CHAMPIONS LEAGUE LAST 16 PREVIEW: WEEK ONE
With the return of the Champions League comes the return of top European jousts. Gladiators of the continental game come to the fists, punching their way to victory and to an eventual quarter final qualification.
Some games are indecisive, with top teams competing for a place in the last 8 teams of the competition.
Others seem more obvious but undoubtedly would also be the most exciting upsets if anything were to happen to the top sides against these smaller teams.
We all know that at this stage of this competition, there are no small teams so expect the unexpected.
So for this first week, let’s look at the first four fixtures in this season's Champions League last 16.
Paris Saint-Germain vs Real Madrid
Most likely the biggest game of this round, with two top sides who are respectively top of their leagues. Star studded teams, youth and experience mixing perfectly for an explosive tie. However, with both teams showing real difficulties in certain areas this season, it is a very undecided tie.
PSG on the one hand has been pretty bad to watch since the start of the season, but there certainly have been improvements in their way of playing. Results wise, they were kicked out in the cup on penalties against Nice, but are still high flying in the league. Many argue this is one of the worst PSG teams since the Qatari took over, taking into account the incredible team they have, that is pretty poor. Neymar has not fully returned to competition but could feature in the second leg. Messi has not fully integrated, much like the other summer signings. Gigi Donnaruma has been pretty good, Hakimi has settled well, but Ramos and Gini Wijnaldum have barely featured. The star man is evidently Mbappé, without whom they would not be where they are today. This will be a good test for him as he is still undecided between Madrid and Paris and could use this game to once again show the extent of his talent. While many felt that Paris should be the favourites for the win, their lack of a game plan, playing style and cohesion could be detrimental.
Real Madrid were very clear favourites until two weeks ago when Benzema got injured. Now you can argue that great teams can live without their star player, but Benzema is much more than their main goal scorer. He’s the leader in attack and nothing has felt quite the same without him. Scrappy wins are intercut with the loss in the cup to Bilbao after a very poor performance. The star players in midfield are still performing but the lack of cohesion up front is blatant. Benzema is just about back for the first leg, but there is no indication of how fit he is. There is a real worry for squandering chances. That being said, there is a real team around the Frenchman. Not everything is awful, they are solid defensively and efficient up front, much like Ancelotti’s first season in Madrid when he won la decima. They are still amongst the favourites to win the competition. If Benzema is at his best, then it could be a very tough game for Paris. The quality of the Spanish giants’ midfield will overrun what PSG would set up, which in itself lacks clarity.
Prediction: 3-2 win to Real Madrid over two legs.
Sporting Lisbon vs Manchester City
This game, on paper, is amongst if not the most unbalanced tie in the round. That is simply on paper and for those who do not watch much of Sporting. That being said, even if there is a belief that Sporting could create a real upset, there is no doubt that it would be a huge upset.
Sporting Lisbon are with Salzburg one of the sides everyone is saying will most definitely go out. Playing against a giant like Manchester City is certainly no easy feature and they will need two huge performances to overcome this challenge. They have however shown their worth in recent weeks. While being a few points off the top of the league, with Porto leading by 6 points in the Primeira, they did not back down from a challenge against the latter in their latest match in Portugal. They were leading by two goals, coming from very interesting passing football. Beating Porto’s high press, Sporting was able to play out from the back before scoring two great collective goals, including one from on-form striker Paulinho. There is so much talent to look out for in this team, including midfielder Palhinha who is a hot prospect Premier League clubs have looked at. However, their best player and hottest prospect is quite clearly Pedro Goncalves, often referred to as the best player in the league. The wide creator has been superb and is often compared to his predecessor, Bruno Fernandes. He missed out on the Porto game but should be fit to be involved at least in the second leg, and he could prove to be a lot trickier to mark than Manchester City expect.
Manchester City is once again amongst the favourites to win the competition. A star-studded team, an impressive collective force which could beat anyone and a manager who seemingly has learnt from his errors of the past. While they have been amongst the favourites for a few seasons, defeats to Lyon back in Lisbon’s Final 8 of 2020 and last season’s loss in Porto against Chelsea shows there are still cracks in this team. History repeats as they travel to Portugal once again to face their demons and start their way to Saint Petersburg for this year’s final in Russia. This is arguably being picky with this season’s best side in Europe. While losing to Paris in the group stage, their overall performances this season have been extremely impressive. Sterling has reached his peak once again, Cancelo is proving he can become the best wing back in the world while Bernardo Silva is once again essential to Pep Guardiola’s set up. Arguably, the Portuguese players of this squad will be the game changers as they travel back to their native country, with Ruben Dias keeping up last year’s level of performance. They will be a force to reckon with and if they stick to what they know, and stay focussed, they will have a good chance of going through.
Prediction: 4-1 to Manchester City on aggregate
Red Bull Salzburg vs Bayern Munich
Along with the previous game presented, this feels like the other unbalanced ties of this round of Champions League football. On one side, one of the historic giants of German and European football, capable of crushing their league every season and winning twice this competition in the last decade, only narrowly missing out in 2012 at home. On the other side, a newly founded club, who’s been going from stride to stride over the last few years, finally qualified for their first knockout round of this competition. On paper, fully unbalanced. However, Salzburg could really use their arguments in this matchup and hope to at least compete on both legs.
So, what are Salzburg good at? Well, they use their scouting to bring in unknown talent which can truly explode on the international scene. Think back to the newly crowned African Champion, Sadio Mané. Other than the strong recruitment team built by the Red Bull empire, they have talented and tactically astute managers who take all of these players in their stride and take out the maximum from these young talents. The new emerging stars are German forward Karim Adeyemi and midfielders Mohamed Camara and Brenden Aaronson, from Mali and the United States respectively. All three have attracted interest in the latest months, with the American nearly making a move to the Premier League in January. Meanwhile, the pacey Adeyemi truly impressed in the group stages, using his incredible pace to get in behind Sevilla’s and Lille’s defences. His electric running has caught the eye of Dortmund as well as… Bayern Munich. The German giants will fight for the youngster this summer, as Dortmund will look to replace departing Halaand. He will be in the limelight, passing his interview to join Bayern in case that is what he wants. Salzburg will definitely rely on him and their fast and direct attacking football in order to create some havoc, particularly in the back of Bayern’s defence.
Meanwhile, Bayern Munich have been impressive at times but also capable of self-imploding. Borussia Monchengladbach and Vfl Bochum can attest for that, as both teams scored 4+ goals this season. However, there is no doubt when it comes to Bayern’s European form, beating at home Barcelona once again, eliminating the Catalan’s from the competition in the process. With a goal difference of +19 in the group stages, the Germans are clearly on form in Europe going forward. Lewandowski, Gnabry, Sané and Coman have all greatly contributed to that. However, their defence is still leaky, with Süle and Upamecano proving unreliable most times this season. With the pace of Adeyemi, this could be a real issue with Nagglesmann’s team. At their best, they are unplayable and will regularly score 3+ goals, home or away. However, their lapses of concentration at times are fatal, making them lose games they should really be easily cruising through. Against an opposition that are defined by chaos and pace, this could definitely be a tricky one for Bayern. Luckily, their manager managed the Red Bull empire and knows all about these sorts of tactics, which he will definitely be preparing his team for.
Prediction: 5-1 to Bayern Munich on aggregate.
Inter Milan – Liverpool
While many will argue that the PSG game is the most exciting tie of this round, there are strong arguments for this one to be an instant classic. Both teams play exciting and intense football and will certainly be bringing the show.
Inter Milan could have gone truly downhill after the summer. Losing Conte, Lukaku, Hakimi and Eriksen, not many teams would bounce back from that. However, this Inter team isn’t any team, they are the champions of Italy, in an era when Juventus simply won everything. Inzaghi has come to the bench, while Dzeko, Calhanoglu and Dumfries have filled the spots on the pitch, and have all been excellent this year. The Dutch wingback has been truly immense on the right side, the Bosnian firing up goals like he’s done so many times before, while the Turk has brought his class and skill to the other side of Milan after transferring from Inter’s rivals AC. The attacking threat, the intensity and the compact nature of their defence has proven extremely difficult to beat this season. However, the suspension to Barella will be a real issue for the midfield. Arguably one of Italy’s central pieces at the Euros, he was the impersonation of Conte’s playing years last season. After being sent off in the final game of the group stages, he will miss both games against the Reds and it will be hard to replace the Italian midfielder. Gagliardini is certainly not at the same level and when you know how important Liverpool’s midfield is when it comes to controlling games, this will be an issue. You can absolutely expect a lot of determination from the players to surpass that and bring a challenge right to the death of the return leg in Anfield.
Liverpool on the other hand have impressed since the turn of the year. While not having the same destructive nature that City might have in tough games, such as the one they played against Burnley this weekend, the talent is undoubtedly there. Capable of surviving while Mané, Keita and Salah were away for AFCON duties, the Reds are now stronger once the star wingers notably are back in the lineup. The addition of Luis Diaz as an all-rounded forward will be a great help in weeks to come. He will most likely feature at some point in this tie, showing the range of his skillset and talent against the Italian giants. Klopp’s team have been a force to reckon with in the last few years, especially in Europe, reaching two finals successively in 2018 and 2019. With their win on their second try, the European pedigree and experience has grown. They will also look back at games against Atletico and Real Madrid in the past two seasons to see where things went wrong, but they are once again amongst the favourites to win the competition. Expect big things from this team.
Predictions: 4-3 to Liverpool over two legs.