Villareal v Panathinaikos
First Leg: Estadio El Madrigal, Wednesday, February 25 2009.
Second Leg: Olympic Stadium, Tuesday, March 10 2009.
Every year, there’s one team in the Round of 16 that everyone wants to play. Last year, it was Celtic. The year before it was Lille. This year, it’s Panathinaikos. Real Madrid actually admitted that they were openly rooting for a date with the Greek champions, hoping to use them as a way of righting the ship at the Bernabeu. No one else admitted as much, but I’m sure the boardrooms at Chelsea, Arsenal, and Atletico Madrid were more than a little sad when they found out they weren’t going to be traveling to Athens.
As insulting as that sentiment may be for Panathinaikos, it’s hard not see the validity of it. After all, Panathinaikos are not playing well this year. With two-thirds of the Greek season in the book, they’re 12 points behind rivals Olympiakos for the League crown. Despite finishing first in their group, they hardly looked good during their Champions League campaign in the fall. They took only one point in the first three matches in the group phase, including a 3-1 humiliation at the hands of Anorthosis Famagusta.
They went on a tear in the reverse fixtures, winning all three matches, including a 1-0 victory at the Giuseppe Meazza. They didn’t a concede a single goal during the reverse fixtures, either. Manager Henk Ten Cate has plenty of European experience, after cracking the whip as an assistant at Barcelona and Chelsea. Midfielder Gilberto Silva is well known to anyone who followed the Premiership, and they have a couple of Greek internationals who were on the Euro 2004 winning squad.
Are you sure you want to face this team?
Villarreal will step up to the challenge, and many people think that they could go far in the Champions League. They have been extremely erratic this season, and are well off the pace in La Liga. Even more humiliating was their Copa del Rey campaign, where they were beaten 6-1 on aggregate by third-division squad Club Polideportivo Ejido. Their European form has been good, though, as they held Manchester United to two scoreless draws and thrashed Aalborg by a score of 6-3. Their best player has been former United striker Giuseppe Rossi, who is seventh in La Liga with 11 goals. They also have Joseph Llorente, who has added 7 goals to complement Rossi, and a couple of European veterans in Robert Pires and Marcos Senna.
This will be Villarreal’s only chance at silverware this season, so you can expect them to go all out. If they defend the way they did against United, then they can hang with anyone. Panathinaikos could give them a run for their money, especially if they play like they did in the second half of the group stage. Don’t count either side out just yet.
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