After a short hiatus, the UEFA Champions League is back in action this week as the second round resumes.
Eight teams continue the long journey, all of them focused on working their way towards May’s final at London’s Wembley Stadium.
SPORTSNET.CA has asked the crew of FAN 590’s European Weekly Football podcast (Derrick Brandao, Gordon Brunt, Dan Riccio) and Sportsnet soccer reporter John Molinaro to offer their picks, predictions and analysis of Wednesday’s group stage matches.
And just a reminder that the European Football Weekly podcast takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game. For more details and to listen to past shows, CLICK HERE.
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Wednesday programming alert: Watch AC Milan vs. Barcelona on Sportsnet and Galatasaray vs. Schalke on Sportsnet World. Live coverage begins at 2:30pm ET/11:30am PT
AC Milan vs. Barcelona
Dan Riccio: This marks the third time that these clubs have drawn each other in the Champions League knockout stages since 2006. The first two encounters resulted in Milan bowing out of the competition. Last season, not only were they paired up in the quarter-finals, but they were also in the same group. Barcelona won twice, while the other two matches resulted in a draw.
So what makes the match-up different this year? Well, Barcelona is a team on a mission to avenge a campaign in which they did not claim domestic or European glory, something that has become very unusual for the Catalans. In turn, Barcelona looks as good as ever this season, and is currently cruising atop La Liga, 12 points ahead of second place Atletico Madrid.
On the other side of things, Milan is now a club in transition. After losing out to Juventus in the Serie A last season, it was time for a change. The idea was to focus on bright youngsters, which included leading scorer Stephen El Shaarawy. However, the team is still marred with midfield and defensive problems.
Barcelona should have no problems in this match even though this first leg is at San Siro. The Blaugrana should dominate Milan in the centre of the pitch, and pick apart a defensive unit that has looked mediocre at best this season.
Prediction: Barcelona wins 3-1.
AC Milan vs. Barcelona
John Molinaro: What a pity that Mario Balotelli won’t be available to play in this series.
Super Mario has been in fine form ever since making the move from Manchester City to Milan, bagging four goals in three Serie A appearances for the rossoneri. Not only that, but Balotelli has put considerable stride back in Milan’s step, as it tries to climb up the standings and secure a top three spot and a berth in next season’s Champions League.
Unfortunately, Balotelli is cup-tied for the rest of this season’s Champions League, having previously appeared for Manchester City earlier in the competition. Milan will be deprived of his services the rest of the way, and how the Italian giants will miss him against Barcelona. Say what you will about Balotelli and his antics on and off the field, but he’s a wonderfully skilled player and a difference maker, able to influence the game with an individual act of brilliance.
Fellow Italian striker Stephan El Shaarawy has enjoyed a breakout campaign with Milan, leading the club with 15 goals in Serie A. Barcelona would be well-advised to keep close tabs on El Shaarawy, who is showing why he is one of the brightest young stars in the world.
This is a young and relatively inexperienced Milan side. Combine that with the fact they can’t come close to matching Barcelona in midfield depth or quality, and you have to expect the Catalans will run wild. Barcelona is in brilliant form, and while San Siro is not the easiest place for opponents to pick up results, they have far too much class to not walk away from this one with a comfortable road win.
Prediction: Barcelona wins 2-0.
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Galatasaray vs. Schalke
Gordon Brunt : After missing the Champions League last season, Galatasaray made a huge splash in the January transfer window with the signings of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder to help boost their chances of advancing to the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2001. Both players bring a wealth of European experience and instantly improved the Turkish squad’s chances of victory against Schalke 04 on Wednesday.
Forward Burak Yilmaz should also benefit from their arrival, as the two players could garner enough attention from opponents to keep the young striker in his comfort zone. Yilmaz has been on a blistering pace, scoring six goals during the group stage.
Although Schalke have experienced a poor domestic campaign, they made up for it by performing admirably in the Champions League. Sitting mid-table in the Bundesliga, the Group B winners will devote their attention and efforts to beating Galatasaray in hostile territory.
If healthy, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (eye injury) is the key player the Turks will have to stop if they have any hopes of earning a much needed home win before the second leg in Germany. The Dutch striker will command a lot of attention and if Galatasaray keep him off the score sheet, a home victory can be considered a real possibility.
Prediction: Galatasaray wins 2-1.
Galatasaray vs. Schalke
Derrick Brandao: Normally when teams enter the knock out stages of the Champions league, the squads are set and have been settled for months, notwithstanding injuries. That’s what makes this tie so intriguing.
Galatasaray have added two of the most influential players to have lifted the title in the last three years. The question now becomes how quickly can Wesley Sneijder and last year’s Champions League MVP Didier Drogba settle into their new team?
Contrast that with Schalke 04 who sold arguably their most influential player in Lewis Holtby. Compounding this loss is the fact that Klaas Jan Huntelaar is in a race against time to regain fitness ahead of the tie.
Both teams are also headed in the opposite direction domestically. Galatasaray have opened up an eight point lead at the top of the Turkish Super Lig. Meanwhile, Schalke have won just once in their last 11 matches and seem to be in complete disarray.
So far, playing at home has not given any advantage to the home side. Expect that to change, as too many factors are in the Turkish outfit’s favour ahead of this tie. Drogba, who on the weekend scored his first goal for Galatasaray, along with Sneijder, will be looking to send a signal to the rest of Europe – especially Sneijder who has been in football limbo for the better part of the season.
Prediction: Galatasaray wins 2-0.
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