• Tom Abadie

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE R16 PREVIEW: Man Utd vs Atletico, Lille vs Chelsea + much more

Updated: Mar 11

The first week of the last 16 brought its own lot of surprises, with an impressive PSG side against Real Madrid, and a struggling Bayern side against Salzburg. However, in the end, there were no big shocks, with both English teams getting wins away in convincing fashion. This new week of last 16 brings its new set of challenges, with far more equal games in this week’s fixtures. Therefore, expect the unexpected.

Chelsea vs Lille

The French league champion against the European champion. Previously, that would have been last Tuesday’s game, between PSG and Real Madrid. However, tables have turned, Lille overcame the Qatari dominance on the local league, while Chelsea continue the tradition of changing champions since the Spanish won their 13th title in 2018. Winning their second Champions League in Porto last season was the pinnacle of Tuchel’s first year in charge of the Londoners. Meanwhile Christophe Galtier’s title drew attention from the INEOS group, led by Bob Radcliffe, who now owns OGC Nice in the South of France. While the tie seemed clearly won on paper when it was drawn (twice) in the spectacularly chaotic draw back in December, a lot has happened since.

Chelsea on the first hand have been inconsistent to say the least. Seemingly unbeatable back in late Spring, the arrival of Lukaku and multiple injuries to Kanté have disrupted the flow of the Londoners. Less valiant in defence, less efficient up front, Chelsea have had a difficult winter, as showcased by the 3 league wins in 9 games between mid-December and the end of January. These games include losses to Manchester City and draws to Wolverhampton or Brighton. The level has dropped, the flow is not the same and the general power of the team simply is not there anymore. They do not scare opposition as they used to. Now yes, they have recently won the Club World Cup and not having Edouard Mendy (AFCON duty) couldn’t have helped, but everything isn’t perfect as it used to be. They will need to show a little more enthusiasm in their football to go further in the competition.

Lille on the other hand is far less black and white. When drawing Chelsea, they had the longest streak of games without a loss, ending at 16. From that aspect, they were one of the most consistent sides in Europe, let alone France. Jonathan David continued scoring, while the other two Jonathans (Bamba and Ikoné) kept on assisting him. While the latter has now left for Florence, there is still strength in this team. That being said, the last few weeks have been uninspiring. A big loss to Paris can happen, but the loss to Montpellier and the extremely boring draw against Metz at the weekend are scary for Les Dogues. So much so that the sporting director and president were involved in a scrap with Metz manager Antonetti, when trying to influence refereeing decisions late into the game. They have talented players no doubt about it, but while their 1st spot in their Champions League group was impressive, there is a worry that they will combust at Stamford Bridge. They will fight to stay in the game and bring back a tie that is still open when they play in the North of France in three weeks. It is however not expected to happen.

Prediction: Chelsea win 4-1 on aggregate

Villareal vs Juventus

Two outsiders coming up against each other, this is certainly not the only game in this situation. Both Juventus and Villareal are not high flyers in their leagues. Yet, Juventus topped a group with Chelsea and Zenith, while Villareal won the Europa League just 8 months ago and finished ahead of Atalanta and Young Boys Bern in their Champions League group. They are therefore not to be understated. While on paper it might not seem like the most exciting, it might also be one of the most balanced games amongst the Last 16 ties.

Villareal is led by Mr. Europa League, Unai Emery. Mr. 1-1. Mr. Good ebening, whatever you want to call him. He might be mocked for his English accent, but Emery is certainly one of the most successful managers in the last decade of European club football, winning the Europa League multiple times, with Sevilla first then Villareal, which is quite a feat seeing the size of the latter club. He has a very interesting squad and knows how to organise a team in order to squeeze out a result. While it is rarely the most exciting football and the reputation of always getting low scoring draws is somewhat verified, there is definitely an argument to say Emery is one of the hardest managers to face, particularly with Spanish sides. He can rely on confirmed players who excelled in last year’s European journey, such as goalkeeper Rulli, defender Mandi, midfielder Parejo and the star forward, Gerard Moreno. He will also be able to count on promising youngsters such as Pau Torres at the back and Dutch winger Danjuma, hattrick hero this weekend. A tricky team to get around and a collection of forwards difficult to contain, there are no easy games against the yellow submarine.

On the other side, Juventus have drastically improved since their difficult start of the season. Trailing far beyond even the Europa League spots in October, Allegri turned things around in the winter. The arrivals of Zakaria but especially new star striker, Vlahovic, have certainly helped with that. The Serbian striker has been an instant impact on the team, not only being much more clinical than other strikers around him, but also helping them improve. Taking the responsibility of scoring off Morata's shoulders has been a great help to the Spanish striker. They are now back in the Champions League slots, surpassing Atalanta after a disappointing weekend for the Italian top 6, when none of the teams were able to win. The team has found a rhythm, a groove, but it does continue to concede many chances, and were lucky to get a point off Atalanta last week after being dominated most of the game. Many injuries, particularly Chiesa, have led to the Italians to concede 3 draws in the last 4 games. So even with an improved confidence, it is not quite what they hoped for at this point in the season. A tricky game to predict, which could be very cagey.

Predictions: 2-1 to Juventus after two legs.

Atletico Madrid vs Manchester United

When drawn, this tie seemed poised for an absolute disaster. Both teams were extremely poor in the league and many arguments can be put forward to say that is still the case. Yet, there have been some promising signs with both sides winning this weekend. Does that solve all the issues? Certainly not and this is what makes this game interesting (although maybe less ‘exciting’ as some could be).

Atletico on the one hand seem to have come to the end of a cycle. A very long cycle yes, but it seems the Cholismo (era of Cholo Simeone) has come to its closing stages. The defensive solidity is not there anymore, and the attacking threat has dissipated over the years. Sure, they somehow qualified in a difficult Champions League group with Liverpool, Porto and AC Milan, but their recent game against Barcelona showed just how far they are from the old Atletico, multiple finalists of this competition and twice winner of the Europa League in the last decade. Oblak has statistically become one of the worst shot stoppers in Europe, while Savic and Gimenez have fallen off their pedestals in recent months. Their leaky defence was unable to contain Adama Traoré in that game in Catalonia, and this has been the case many times this season. Only a few months after winning the Spanish league, this team is unrecognisable. Their confidence is low, but it is certainly not much lower than United’s confidence.

While the Red Devils won this weekend in one of England’s biggest historical clashes against Leeds, many parts of the game showed exactly where United have been faulty this season. They led 2-0 going into the break, before Leeds scored twice in 2 minutes early in the second half. Just like Burnley, Middlesbrough or Southampton, an early opener was not enough to win the game, worse it led to an elimination in the cup against the Championship side. Their lack of cohesion, attacking threat and defensive organisation has been incredibly visible in the latter weeks. Rangnick’s tactics are outdated, his management is poor and it feels the team does not believe in him, only a few months after he replaced Solskjaer. Yet, late into the Leeds game, we saw sparks of the great attacking Manchester, capable of using its individualities to overturn a result. Sancho has been in fine form recently, finally showing his worth. So this game could be a statement to future opponents, making a mark on their season finally after a few disappointing months. And Atletico, just like anyone else, knows exactly the threat Ronaldo can bring in a Champions League game. Particularly against his old local Madrid rivals…

Predictions: 3-2 to Manchester United after two games.

Benfica vs Ajax Amsterdam

Another game of outsiders, another exciting one. On one side, we have a Portuguese giant that is struggling this year to get anywhere near the other two giants of the country. On the other, we have Eredivisie leaders and one of the most exciting teams of the group stages of the competition. On paper, it seems very unbalanced, but with both clubs from nations outside the traditional “Big 5” leagues in European football, usually there is little knowledge about them and could be discredited as one of the least interesting games of this round. Here is why it is worth your time.

Benfica were one of the surprises of the first round, beating Barcelona 3-0 and subsequently kicking them out of the competition, no easy feat for any European club. Yet, they came out with flying colours and represented Portugal internationally. While Porto did not make it through, the two Lisbon clubs did. Following the 5-0 defeat of Sporting against Manchester City, the rivals will be hoping to do better than that. Their league form however does not promise much, currently standing 12 points off top of the table Porto. They fired (again) their manager Jorge Jesus in autumn, being replaced by ex-youngster of the club Verissimo. They’ve scored in all their home games since October but their results have been a little inconsistent to say the least. Many injuries will have to be supplied by the talent of Yaremchuk and much coveted Darwin Nuñez.

Ajax on the other hand have been extremely exciting this year. Ten Haag has guided a team towards glory, just like he did in 2019. The team has changed a lot, but it is in no way less talented. It has changed for sure, the manager has adapted his tactics and introduced new players. These include Dutch youngsters Timber (possibly injured for the first leg) and Gravenberch, who have shone brightly this season, but you can also include Martinez, Anthony and Alverez to represent the South American clan in Amsterdam. The main stars are evidently Dusan Tadic and Sebastien Haller, the latter scoring the most goals in the group stage in his first season in the competition. Inverted wingbacks, pace, movement and vertical play are some of the key concepts Ten Haag pushes in his game, and it is certainly very exciting. They have managed to make a bit of space with PSV in the league title race, enabling them to somewhat focus their attention on continental matches in upcoming weeks. They are a team to look out for and seeing how 2019 went, they certainly cannot be underestimated.

Prediction: 4-2 for Ajax after 2 games