Head-to-head: UEFA Champions League

By Scott Strasser

The UEFA Champions League returned this month, offering soccer fans the chance to once again watch the best teams in the world battle it out on Europe’s biggest stage. Last week saw the competition enter the knockout stage. To mark the occasion, the Gauntlet pitted our two most knowledgeable soccer junkies against each other in a fierce head-to-head interview.

Which club do you think is this season’s dark horse to win the Champions League?

Mark Villani: Atletico Madrid has been phenomenal all season in La Liga. They’ve been jostling for the top spot in Spain alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid, and we can expect big things from this squad. Playing in a much different style of Spanish football, Atletico places more emphasis on their play without the ball than with it. A defensively minded squad like this has surprised many opponents this year and will surely create some strong challenging tactics to counter the best of Europe.

Scott Strasser: While Arsenal fans have not had much to cheer about in the last half decade, they surely have reasons to get excited now. Currently in first place in the English Premier League, Arsenal has proven that they are finally over the departure of key players like Robin Van Persie, Kolo Toure and Samir Nasri.

Long-time manager Arsene Wenger has managed to rebuild his squad with players who actually seem to care about the club, and appear intent on winning Arsenal’s first trophy in nine years. Arsenal has one of the best playmakers in the world in Mesut Ozil. The biggest worry for Arsenal fans is that they play Bayern Munich in the round of 16. But if they can get past that first hurdle, Arsenal may actually have a chance of winning it this year.

Who will be the tournament’s top scorer?

MV: Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored eight goals for Paris St-Germain in the group stages and is only one goal behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the scoring race. His ability to get into space, challenge for the ball and score incredible screamer goals is just a day on the practice pitch for the veteran Swede. The tall forward is my definition of the complete attacking player with tremendous vision and dribbling abilities. Defenders beware — as we have seen in previous matches, Ibrahimovic can score from just about anywhere.

SS: Whoever wins the top scorer award will probably be someone who plays for a club that goes a long way in the tournament. Considering this, someone like Ibrahimovic is probably not going to win it. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is my pick. When it comes to the Champions League, no other player steps up the way he has done in the last few years. Although he had some injury problems in the first half of the season, he appears to be on his way back to full strength. Considering Barca is capable of making at least the semifinals, Messi has the best chance of being the tournament’s top scorer.

Player of the tournament?

MV: No player is more versatile than Barcelona star Neymar. What, you were expecting Messi? In his first season with Barcelona, the Brazilian has made a huge impact scoring 11 goals and 10 assists in 2013 alone with his new club. He is very well-rounded, able to provide for his teammates and creating some great chemistry alongside Messi. Neymar is a player with vast amounts of potential and is sure to have a breakout performance moving on in the Champions League.

SS: Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid star is having a stellar year, and is currently on top of the Champions League scoring charts with nine goals. Coming off his Ballon d’Or win for top international player of the year, the Portuguese winger should be full of confidence going into the knockout stages of the Champions League. With a remarkable 66 goals in 56 games last year, Ronaldo will be counted on to score goals and win games for Real Madrid. If Real can make it as far as the semifinals, he will be a lock for being awarded the tournament’s best player.

Most overrated team?

MV: There’s something about Chelsea that I just don’t understand. They may be one of the biggest clubs in all of England and a powerhouse amongst the European giants, but I am still not buying in. New manager Jose Mourinho ­— said to be the new saviour of this club — is making some questionable calls this year. A defensive-minded team known for their strong counterattack may work well in the Premier League, but against teams like Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, they don’t stand a chance.

SS: As a fan it pains me to say it, but I have to go with Manchester United. The English champions have had a disastrous first season under new manager David Moyes, who just can’t seem to find a consistent winning formula. Currently in an abysmal eighth place in the English Premier League, United are in danger of not even qualifying for Europe next season. The reality is that the squad is just too weak at the moment. Sloppy defending, an indecisive midfield and a lack of attacking flair have resulted in a Manchester United team that are lucky to still have a shot at the Champions League.

Which potential match up would you most like to see?

MV: We want a rematch! Last year’s clash of the titans between Manchester United and Real Madrid was a spectacular fixture that left fans asking for more.
A brilliant display of talent saw Real Madrid’s Ronaldo returning to face his former club, but nothing was more questionable than a straight red card given to Manchester United’s Nani in the second leg to lead the Madridistas into the semifinals. There is nothing more intense than this rivalry between legends of the past, present and future. This Manchester United team is still searching for glory in the Premier League this season, but nothing would be sweeter than a Champions League victory over the Spanish powerhouse.

SS: I would love to see a repeat of last season’s clash between Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Last year saw the Bavarians crush the Catalans 7–0 on aggregate. I would love to see how Barcelona would play if they had to reface Bayern — how they could find a way to make sure the same thing did not happen again. Also, it would be great to see Bayern Manager Pep Guardiola go up against the club he made such a reputation for himself at.

Who is going to win it all this season?

MV: Real Madrid. Having struggled near the beginning of the season, this team has had some great chemistry in the past few weeks with the likes of top goal scorer Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale stepping up their team play. They are a well-rounded squad with strong defending and a controlling midfield. The traditional Spanish style of football combined with their flair and counterattacking play will lead the Madridistas straight to success.

SS: The favourites are undoubtedly Bayern Munich. Coming off a remarkable 2012–13 season, many fans thought that matching last year’s success would be a nearly impossible feat. Nevertheless, Bayern have continued their unstoppable form in 2013–14, dominating the German Bundesliga and breezing through the group stages of the Champions League. With world-class players in virtually every position, it will be hard for any team to knock Bayern off of their totem pole.

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