BERNE — AC Milan and Barcelona’s progress to the Champions League quarter-finals looks a formality this week, but the other two ties are nailbiters with Zenit St Petersburg and Olympique Lyon defending one-goal leads away from home.
AC Milan — still chasing a Serie A, Italian Cup and Champions League treble — take a 4-0 first-leg advantage to Arsenal today when they are poised to end their run of three successive round-of-16 eliminations against Premier League opposition.
Titleholders Barcelona, 3-1 winners at Bayer Leverkusen in the first leg, have little to fear tomorrow at home to a Bundesliga outfit with a poor away record in the competition.
It will be a different story in Portugal today, however, when Zenit defend a 3-2 first-leg lead against Benfica while Olympique Lyon are 1-0 up before Wednesday (tomorrow)’s trip to APOEL Nicosia.
APOEL will become the first Cypriot team to reach the last eight of any European competition if they can overcome the French side, who have fallen at this stage of the Champions League four times in the last five seasons.
Milan and Zenit are the only teams in action this week who currently top their respective domestic leagues.
Only three teams have ever overturned four-goal deficits in European competition and Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger effectively conceded the tie after the first leg at San Siro.
“We don’t play in dream world . . . realistically we are out of this competition,” he said.
If Milan were to net once in north London, Arsenal would need six and the Italian champions’ record of at least one goal in every Champions League game this season suggests they will get on the scoresheet.
However, one statistic which Massimiliano Allegri’s side will not want to be reminded of is the fact they lost 4-0 at Deportivo La Coruna in a 2004 quarter-final having been 4-1 up from the first leg.
Arsenal’s probable demise would leave Chelsea needing to overturn a 3-1 deficit at home to Napoli the following week to keep alive the English Premier League’s interest in the competition.
A Leverkusen exit would also leave the Bundesliga in danger of being unrepresented in the quarter-finals as Bayern Munich, the only other German survivors, trail 1-0 to FC Basel in a tie which will be completed on March 13.
The odds are piled up against Leverkusen for tomorrow’s visit to the Nou Camp with Barcelona unbeaten in their last 13 outings in the competition since their 2-1 defeat at Arsenal at the same stage last year.
Pep Guardiola’s team are undefeated in their last 16 Champions League matches against Bundesliga opposition.
Benfica’s South American blend was one of the highlights of the group stage, but the Eagles have suddenly undergone a loss of form since their 3-2 defeat in freezing St Petersburg three weeks ago.
A five-point lead at the top of the Portuguese League has become a three-point deficit behind rivals Porto after a draw and two defeats in their last three league games.
Success in Lisbon today would send Benfica into the last eight for only the third time since the Champions League replaced the European Cup in 1992-93 and keep them on course for a first semi-final appearance since 1990.
Benfica fielded eight South Americans in the starting line-up at Zenit and not a single Portuguese player.
APOEL can claim to be the competition’s most Portuguese team with four — and only two Cypriots — starting the first leg at Lyon.
APOEL qualified for the knockout stages at the expense of Porto and Shakhtar Donestk, but might have to pull off another first to oust Lyon as they have never won a Champions League match by a two-goal margin.
“We always tend to struggle away then we win at home,” warned APOEL’s Brazilian William Boaventura.
Tuesday 6 March:
Benfica (2) v Zenit St Petersburg (3)
Arsenal (0) v AC Milan (4)
Wednesday 7 March:
APOEL Nicosia (0) v Olympique Lyon (1)
Barcelona (3) v Bayer Leverkusen (1) —Reuters