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CL PREVIEW: Can Bayern Derail Arsenal as Bernabéu Hosts Battle Royale

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The business end of the UEFA Champions League is upon us starting Tuesday with mouth-watering clashes across Europe. Nigeria Info’s News Manager takes a preview of the four clashes

Defending Champions, Manchester City go into a rematch of their semi-final clash last season against the heritage club in this competition; Kylian Mbappe has one more final chance (he’s finally leaving, yeah?) to get the holy grail for his beloved Paris club and there’s the matter of the less fancied duo: Atletico and Dortmund struggling it out.

But let’s start in North London. 

 

WILL CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DERAIL ARSENAL?

The Bavarians have been a huge thorn in the Gooners’ flesh over the last 15 years as they have consistently knocked Arsenal out at this stage, including a 10-2 aggregate win in the 2016/2017 season. 

But even the most Arsenal hater will admit, albeit grudgingly for some, that THIS Arsenal side is different.

Anyone who hears me on Nigeria Info FM, or reads my tweets knows I am not one for stats; so, I won’t bore you with all that.

But there’s resilience and sheer willpower about this Arsenal team after their unplanned title charge ended at about this same time last year.

You see the team celebrating Gabriel Megalheas's last-ditch block against Brighton over the weekend or that defensive masterclass (or Haram football like my colleague, David called it) against City two weeks ago, and you’d agree there’s more spine here.

BUT…

It’s the Champions League!

It’s Bayern Munich!!

They may have squandered a two-goal lead against Heidenheim over the weekend; but when that Champions League anthem starts blaring, it’s a different game.

Thomas Tuchel is very adept tactically at these one-off big clashes, then, so you may as well take advantage of the huge odds offered by betting sites in Bayern’s favour cos they sure can do it. 

There are so many examples of teams having poor domestic campaigns but saving their best for Europe – Chelsea in 2012; Real Madrid in 2000 and even Arsenal reaching their only final in 2006.

Off the top of my head, I can only point to the 2-2 draw against Leverkusen, the home win over Stuttgart, and the away win over Dortmund (albeit with an early red card for BVB) as Bayern’s impressive wins against top sides this season.

But they have not been impressive in this season’s Champions League, just efficient. They stuttered in phases in their group games and even the first leg against Lazio, but they got the job done.

However, there is the Harry Kane factor.

He almost always scores against Arsenal (14 in 19 games isn’t one to chuckle at) and the Gunners have a knack for allowing certain players to do this – Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford, and Didier Drogba easily come to mind.

Plus, Bayern have all but lost the Bundesliga to Bayer Leverkusen.

On the flip side, their opponents are in a three-way title race against two of the best Premier League sides in the last five/six years - City and Liverpool.

While Bayern can afford to rest key players this weekend for the return fixture, Arsenal may not be able to.

Agreed, the squad is healthier, they have options, but I would bet Odegaard, Saka, Rice and the twin tower of Saliba/Gabriel are almost starters on Tuesday, Sunday against Aston Villa, and next Wednesday at the Allianz Arena. 

Could this derail the Gooners?

Do they have the mental strength to withstand the pressure of this fixture and a possible semifinal against Real Madrid or Man City?

“It’s something that we have no say or control over, and we just expect all the time the best from our opponent, against Bayern, Brighton or Aston Villa,” coach Mikel Arteta says

“Regardless of where they are, you always have to expect that they play in their best possible way and be prepared to outperform them.”

 

HERITAGE vs NEW SUPER-POWER

The past two seasons have blessed us with this super clash between England’s finest and the one club every other team aspires to be like in this competition. 

From the last-gasp winners two seasons ago from Rodrygo and Karim Benzema to that unbelievable 4:0 thrashing of Madrid at the Etihad last year, it’s been bliss.

But this may just be different.

Real Madrid have an Englishman, Jude Bellingham, who has been an instant hit since his Bernabeu arrival.

Manchester City are not flying on all cylinders unlike at this stage last year even if the results since the turn of the year may not suggest so.

Defensively, they are vulnerable and have been conceding a little too easily.

The attack doesn’t quite a Mahrez-like player never mind the signing of Doku.

Plus the midfield had a Gundogan who was a sure starter; his replacements, the former Madrista, Kovacic, and Wolves ex-man, Nunes do look like drop-offs.

But Pep Guardiola is still bullish ahead of the game.

“We cannot come here just to control the game, we have to come here to try to hurt them, to punish them, to let them know we are here to score the goals,” he says emphatically.

 “We are talking about Real Madrid and their ability to control many aspects of the game. We have to impose our game with who we are.”

Maybe Pep needs a reminder that Vinicius is still a live wire and crucially, there is no Kyle Walker which is a massive blow for the Cityzens.

Who has the pace to go up against the Brazilian in the City ranks? The Swiss man with Nigerian roots, Manuel Akanji may well be deployed there but can he stop Vini?

The midfield battle is sure another one to look forward to: a possible Kroos/Bellingham/Valverde up against De Bryune/Rodi/Bernando.

My colleague Ngozi Ezeuduma wants to see peripheral striker, Joselu, start and insists her team stands no chance if the on-loan striker is left out.

I don’t quite agree even if I see her reasons for starting the Espanyol loanee with his hold-up play allow Vini and Rodrygo to run into channels that City will surely give up.

Will Ancelotti grant her wish?

 

BEST OF THE REST

Kylian Mbappe is most likely playing his last set of games for PSG ahead of his well-publicized proposed move to Real Madrid.

Watching him over two legs against Real Sociedad in the Round of 16, it was easy to see why he is arguably, the best player of his generation. 

On Wednesday, he is up against a Barcelona side who, let’s be honest, are a drop-off from the conquering 2009-2011 Pep side or the magnificent Luis Enrique team of 2015.

The last man to win this competition for Barca, Enrique, is now at the helm of affairs plotting their downfall and PSG’s first win. The Parisien have a healthy lead in Ligue 1 and can afford to rest a large chunk of their regulars like they did in the 1-1 draw against Clermont Foot.

Barca on the other hand did not play a league game and will be fresh coming into this one.

But Mbappe’s big game record may just about settle this one.

 

DARK HORSES

Ask anyone who they think will win this season’s UEFA Champions League and not a lot of people will say Atletico Madrid or Dortmund. 

I will hazard a guess and say there will be no repeat of the 1997 Champions League winning feat from the Yellow and Black side. 

Definitely, not from the present Dortmund team.

However, my bold prediction here is that Diego Simeone’s side will reach the final.

Atletico are no longer the ultra-defensive side they were some seasons ago. In the Frenchman, Antoine Griezman they have a real conductor who will weigh in with his fair share of goals.

Crucially, the league title is all but gone and even if there’s a battle for Champions League place against Girona, who coincidentally they play in between the two Dortmund games, I think they’d navigate this one

And then go one better against either PSG or Barca in the semis because of their dominant home form and the fact they can frustrate any of the three sides away from home.

But will they go on to win the most cherished European club trophy?

Guess they’d have to go past Dortmund, first.


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