussia Dortmund, while the Gunners beat Marseille. Arsenal is riding high, tops in the Premier League following a win against Swansea City. Even more impressive is that they’re doing it despite a slew of injuries. Santi Cazorla is close to returning but will miss this one, as we still wait to see how he and Mesut Ozil gel in midfield. Ozil’s arrival came with much hype about his European credentials, but he was bought exactly for these type of games. From a management standpoint, these two sides have some rivalry brewing. Arsenal thought they had succeeded in signing Gonzalo Higuain from Real Madrid this summer, only for Napoli to hijack the move at the twelfth hour. The Argentine has been a good signing for Rafa Benitez, who sees his team unbeaten after six games in Serie A. This one promises to be a fantastic tilt.
Prediction: Arsenal wins 2-1.
Dan Riccio: This Group H fixture in Amsterdam will bring back fond memories for Ajax manager Frank De Boer. De Boer was an integral part of the Dutch side that defeated Milan in the 1995 Champions League Final. But oh, how times have changed. Milan have carried on business as usual, being a staple of the competition, while Ajax have yet to return to the levels they reached in the mid-90s. Mario Balotelli’s three match suspension from Serie A may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Rossoneri. He’ll come into this match well rested, and ready to open his Champions League account on the season. However, he will be without the aid of Milan’s second best attacking option in Stephen El Shaarawy, who has been ruled out with injury. This is good news for Ajax who has struggled defensively since the sale of CB Toby Alderweireld to Atlético Madrid in the summer. Ajax is fresh off a 6-0 in league play, but getting the best of Milan won’t be easy – they have not won against an Italian side since December 2002.
Prediction: A 2-2 draw
John Molinaro: This should be a wide-open and entertaining affair between two attacking sides that won’t play it safe. Atlético is coming off a 1-0 win over Real Madrid, their first victory at the Bernabeu in 14 years. Brazilian striker Diego Costa scored the winner, and has stepped up in the absence of Radamel Falcao this season, scoring eight goals in seven league matches. Unfortunately for Los Rojiblancos, Costa is suspended for this game, leaving midfielder Jorge Resurreccion looking to supply David Villa and Leo Baptistao up front. Porto will provide tough opposition, though, fired by an incendiary home crowd. The Dragões are unbeaten in domestic competition dating back to January, and will be buoyed by the return of Brazil full back Maicon from injury. Despite their unbeaten run in Portugal’s top division, Porto has come under criticism of late for laboured and unconvincing performances, so it’ll be interesting to see how manager Paulo Fonseca’s side contends with an Atlético team that is on form in both Spain and in Europe.
Prediction: Atlético Madrid wins 2-1.