It's a knockout Pt. 1: Milan, Man U, Real & Lyon

There are many imperfect ways to predict a football match.

As professional soothsayers, journalists will often search for the strangest omens.

Chelsea are, according to the hacks gathered around the table for Brian Woolnough’s Sunday Supplement on Sky Sports, destined to win the UEFA Champions League because they are fuelled by a sense of injustice at the manner of their defeat in last season’s semi-final.

Call me a sceptic, but as the saying very nearly goes: revenge is a dish best served after the event.

Compulsive Tweeter Henry Winter has obviously been inspired by Sir Alex Ferguson’s “upbeat, in control” performance at the press conference at the San Siro.

Actually, Henry calls it a presser, which led me to wonder if Dazza and Wazza were at the presser with Fergie and Wints.

At ease: Fergie holds court

But somewhere in London, a multi-millionaire gambler – as the next issue of Champions will reveal – has made a fortune by using a different criterion to predict games.

He relies, to a large degree, on which team creates the most chances.

Doesn’t matter if a team converts more of them, creating them is enough for this rich recluse.

And on this basis, Manchester United, who created 109 chances in their group games (counting shots and corners), should prevail over 180 minutes over Milan, who created just 80.

In tonight’s other tie, the same stats suggest that Real Madrid (126 chances) should defeat Olympique Lyonnais (98).

Legs, shots and soap

Milan v Manchester United

The soap opera sub-plot of Beckham’s return to Old Trafford may, to the British media’s chagrin, not prove decisive in this finely poised tie.

As Tom English points out in a slightly snide piece in The Scotsman, Beckham – and Milan – have often misfired since the Rossoneri’s abject performance in the Milan derby.

Yet unlike Juve’s former coach Ciro Ferrara, Leonardo still has a shot at proving he is the new Guardiola.

His target tonight is “not conceding a goal and doing some damage to the English side.”

The stat that might trouble him, returning briefly to the gambler’s predictive formula, is that Milan only managed 19 shots on goal in Group C, making them the most shot-shy team in the last 16.

They beat Udinese 3-2 at the weekend but Gazzetta dello Sport noted: “Something more will be needed against United. In three words: speed, aggression, pressure.”

United’s four previous trips to the San Siro have yielded no goals and no points.

United fans seem divided on whether Sir Alex Ferguson should play a cagey 4-5-1 or try to settle the tie with an attacking 4-3-3.

As Jonathan Wilson has pointed out in The Guardian, United have usually preferred to counter-attack since Fernando Redondo nutmegged Henning Berg with a backheel nearly 10 years ago.

Redondo's subsequent assist for Raul helped Real beat United 3-2 at Old Trafford in the last eight.

"I'll do you, too": Redondo takes on Keano

Saying the game will be decided in midfield is to state the bleedin’ obvious.

And despite the presence of Matthieu Flamini in the squad, the Milan midfield lacks legs under 30, a deficiency not even the wizards at the Milan Lab can mask indefinitely.

I’d never say so to Gennaro Gattuso in person but against top-class opposition his snarl has, of late, sometimes seemed worse than his bite in the tackle.

United may prosper if they have their passing boots on.

The return of Pato’s pace and power is a morale booster for Milan.

If fit for either leg, striker Marco Borriello – arguably the Rossoneri’s best target man since Oliver Bierhoff left in 2001 – will surely test a United defence beset by injuries and changing selections.

Ronaldinho has made himself integral to Milan and looked motivated against Udinese after a shape up or ship out chat with Silvio Berlusconi.

The difference between this Ronaldinho and the player who won this tournament with Barcelona is that if he does get one-on-one with a United defender, he will have to beat his opponent with technique, not acceleration.

Ronaldinho and Pato: guile and pace

In no way can this tie be defined as crudely as a head to head between Rooney and Pato.

But for Rooney, this is his chance to prove he really is, as his boss maintains, the best in the world right now.

And on UEFA.com he certainly sounds up for the challenge of outwitting Alessandro Nesta.

Pato isn’t short of motivation either.

He broke Pele’s record by scoring within seconds on his debut for Brazil against Sweden in March 2008.

Sadly for Pato, the one man his talents don’t seem to excite that much happens to be his national coach Dunga.

THE SPOTTER: How United can topple Milan

La decima, the holy grail and Bart Simpson

Lyon v Real Madrid

Once a realistic ambition, then a long-cherished dream, la decima – the 10th European Cup – is in danger of becoming a holy grail for Real Madrid.

The last time they made it past the last 16 of the competition Tony Blair was still prime minister, Jose Mourinho was managing Porto and Facebook was just six weeks old.

LA LIGA LOCA: Madrid prepare for their annual knockout round

Real’s glorious dash to the last four in 2003/04 brought the curtain down on the first galacticos era.

And now it is up to the neo-galacticos  – in which the megastars have been surrounded with a few players like Xabi Alonso who know how a football team actually ticks – to succeed where Zidane, the original Ronaldo and Figo failed.

It sounds melodramatic to say that this tie will define Real’s season.

Hell, it is melodramatic. But it is also probably true.

Iker Casillas will be hoping to mark his 501st appearance for Real Madrid with a clean sheet.

But Real’s record at Stade Gerland in this tournament is consistent: ie consistently awful.

They've played twice, lost both, scored none and conceded five.

And, if Miralem Pjanic is on the pitch, Real need to watch out for free-kicks: they have conceded 104 fouls in six games and collected 17 yellow cards, having the worst disciplinary record of any team in the last 16.

Pjanic: "I'll put it just there"

Mind you, Lyon’s home form in Europe is hardly spectacular: they have won just five out of their last 14 (including their 5-1 demolition of Anderlecht in the play-off round) at Stade Gerland.

And they’ve been leaky in Ligue 1: conceding 1.17 goals a game (compared to Real’s 0.68 in la Liga.)

With Cris and Jean-Alain Boumsong in defence, Lyon’s chances of progressing diminish the more open the games become.

So can Lyon’s 4-2-3-1 keep Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Higuain – and possibly old boy Karim Benzema (if he can shake off that injury to his left leg) – at bay?

Coach Claude Puel will certainly hope so.

Lyon’s recent record in the knockout stages is one of Bart Simpsonesque underachievement.

They’ve had some tough draws – facing Manchester United, Barcelona and now Real – but les Gones have been goners at this stage three seasons in a row.

If Puel had the personnel he might be tempted to emulate Jean Tigana, who steered Monaco past Manchester United into the semis in 1998 by drawing 0-0 in the billionaires’ playground and scoring the crucial away goal in a draw at Old Trafford.

Monaco's Barthez celebrates, United's Berg doesn't

But he hasn’t, so much will depend on Hugo Lloris’s excellence in goal and whether Lisandro, who hasn’t been as prolific since the winter break, can make the most of his opportunities.

Still, as Karim Benzema (who knows a bit about Lyon) points out, Puel’s team have a strong point:

"They can be playing badly and all of a sudden they surpass themselves, raising their game to their opponents’ level or beyond.o”

Previewing games like this can often descend into what the cult British novelist and football reporter BS Johnson called “speculative crap.”

So it would be remiss not to say that I’ll watch this match in the hope that, as Johnson put it in his novel The Unfortunates, “this might be the ONE match where the extraordinary happens, the match one remembers and talks about afterwards for the rest of one’s life.”

If any two teams can deliver such a match at this stage of the competition, it is probably Real Madrid and Olympique Lyonnais.

Tomorrow I’ll ponder if Arsene Wenger has been playing mind games again and which Fiorentina will turn up in Munich as I preview the other two ties this week.

THE SPOTTER: How United can topple Milan LA LIGA LOCA: Madrid prepare for their annual knockout round

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