The spotters guide to the first knockout round

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Oh frabjous day! Callou, callay, the UEFA Champions League is back. As you’ll read match previews aplenty, here is my Q&A guide to the action. And don’t worry – there are no more spurious Lewis Carroll references.

Should Inter play for 0-0?

If you kick off a knockout tie at home, 0-0 isn’t bad. That’s how Jean Tigana’s Monaco stunned Manchester United in the quarter-finals in 1997/98. After a scoreless draw in Monaco, Tigana told his depressed players the odds had shifted in their favour. And so it proved: they drew 1-1 at Old Trafford to go through.

Mourinho may be tempted to ape Tigana. A cautious formation, which plays for 0-0 in the hope that Ibrahimovic or Adriano can magic up a goal, would suit Inter. But you can never tell with Jose, he may want to be more forceful to exploit United’s inexperience in central defence.

Monaco send United packing in '98

Can two of Europe’s most prolific goalscorers get off the mark?

Top scorer in the 2007/08 Champions League, Cristiano Ronaldo’s haul so far in the 2008/09 competition is zero, zip, nada etc.

Some say CR7 is discombobulated by his non-move to Real and Berbatov’s arrival. But he usually scores most goals after Christmas and, the stats suggest, remains on course for 32 in all competitions.

Fernando Torres hasn’t scored in five Champions League games. In the Premier League, Torres averages 0.68 goals a game compared to 0.37 in the Champions League.

CR7’s averages are 0.42 (Premier League) and 0.25 (Europe). Those stats don’t do Ronaldo justice: in the last three seasons, his league average is 0.66 and in Europe 0.46. Remarkable stats for an attacking midfielder/winger.

Who defends for Barcelona?

Barca kept just one clean sheet in their group. Against Basle.

Barca fans haven’t warmed to Pep Guardiola’s preferred central pairing, Rafael Marquez and Gerard Pique. Marquez’s form has fluctuated – strong in 2005/06, dodgy in 2006/07, good in the first half of 2007/08, injured (or out of form) for the second – but he is a capable reader of the game, good in the air and a useful cross-field passer.

With Abidal injured, Puyol may stand in as full-back, although fans would prefer Sylvinho at left-back and Puyol reunited with Marquez in the middle.

Can Maxi Rodriguez top this?

Atleti are in indifferent form – even under new coach Abel Resino – so if the mattress makers are to beat Porto it would help if their skipper did something like this. Atleti’s home record in this tournament is P26, W19, D4, L3 so the game at the Vicente Calderon may prove key.

Will Lyon get an early goal?

2-0 is the ideal, attainable score for Claude Puel’s men. So Barca should expect an opening onslaught at the Stade Gerland.

Last time Guardiola and Puel met they were opposing midfielders. Guardiola had the better of it, pulling the strings in the 1993/94 Champions League as Barca beat Puel’s Monaco 2-0 at home and 1-0 away.

Puel’s best hope of avoiding a similar whitewash is to trust the attacking genius of Karim Benzema – who has averaged 0.7 goals a game in the Champions League – and Juninho’s free-kicks. Benzema and Frank Lampard were the only players to score against Manchester United in the knockout stages last season.

Juninho & Benzema: Lyon's best (and only?) hope

Will Joao Moutinho score?

The Sporting midfielder has been “the new Rui Costa” for so long it’s easy to forget he’s only 22.

He can look like a match-winner or a passenger but, at his best, he is brave, technically accomplished, creative and disciplined. If Moutinho is to become Rui Costa 2.0, he needs to score more goals: 1 in 33 Champions League matches isn’t enough for a player of his quality.

Sporting have played 14 games against German teams. And won none. But Bayern have lost three out of their last four, their keeper Michael Rensing says his defenders “get on my nerves” and Luca Toni is injured. Sporting have only one world class attacker, Liedson, but they could frustrate Bayern.

How many free-kicks will Chelsea concede near their box?

Not many if they heed Guus Hiddink’s instructions. Alessandro Del Piero has already scored six from free-kicks this season, including a glorious 40-yard strike against Zenit.

If the Juventus skipper does take one – and Sebastiano Giovinco is playing – watch out for Giovinco’s position. He usually stands directly behind Del Piero so he can pick up a few tips.

Del Piero: Deadly with a dead ball this season

Will Arjen Robben smirk as he flies past a Liverpool full-back?

Billed as a clash of icons: Raul vs Gerrard. Yet anyone who watched Robben’s wonder goal against Villarreal will know that the 25-year-old Dutch master, who has that rare ability to cut a swathe through hapless defences while looking annoyingly supercilious, could be the key to unlocking Liverpool.

The Reds only kept one clean sheet in Group D – against Marseille at Anfield. The media usually blames Rafa Benitez’s insistence on zonal marking but only one of the five goals shipped in Group D was from a set-piece: PSV scored from a corner in a 3-1 defeat by Liverpool.

How badly will Pana miss Loukas Vyntra?

Nearly 28, Vyntra has matured into a pacy, versatile defender who has been an indispensable, ever present for Panathinaikos in Europe in 2008/09.

A bruised left leg has sidelined him for the trip to Spain. After beating Inter and Werder Bremen, Pana seem confident of sinking Villarreal’s Yellow Submarine, but will Joseba Llorente and Giuseppe Rossi exploit Vyntra’s absence?

Villarreal’s creative anchor man, Marcos Senna, needs to show the authority, consistency and discipline he displayed at Euro 2008. His team have kept just two clean sheets in 23 games.

Will Philippe Mexes get the recognition he deserves?

Against Siena at the weekend, a shocked hush fell over the Stadio Olimpico as Philippe Mexes fell badly. Luckily for Roma, he recovered to initiate several great moves as Luciano Spalletti’s men won 2-1.

At 26, Mexes is coming into his prime. Once renowned for charging up midfield and leaving gaps for opponents to attack, he has learned to time such forays and is, in many ways, the epitome of the modern central defender: good at winning the ball and making use of it.

Touted as the new Alessandro Nesta, he says that, like his skipper Francesco Totti, he wants to end his career in Rome. If he can quieten Robin van Persie, Roma could progress.

Mexes: Roma's rock that Gunners must destroy

What do Arsenal need to turn their season around?

If Arsenal are to win the silverware that will keep the likes of Van Persie, Adebayor and Fabregas at the Emirates, they need to win the Champions League or come at least fourth in the Premier League.

The average points tally of fourth-placed teams in the last five seasons is 66.4. Arsenal have 45 from 26, so to be reasonably sure they need 22-25 points from 12 games.

If we assume Aston Villa struggle, Arsenal could requalify with 67 points. But they’d need to pick up two more points in their last dozen games than they did last season.

The easiest way for Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League may be to surprise everybody and win it.

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