It's a knockout Pt.3: Unleash the underdogs

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The UEFA Champions League returned in style last week with some cracking goals, another swirl of controversy surrounding bald Scandinavian referees and a performance by Wayne Rooney that suggested he’s determined to nick the Ballon d’Or off Lionel Messi.

If Handel hadn’t got there first with Zadok The Priest, Phil Collins could have supplied the epic theme for the first two ties this week as Stuttgart and Olympiacos struggle against all odds. So, as the soft rock classic almost says, let’s take a look at them now...

When attack is the worst form of defence

Stuttgart vs Barcelona

Stuttgart got the draw nobody wanted. The club’s Swiss coach Christian Gross knows his "mission impossible" starts with one simple task: getting the ball. Barcelona averaged 68% possession in their group stages. In their last match, at Dynamo Kyiv, they had the ball 77% of the time.

The stats make dismal reading for Stuttgart. The Germans have won just once in 11 meetings with Spanish sides, a terrible consistency they share with Gross whose record as manager against la Liga teams is played eight, won one, drawn two, lost five.

In contrast, Barcelona are unbeaten in nine on their travels in this (their last away defeat was at Old Trafford in the 2008/09 semi-final), have won four and drawn two on their last six trips to Germany and did the double over Stuttgart – 2-0 and 3-1 – in their only previous encounter in the 2007/08 group stage.


And the "chanceometer" – the idea that the team that creates the most chances more often than not wins the game – shades it for Barca, though not by much, as they created 119 goalscoring opportunities in their group to Stuttgart’s 110.

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But Barcelona are stoppable, as Atletico Madrid proved, and will miss Dani Alves, Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita and Xavi. That kind of injury crisis would cripple most clubs but Pep Guardiola can still call on such journeymen as Messi, Henry, Ibra, Iniesta, Puyol, Pique, Pedro and Marquez.

The great Zlatan – who ended his goal drought in that defeat by Atletico – must surely see this as a great chance to break his duck and score his first goal in the knockout stages of this competition.

So what is Gross to do? The romantic option – especially after Saturday’s 5-1 demolition of Cologne, and with Barça’s defence ravaged by injuries – would be to attack Barcelona and hope that Cacau, who scored four in Cologne, is brilliant and ruthless.

But most European coaches say Barcelona are at their most dangerous when you attack them. The reward for such audacity might be the kind of heavy, stinging defeat that seriously undermines morale and inspires punning headlines of the Gross Misconduct or Christian Thrown To The Lions variety.

The safer option would be for Gross to rerun the Super Cup and watch how Mircea Lucescu’s superbly drilled Shakhtar Donetsk frustrated Barcelona.

"I didn't see that coming, did you?"

At their best, Barcelona are European football’s scintillators in chief. But when the tempo slows and space is scarce, they can get stuck in a passing rut, hit too many passes, too slowly and get a tad bogged down. With Barça becalmed and frustrated, Cacau and Pavel Pogrebnyak could even nick a goal.

The wisdom of Socratis

Olympiacos vs Bordeaux

Atletico Madrid’s notorious chairman Jesus Gil once said that firing a coach felt as natural to him as drinking beer. Olympiacos chairman Socratis Kokkalis hasn’t been that trigger-happy but just over halfway through the season, Bozidar Bandovic is now in his second spell as caretaker manager after the oustings of Temuri Ketsbaia and Zico.

This is the third time Olympiacos have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League. On both previous occasions, the coach was on his way within 10 months.

Like his many predecessors, Bandovic, who made his name as a defender with Red Star Belgrade in the early 1990s, has two simple tasks: over-perform in the Champions League and win the Greek title (as they have in nine out of the last 10 seasons).

The biggest obstacle to Olympiacos over-performing against Bordeaux is goals. The lack of. Their top scorers in Group H – Brazilian defender Leonardo, defender-or-midfielder Vassilis Torosidis, midfielder Ieroklis Stoltidis and striker Kostas Mitroglou – all grabbed a goal apiece.

Mitroglou’s strike rate, if that’s not too generous, was a goal every 387 minutes in Group H. (Though the 21-year-old did, to be fair, shoot down Sheriff, the Moldovan champs, with two goals in the play-off round.)

When you’ve been firing blanks, the last thing you need is to face a defence coached by World Cup winning centre-back Laurent Blanc. Bordeaux have the competition’s meanest defence, conceding just two goals as they surprised Juventus and Bayern to emerge as the alpha males in Group A.

"...and this is how you tackle..."

Bordeaux reached the European Cup semi-final in 1984/85 and are fancied by many to do at least as well this season – superb news for headline writers who haven’t quite exhausted their list of wine-related puns.

Euro for Euro, Blanc must be one of the most effective coaches in Europe today. As Gabriele Marcotti has noted, his efficient back four cost just £3.8m. As a coach, he has a particular gift for rehab, rebuilding the confidence of Bordeaux’s best player Yoan Gourcuff and Michael Ciani, the central defender who scored two tasty headers in Group A.

Bordeaux’s recent wobble – they have won just two out of five Ligue 1 games since Christmas – may give Olympiacos hope. But the Greeks will have to work hard to deny Gourcuff, Marouane Chamakh, Wendel and Yoan Gouffran – and to stop the French side scoring from set-pieces.

Bordeaux will want to stifle Torosidis. Now 24, the Greek international, who started as a full-back, has played as a winger and now often features in central midfield. Combative, strong, tall and technically accomplished, Torosidis just needs to score a few more goals to become the complete player.

His long-expected move to a bigger league – he has, inevitably, been linked with Manchester City – might be influenced by his form for Greece in South Africa this summer.

It took Olympiacos 32 games to record their first away win in this tournament and their defence has been porous on their travels, shipping 2.12 goals a game. So if Olympiacos are to avoid a Greek tragedy, they need a clear margin of victory and a clean sheet in Piraeus.

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