Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The knockout stage of the Champions League will begin on Tuesday, as 16 teams battle for the most coveted prize in European club soccer.
The field of 16 contains European regulars such as Real Madrid, AC Milan, Barcelona and Liverpool, while relative newcomers Olympiakos and Fenerbahce will try to make their mark on the competition.
While there are a number of quality matchups in the Round of 16, there is no more intriguing battle than Inter Milan's tussle with Liverpool.
On paper, this pairing is a mismatch, with Inter playing possibly the best soccer in all of Europe at the moment, while Liverpool is coming off of an embarrassing defeat at the hands of lower division side Barnsley in the FA Cup.
Inter enters the contest with an 11-point lead in Serie A, is unbeaten in 23 league games this season, and has won eight of its last 10 games in all competitions.
By comparison, Liverpool is currently fifth in the Premiership and has won only three of its last 11 fixtures.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the offensive leaders for Inter Milan.
The Italian club is dangerous offensively, with strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Julio Cruz combining to score 24 goals. They also boast a stingy defense led by Cristian Chivu and Javier Zanetti that has yielded only 13 goals in 23 league contests. They are deeper than Liverpool and have the luxury of a cushion in the league standings, while Liverpool is currently battling for the fourth and final Champions League spot in England.
Despite Liverpool's disappointing form in recent weeks, and Inter's overwhelming advantage on paper, Liverpool defender Fabio Aurelio still feels that his side has just as good a chance as Inter of advancing.
"I think confidence is very high," Aurelio told the club's website. "I think we just have to prepare for the next game, it is another competition and I think the chance for both the teams is 50/50. We are still alive in the Champions League and we want to progress and fight for another title."
Aurelio's comments may seem like a bit of a stretch to some, but a closer look at Liverpool's recent success in the Champions League shows why the defender has every reason to be confident.
The Reds have developed a history of success in Europe that includes finals appearances in two of the last three years, with a title in 2005.
Manager Rafael Benitez has gotten the best out of his team when it comes to European play, and with inspirational captain Steven Gerrard to lead the side, as well as key contributors in Jamie Carragher, John Arne Riise, and Xabi Alonso, there is no reason why Liverpool can't replicate its 2005 title run.
The team had a poor season that year in domestic play, finishing fifth. They are struggling once again in the league this season, but there is reason for optimism with the return of striker Fernando Torres.
Liverpool's style of play has also been a big reason for recent success in this competition, as the Reds have played a fast-paced attacking style that has given teams trouble.
Inter could have particular problems if Liverpool is able to dictate the tempo, because Roberto Mancini's club is used to playing a slower, more technical style.
And, while Liverpool has often overachieved in the Champions League, Inter has a history of playing below expectations.
The club was bounced in the Round of 16 last season despite being favored against Valencia. The year before, they fell in the quarterfinals to another Spanish side, Villarreal.
As Liverpool has proven in recent years, the Champions League is a totally different animal, one that Inter had better respect if they want to avoid an upset.
Tuesday's other matches include Roma hosting Real Madrid, FC Porto visiting Schalke and Olympiakos entertaining Chelsea.
Real Madrid last won the Champions League in 2002, and will be looking to erase the bitter memory of being knocked out in the Round of 16 by Bayern Munich last season. Roma had a good run to the quarterfinals last year, and once again has the chance to make a move. Both teams are filled with talented players but it is hard to believe that Real Madrid, the most successful club in European history, will go out early again this year.
FC Porto's matchup with Schalke should be competitive, as neither side will have a huge edge. Porto has dominated the Portuguese league while Schalke has struggled at times in the Bundesliga and currently sits fifth. Schalke is the only German club left in the competition but Germany will likely go without a representative in the final eight as Porto is usually good for at a quarterfinal appearance.
Chelsea is a big favorite over Greek side Olympiakos, and Tuesday's contest in Greece will go a long way in determining whether Olympiakos has a chance. They must come away with a win at home if they want to advance because winning at Stamford Bridge in the return leg is a lot to ask.
The top game on Wednesday will feature defending champions AC Milan traveling to London to meet Arsenal. This matchup is similar to the Liverpool and Inter Milan pairing because while AC Milan has struggled this season and Arsenal has been in top form, the Rossoneri usually find a way to make a deep run in the competition, while Arsenal has not had much success. The Gunners are also in a battle with Manchester United at the top of the Premiership standings, giving Milan the edge.
Speaking of Manchester United, the Red Devils will visit the Stade de Gerland on Wednesday to meet Lyon. The French heavyweights have won the last six Ligue 1 titles, but have never made an impact in Europe, failing to advance past the quarterfinals. Expect that history of coming up short to continue for Lyon, who will have to overcome a healthy United squad.
Fenerbahce and Sevilla are both new to the knockout round of the Champions League with the Turkish side making its first-ever appearance, while Sevilla has spent the past two years winning back-to-back UEFA Cups. Sukru Saracoglu is a tough place to play and could give Fenerbahce an edge in the first leg, but Sevilla's talented roster will be too much to overcome in the return leg.
The final pairing pits Celtic with an unpredictable Barcelona side. Barca won the Champions League in 2006 but was knocked out early in the Round of 16 by Liverpool last season. Barca has been equally inconsistent this season but should get by Celtic on pure talent. The Hoops gave a good account of themselves last season against eventual champions AC Milan in the Round of 16, and I expect them to do so once again. Celtic will keep it close and make Barcelona work, but the Spanish side will sneak through in the end.