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Seeing how this is the first Champions League post of the new year, it’s only appropriate that we start off with a proper introduction to get everyone going.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXtHoHGWjh4]

After a two and half month hiatus, the Champions League returns and takes the Gunners to the Netherlands to face PSV Eindhoven in the first leg of the first knockout round. The good and bad news is that Arsenal are active in all competitions which on the positive side means trophy contention, but on the other hand stretches the club very thin. Arsene Wenger has been forced to rest players at every opportunity, most recently against Bolton, when Wenger opted to go without Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Senderos. Injuries to William Gallas, Emmanuel Eboue, Alexander Hleb and Freddie Ljunberg have all been issues to keep a close eye on and the Gunners are entering the European competition with a very watchful eye on player fitness and fatigue.

Playing away to any Champions League club is a daunting task by itself, but when you factor in PSV’s recent domestic and European success, one has to feel Arsenal have to be at the top of their game, especially defensively, to avoid any sort of setback in their first match. The Dutch side are in a tight race with Ajax Amsterdam in a bid for their third successive Eredivisie title and that has to be a factor entering the Champions League tie. PSV, like Arenal will play on Saturday against relegation theatened SC Heracles Almelo so both clubs will enter Tuesday’s contest having just two days rest. On a fitness level, this favors PSV.

thierry henry celeberation

With RVP out with injury, I’m hoping that Henry is paired with Adebayor up front and not Baptista. If you read my Bolton replay post, I’m sure you know that I’m not too thrilled about having Baptista as a striker in any semi-meaningful game. Although Adebayor and Baptista are not great finishers (well Baptista simply sucks), Adebayor provides more variety as a striker with his reach and willingness to chase down aerial balls and at least try to provide some sort of a setup for his partner. He’s also shown that he can take advantage of his length and has a much more refined and superior touch than Baptista. I think in Champions League you have to rely a little more on finesse than strength and Adebayor and Henry can certainly provide that. At this point, I can go on about not conceding early and forcing yourself to have to come back the rest of the game. But by now I’m used to this trend and am fully confident that if we do go down early, there is little reason to panic since the Gunners know exactly how to play when their backs are against the wall.

I’m hoping Emmanuel Eboue returns to his right-back role even though Justin Hoyte has filled in commendably but I’d much rather have the more experienced Eboue in the lineup. Rosicky has had a couple great games in the last week and this could not have come at a better time. If he has half as good a game as he did against Bolton, Arsenal will be in business. His off-the-ball movement was superb and he always managed to find the open area and create from there. Alexander Hleb’s return will also make a huge difference; to me he’s a true playmaker and anytime he’s on the right flank with the ball with any space, good things always happen.

Crazy old Lehmann has been superb but it’s unfair to ask him to go on a run like he did last year where he didn’t allow a goal in the knockout stages. Assuming he’ll be as good as he has been in the premiership, the Gunners defense will need to tighten up to repeat their Champions League run. And where does it start? If you ask me, it’s Senderos. I like the guy but he’s in two minds too often. Maybe it’s those re-occuring Drogba nightmares that make him kick the ball like a girl once in a while. Thats the only plausible explanation I could come up with of why he chooses to make a 5-yard pass instead of clearing the ball when opposing forwards are surrounding him vultures. If Gallas does return, he should make a huge difference to the back four and his utterly unexpected goals will also be welcome.

champions league fans

For all the Champions League’s narcissim including it’s theme music and player introductions, it does provide the best matchups in the fooball calendar. Great matchups all around this year, here’s what I think about them:

Barcelona vs. Liverpool: It’s not so much that I’d like to see Ronaldinho have his teeth kicked in or Stephen Gerrard score an own goal in extra time, it’s more that I hate both these teams and I want them to inflict as much pain on each other as possible.
Barcelona on aggregate 5-2.

Celtic vs. AC Milan: Somewhere on ESPN Soccernet I read that Filipo Inzaghi is “the greatest striker of our generation”. The guy actually justified his statement saying how Pippo is in the same category as Henry, RVN, Shevchenko and others. I picked Celtic to win the group over Manchester United but I think AC Milan is a test slightly beyond their reach.
AC Milan on aggregate 3-2.

Real Madrid vs. Bayern Munich: What I’d like to see here is Beckham return to some sort of form after his recall to the club. Seeing how he’s going to be playing in my backyard soon, I’d like to see a legitimate European player come to Toronto and not some washed out Prima Donna. I’d also settle for Owen Hargreaves embarassing himself to finally end all that speculation of him joining Man Utd.
Real Madrid on aggregate 3-2.

Lille vs. Man Utd: Lille beat Man Utd in the group stages last year and I honestly think that was a severe over-accomplishment. I’m obviously cheering for Lille but I don’t think they’ll score in either game.
Man Utd on aggregate 3-0.

FC Porto vs. Chelsea: This will be a tight affair. Don’t count out FC Porto, they showed against Arsenal that they can contain teams and Chelsea is not a hard team to contain. I think FC Porto can score in this contest and I’m very positive they can defend an offensively challenged Chelsea team who’ll be praying that this is when that Shevchenko signing pays off.
FC Porto on away goals 1-1.

Inter Milan vs. Valencia: Roberto Ayala is one of my favorite players, don’t ask me why but he just is. I really thought Inter’s signing of Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo was a great move. This guy can flat out score when it counts and no better time than this. Chances are Ibrahimovic will fizzle out as usual but as long as you have sneaky Crespo in there, Inter has the advantage. I also can’t wait to see Fernando Morientes about to attemp a shot on which 95% of strikers score. Comedy usually ensues.
Inter Milan on aggregate 5-2.

Roma vs. Lyon: If Arsenal doesn’t win the CL, I want it to be Lyon. They came close to beating AC Milan last year but Inzaghi snuck one in late on them. It really sucked. They have some good, good players in Diarra, Milan Baros, Abidal, Juninho, Govou…and the list just keeps on going. They play an up-tempo style which is great to watch and they were awesome in the group stages. I haven’t seen Roma play this year but I’m rooting against them if for nothing than to see that thumb-sucking Francesco Totti in tears.
Lyon on aggregate 4-1.

PSV vs. Arsenal: PSV may be the the two-time defending Dutch champions and they might even win it this year but after last years disappointing final, the Gunners just won’t allow themselves to lose in the first round.
Arsenal on aggregate, 4-1.