One of the ugly duckling matchups in the Champions League, not many people are paying attention outside of Spain or Greece because of those bigger, fancier, more glamorous encounters between old foes, the kinds of games that wet the trousers of any tabloid journalist.
And yet, this might turn out to be one of the more entertaining pairings, simply because neither team has anything to lose.
You see, while the high-profile managers at Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter, Manchester United, etc are worried about their title races, these two teams are unfettered of that concern. The Greek League was wrapped up weeks ago, and La Liga isn’t about to be threatened by a force existing outside of Barca or the capital.
And such, when you’re unburdened by other concerns, or the crushing pressure to deliver in the marquee game, these two can simply kick the s**t out of one another for 180 minutes and see what happens.
Case in point: Atletico and Porto. There’s precious little else to worry about away from the Champions League, and so, they give us a reasonable 2-2 draw and an overwhelming sense that they’re not playing for the trite, tense 1-0 aggregate win. Not having a league trophy to dream about certainly helps. (When was the last time Portugal was competitive, anyway?)
Villareal are in decent form, holding down 4th place in La Liga, as far off the pace as anyone around them. They loaned off Jozy Altidore, and make do with the strike pairing of Nihat, the flair-less Turk, and Italian/US Giuseppe Rossi. They’ve been sleepwalking as of late, narrowly beating relegation-threatened Sporting Gijon and Numancia while drawing to two other minnows, Osasuna and Racing, and getting walloped by Deportivo. Hardly the stuff of legend, really. Their midfield is solid, if aging, with the spritely Santi Cazorla perking up the 30-somethings around him.
In the Greek league, Pana have won 7 of their last 10, but honestly, how good a barometer is that? Should we rank them highly in our Power Rankings? We all know the Greek league is Pana, Olympiakos, and then nothingness. There’s the added frisson of interest thanks to the ex-Chelsea assistant Hank Ten Cate being at the helm, as well as the resurgence of Spanish defender Jose Sarriegi who has been essential to the Greeks’ qualification for the knockout stages.
Recent form aside, these fixtures yield the kind of shocks and nightmares that keep massive clubs awake at night. To draw a team like Pana or Villa means you’re fighting an enemy that’s not afraid to die, and yet you still need to do the killing.
When they face each other? Shit, we might get one of those freakish 4-3 results that Bayern and Lyon provided in the final round of the group stage.
With precious little knowledge of either team, I’m picking the Greeks to get it done, as they’re the darkest of the dark horses left in the competition.
2-1 Pana at home, 1-1 in Spain.