Thursday, March 6, 2008

UEFA Cup Round of 16 First Leg Preview

For sheer intrigue, it's no secret I'm a fan of this year's UEFA Cup. I'm under no illusion that it's better than the Champions League, but I am willing to argue this tournament may be more competitive than the race for the big-eared cup.

Tottenham, already having won the Carling Cup this year, isn't settling for just one piece of silverware. Juande Ramos' magical touch has his players talking confidently about winning the UEFA Cup. Goalie Paul Robinson isn't fazed by PSV six point lead over Ajax in the Dutch league and says there's no reason Spurs cannot go all the way. Spurs are home in the first leg and need a quick start and cannot afford to go to Holland needing an away goal to advance.

As for the German clubs; not only do Bayer Leverkusen and Hamburg keep it in-country with a spicy tie, but Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich have to travel to legendary Belgian club Anderlecht, which already has one of these shiny cups on its mantle. Werder Bremen, meanwhile, is the sleeping giant here only four back on Bayern for first place. It must go to Scotland and face Rangers. Bremen may be without two starters, Hugo Almeida and Ivan Klasnic. Both will be evaluated prior to the match. Rangers is four points up on Celtic in the Scottish Premier League and haven't lost since December when Lyon beat them in the Champions League and Hibernian domestically.

Sporting Lisbon, struggling to find its form at home, has had no such problems in the UEFA Cup after destroying Basel in the first knockout round. Sporting was put in a thankless group in the Champions League with Manchester United and Roma, and it held Roma to a 2-2 draw in the last match, beat Dyanamo Kiev twice and lost a pair of one-goal decisions to United. At Bolton today, Sporting runs into a team struggling to avoid relegation. The Wanderers have lost three straight in the Premier League, yet managed a 1-0 win and a scoreless draw against Atletico Madrid to stay alive in the UEFA Cup.

Benfica is the other Portuguese team alive. Ironically, Benfica and Sporting tied 1-1 over the weekend. Benfica needed a miracle to escape the first knockout round against Nuremburg. It travels to Getafe of Spain. Benfica is second to F.C. Porto domestically, while Getafe is middle of the table and has two wins and four draws in its last seven matches.

Fiorentina-Everton pairs two fourth-place Champions League contenders; Fiorentina coming off a 3-2 win over Juventus over the weekend, while Everton has won five straight and is undefeated in seven straight.

Marseille and Zenit St. Petersburg clash again; the Russian side eliminated Marseille a year ago.

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