With J Hutcherson -- Want a quick lesson in soccer punditry when it comes to the relative wonder of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 home and away series? Posit that the away team might not want to press the attack while looking for that one golden opportunity on the counter. In other words, the blatantly obvious.
Last year's round of 16 brought us exactly one away team getting the win in the first leg, and that was Barcelona beating Celtic. Three draws, and the rest of the games playing to script. The home team wins, hopefully by enough to make the second leg less of an issue. Four first-leg winners last time around, and all advanced to the quarterfinals.
2006-07 gifted us with four first leg ties and no team winning by more than a goal. Barcelona was on the wrong side of the away win that year, with Liverpool beating them only to lose the home leg and advance on away goals.
It's fairly clear why we don't normally get the first leg drama. Even at the round of 16 stage, there's a quality gap in too many of the match-ups. There aren't 16 teams in Europe that can turn around an away loss in the first leg, much less losing the opener at home. That simply takes more than most of these teams have to offer, especially the ones following the safety script.
Even in the matchups where the away team has the advantage, it's simply not worth it to take that risk. Calculate all you want, but no manager at this level is going to unleash free-flowing football when there's even the chance his club wins on style points but loses the game.
Fortunately, things change in the quarterfinals.
Meanwhile, we've got our own Champions League in prime time tonight on Fox Soccer Channel. Houston gets the first meaningful game of 2009 for Major League Soccer, and it starts tonight in Houston in a home and home semifinal against Mexico's Atlante.
As scouting jobs go, it shouldn't get much easier than a team that's on US television most weeks. Atlante are currently bottom of Clausura group 1, dropping four out of seven games with all of one win since the MFL season started. Their goal differential isn't as bad as their record might suggest, and their losses normally don't come at home.
For Houston, this means not only winning, but by a couple of goals later tonight. Atlante has already lost enough away games to know they can keep it close and have a shot at home. Houston needs to show they can score.
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