UEFA Champions League is back with round of 16 play

The UEFA Champions League round of 16 has kicked off this past week with largely anticipated contests between some of the best European soccer clubs of our time. Every remaining team in the tournament has the same goal: to be crowned the best team in Europe at the tournament final in Lisbon, Portugal come May.

The first game to open the round of 16 included arguably the two most watched teams in European soccer today, Manchester City and FC Barcelona. The clash between these European giants was a very back and forth contest, as both offenses created a lot of goal scoring opportunities. Barcelona, as usual, was dominant in possession as they spend the majority of their games moving the ball around the pitch. Many fans expected Barcelona to tally a large sum of goals with efforts from world-class strikers such as Lionel Messi and Iniesta, but since Barcelona were the away team, there were many other factors that came into play.

After a close scoreless first half, the second half was a complete shift in atmosphere.  The deciding play of the game came in the 53rd minute when a controversial penalty kick was called. Manchester City defender Martin Demichelis brought down Lionel Messi on a breakaway right in the penalty area. Debates over the location of where the foul occurred had Manchester City fans rattled as the call proved to be costly. FIFA rules suggest that if a foul like this one were to occur, where contact begins outside the box and ends in the box, then it should result in a penalty kick. Once Messi buried the penalty kick against City keeper Joe Hart, Manchester City put more emphasis on defense. Since the foul committed by Demichelis resulted in a red card, the team played the rest of the game down a man. Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes made some key saves for the Catalans, including some last ditch efforts. To conclude the game, Barcelona defender Daniel Alves came through with a stunning nutmeg goal between Hart’s legs into the corner of the goal. Both teams will be at full strength for the second leg of the competition at the Camp Nou in Barcelona, but it will be tough for City to enter the intense atmosphere of Spanish fans.

A flashy Paris Saint German side played against an aggressive Bayer Leverkusen team looking to shut down one of the best strikers in the game, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A PSG club that has been revitalized in the past few years came into Germany with confidence like no other. The high-sparked offense scored four goals against Leverkusen, including two tallied for Ibrahimovic. One was a contender for perhaps the goal of the week in the UCL as a remarkable shot from outside the box landed in the top right corner.  Blaise Matuidi and substitute Yohan Cabaye contributed to the score line as well.  Emir Spahic of Bayer Leverkusen will sit out leg two after receiving two consecutive yellow cards in the game against PSG. Unless Leverkusen comes up with a miraculous turnaround effort in the second leg, it is almost certain that PSG will advance to the next round of play.

Another match between two top European clubs involved Arsenal against the defending champions, Bayern Munich, at the Emirates stadium in England. The contest involved some costly errors on Arsenals behalf. Among these was a disappointing penalty kick from Mesut Ozil  against his childhood teammate and current Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Another error involved goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny’s red card in the 39th minute that will leave Arsenal without their best man in goal for the second leg at the Allianz Arena in Munich. Toni Kroos scored the first goal for Munich, a one-touch bender from outside the box, and in the 88th minute, Thomas Müller finished another brilliant header off of a driven cross from Phillip Lahm. Bayern dominated on possession, 79-21%, and had a number of scoring opportunities more than the Gunners of Arsenal.  Arsenal had only half of their eight shots on target that Manuel Neuer was too solid to allow finishing the game with another clean sheet for his side and proving yet again why he is the best goalkeeper in the world.  It is likely that Bayern will dominate the next leg at home and leave Arsenal with sole hopes of finishing off strong in the English Premier League.

AC Milan played host at the San Siro in a back and forth battle against Atlético Madrid, where both teams had nearly the same amount of shots and possession percentage. Madrid received four yellow cards, which may lead to potential suspensions if they qualify for the next round. In the 83rd minute, a corner kick for Atlético found striker Diego Costa heading the ball into the back of the net.  Despite some brilliant efforts from Milan players Mario Balotelli and KAKA, the team will have to take their game to the next step if they hope to come back and beat Atlético in the second leg at Madrid.

There are several games yet to be played in the round of 16 of the Champions league. The first of these games includes Germany’s Borussia Dortmund against Russian side Zenit St. Petersburg. This appears to be an easy match for Dortmund, but the Champions League can in many cases be deceiving. Borussia was on the positive end of an upset in last year’s tournament against European powerhouse club Real Madrid, proving that any team can come out to be victorious.  European clubs have their eyes on Dortmund forward Robert Lewandowski,who will surely continue to be a force against the Zenit defense. If Zenit will pull off an upset against Borussia, they will have to play soccer that exceeds the quality they’ve played in past games.

Another upcoming game includes England’s Manchester United against the Greece’s Olympiakos. This is another match up where soccer fans around the world can easily distinguish a winner before the two games are even played. Manchester United should come out on top against the Greek team, who hasn’t beaten Manchester in their previous five encounters. United’s forwards Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie will be looking for a pair of goals that they haven’t been able to find in the English Premier League.

Spanish team Real Madrid will face off against Shalke 04 of Germany, which is a contest that should find the most successful European club on top, Real Madrid. The Spanish club has won the most UCL trophies of all teams that have played in the tournament. Recently crowned the best player of 2013 with the Balon D’Or award, Cristiano Ronaldo will be looking to continue scoring goals for his club and getting them a Champions League trophy which they haven’t done since 2002.

The round of 16 will conclude with a match up between English side Chealsea against the Turskish side Galatasaray. Galatasaray forward and Ivory Coast international Didier Droga will be facing his long time club Chelsea, which should bring interesting and anticipated reactions from both fans walking into Stanford Bridge for the first time since his departure from Chelsea. Former Inter Milan star Wesley Sneijder will attempt to help get a victory for the Turkish club against a London team rich in European soccer history.

There is a lot still left to be determined in the Champions League of Europe. There is a lot to play for.  Many teams and players will be looking to do whatever it takes to become the best club in Europe.