Commentary

Serie A vs. EPL clubs highlight CL draw

Updated: December 16, 2011, 11:03 AM ET
By Michael Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Ibrahimovic_Robin van PersieGetty ImagesSerie A vs. Premier League clubs -- AC Milan vs. Arsenal and Chelsea vs. Napoli -- highlight the final 16 of the Champions League.

It's an unusual Champions League round of 16 -- there are more Italian clubs than English, Spanish or German, which have as many teams left as Russia and France. There are also Swiss and Cypriot teams in the mix, making for some interesting ties. Here, we preview all eight matches.

Arsenal vs. AC Milan

One of two exciting Premier League versus Serie A battles. Arsenal had to squeeze through a playoff against Udinese to confirm its place in the Champions League, and will return to the north of Italy for a mouthwatering clash with Milan, a side it memorably defeated in 2007-08 with a superb away display at the San Siro.

It's not often Arsenal would use its great rival Tottenham as an inspiration, but Arsene Wenger might look to how Spurs played at the San Siro last season, exploiting the narrowness of Milan by breaking quickly down the flanks. In Gervinho and Theo Walcott, Wenger has the two perfect players for that game plan, as Milan's weak spot is probably at fullback.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is often belittled in the British press for not performing in big Champions League games against English clubs, but the last time he visited the Emirates he scored two excellent goals in a 2-2 tie back in his lone season at Barcelona.

Chelsea vs. Napoli

Chelsea may have struggled to get to the knockout stages, but the performance in the final group game against Valencia showed it's a side that knows how to win in Europe. Andre Villas-Boas adjusted the positioning of his back line, going from a risky high defensive line to a much deeper system, and that approach will probably be maintained in the knockout stages.

If that's the case, the Blues' clash against Napoli could be slow to get going -- Napoli is an excellent side but a predominantly reactive team, excelling on the counterattack. Which team will make the first move away at the San Paolo? You'd expect Napoli to make the running, but it'll be reasonably confident of picking up a result at Stamford Bridge when Chelsea will see a lot of the ball and leave space in behind for Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi to exploit.

Barcelona vs. Leverkusen

A good draw for Barcelona, yet its record in the away leg of Champions League knockout ties is surprisingly unimpressive under Pep Guardiola -- the 1-0 win against Shakhtar and the 2-0 victory at the Bernabeu last season are his only away knockout victories in nine attempts. He's lost as many of these matches -- against Arsenal and Inter -- as he's won.

It's clear, then, that Leverkusen will need a win at home if it's to progress. It'll hope that Barcelona suffers the same drop in fitness levels it endured around February last season. The Bundesliga side's best chance of success is probably by maximizing its advantage in the air. Eren Derdiyok and Stefan Kiessling are both very tall, and Barcelona's weakness is at defending crosses and set pieces.

Real Madrid vs. CSKA Moscow

La Liga has only two sides in the round of 16, but you'd expect both to progress through to the quarterfinals. After a spell of six successive seasons without making it through to the final eight, European specialist Jose Mourinho seems to have fixed the problems, and this draw will have gone down very well at Real.

CSKA will be a tricky opponent at the Arena Khimki, however. It possesses three outstanding attacking players: Japanese playmaker Keisuke Honda, Brazilian forward Vagner Love, but most importantly, Ivorian striker Seydou Doumbia, who has hit five goals in five Champions League games and should give Real's center backs a good physical test.

Benfica vs. Zenit St Petersburg

If there's a dark horse for tie of the round, this is it. This contest will feature some outstandingly gifted technical players, and two of the most underrated coaches in European football, Jorge Jesus and Luciano Spalletti. There will be a great clash of styles, too. Benfica likes to keep hold of the ball and take the game to the opposition, while Zenit will sit back and then break quickly.

The Russian champions will return to Portugal having ridden their luck against Benfica's great rival Porto in the final group stage game, progressing thanks to some terrific last-ditch defending. It will also be another chance for Portuguese playmaker Danny to show his "home country" (he was actually born in Venezuela) what it's missing out on -- in the first game against Porto he courted controversy when he celebrated a goal by imitating a dog urinating, right next to a large Porto flag. It remains to be seen whether he does the same versus Benfica.

APOEL vs. Lyon

APOEL surprised everyone by coming through the group stage, but it was still the side everyone wanted to draw. It's exactly what you expect of a good underdog -- well-organized, disciplined, reasonably defensive but with pace up front in the form of Brazilian Ailton, which enables APOEL to turn defense into attack quickly.

Coach Ivan Jovanovic will focus on how to stop Lyon in the first leg in France. Yoann Gourcuff is the obvious threat, but APOEL has a very defensive-minded duo in front of the defense in the shape of Helio Pinto and Nuno Morais, so it wouldn't be a surprise if Gourcuff had a quiet game.

Bayern vs. Basel

This might not be the most eye-catching fixture, but it's a huge game for Basel coach Heiko Vogel, who was given the job on a full-time basis shortly after his side surprisingly qualified for this stage at the expense of Manchester United.

Vogel not only replaced former Bayern legend Thorsten Fink but also is a former Bayern youth coach, taking charge of their under-10, under-13, under-15 and under-17 teams between 1998 and 2007. As such, he might have some inside knowledge on the likes of Thomas Mueller, Holger Badstuber, Diego Contento and Toni Kroos -- so expect a calculated tactical plan here.

Inter vs. Marseille

As a recent champion and group winner, Inter will start this game as the favorite, but Marseille is exactly the sort of side that could give Inter problems. Marseille is well-organized defensively, but more importantly has some pace-y attackers, including Loic Remy, Mathieu Valbuena and the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan. Against an aging Inter back line, that could be crucial.

Claudio Ranieri hasn't yet built an Inter side to call his own, but the January transfer market will probably be busy for Inter -- only after it's over will we truly be able to judge the side's chances of progression.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.

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