UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Preview – Part One
As Europe’s elite football competition returns, the excitement and intrigue grows. Cameron Wanstall gives the run down on the eight teams kicking off their knockout campaign this week.
The Champions League knockouts are back. Sixteen teams now have a bona fide chance of lifting the European Cup. The contenders are a healthy mix of emerging challengers, floundering heavyweights and thrilling underdogs, all eager to take home the world’s most prestigious club honour.
Part One of this preview will cover the first four ties coming up this week. Let us start with the most glamorous tie of the round…
Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain
A game that deserves an audience. The last meeting between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain has become a part of Champions League legend. Trailing four goals from the first leg, Barça produced the greatest second leg comeback in world football history, with Neymar running the show as a 6-1 annihilation blew Unai Emery’s shellshocked Parisiens out the competition. The past is the past however and Blaugrana have fallen in stature and quality since that historic night.
This competition is Barcelona’s best chance of winning a trophy this season. The Catalan outfit were defeated in the Supercopa de España final by Athletic Club, are 2-0 down in the Copa del Rey semi-final to Sevilla and are trailing a Luis Suarez-inspired Atlético Madrid by eight points in La Liga. As the team starts to find form on the pitch, matters off it are not getting any better. In the midst of a chaotic change in presidency, the details of Lionel Messi’s current money-laden contract were controversially leaked to the press. Shortly after, a war of words between Barça and PSG — over the French champions’ public pursuit of Messi — dominated the headlines. The 33-year-old, who reached over 650 goals for Barça last month, is still the focal point of this team and has 25 goal contributions in 28 appearances this season. Despite his own self-confidence, the Argentine will fear a third (arguably fifth) consecutive embarrassing knock out in the Champions League. With Ansu Fati and Philippe Coutinho sidelined, Messi will be hoping Antione Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, who have both impressed since the turn of the year, can carry some of the burden usually reserved for his shoulders alone.
Head coach Ronald Koeman will be more concerned with his defence. The 57-year-old is already under pressure from Los Culés in his first season at Camp Nou. Injuries to key defenders Gerard Pique, Ronald Araujo and Sergio Roberto are yet more obstacles for the former Holland boss to overcome. The absences will force a shake-up in an already unsteady back line. De Jong started at centre-back in Saturday’s 5-1 trouncing of Deportivo Alaves. Keeping the Dutchman at the back with Clement Lenglet may be the safest option, with Samuel Umtiti failing to impress recently. Junior Firpo and Oscar Mingueza will hope their solid performances can keep Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest on the bench for Tuesday’s tie. Koeman is confident Barça will not suffer their earliest Champions League exit in fourteen years, he said: “We are in a good moment and we have a good winning streak. We are confident we can win.” The injury news coming out of the French capital will only boost Koeman’s confidence that bit more.
Neymar switched Barcelona for Paris just five months after his heroics in Barça’s 6-1 rout of PSG. It is a move that has not gone entirely to plan. He has been consistently outshone by the phenomenal Kylian Mbappé, he has struggled to stay fit and he is still yet to win the Champions League with the Parisiens. This reunion was an opportunity to prove his doubters wrong, but with the Brazilian out for up to four weeks, that chance is gone. Mauricio Pochettino must now rely on only three hundred million Euros worth of talent to win this clash. Mauro Icardi has started to lead the forward line effectively as a number nine, with Angel Di Maria, Mbappé and Neymar in behind when available. Di Maria and Neymar are ruled out, meaning a strong Mbappé performance is essential. With his bursting runs, clinical finishing and fantastic assist record, expectations of him will rise in the absence of two of his attacking partners. Julian Draxler and Moise Kean could potentially line up beside the World Cup winner as they did on Saturday – both impressing against Nice. Draxler opened the scoring before Kean nodded in a winning goal with minutes to spare.
Since Pochettino’s arrival in January, PSG rely on onrushing forwards that tear through high defensive lines and marauding wing-backs that bombard opposition penalty areas with low crosses to win games. When Pochettino’s side get going, it would be easy to assume the 4-2-3-1 they start with has turned into a 2-2-6, given how offensive the wing-backs become. The former Tottenham manager must keep an eye on his complacent centre-backs, however. Marquinhos was at fault for Nice’s equaliser on Saturday. His careless crossfield pass across his own penalty box only reached Rony Lopes, who skipped past Presnel Kimpembe and lashed the ball past a helpless Keylor Navas. Furthermore, Nice’s forwards found it far too easy to let shots off from the edge of the box — an area Messi frequently hits the target from (as he did gloriously on Saturday) — and as the game wore on, PSG’s advanced wing-backs left the defence massively exposed. We will have to see if Pochettino implements such a risky, open tactic in Europe.
RB Leipzig vs Liverpool
RB Leipzig take on Premier League holders Liverpool on Tuesday night. This will be the first time the two clubs have ever played one another and they will do so from a neutral venue. The Puskás Aréna, the 67,000-seater dome occupied by the Hungarian national team, will host the first leg due to Germany’s strict travel restrictions. Leipzig’s impressive home record (nine wins, one draw, one defeat) is invalid now.
The ‘home’ side have enjoyed a strong campaign so far. Julian Nagelsmann’s Red Bulls are the closest challengers to Bayern Munich in the Bundeliga, are current favourites to win the DFB-Pokal and, excluding a 5-0 demolition at the mercy of Manchester United, were impressive in the Champions League group stage. Morale may take a knock following Friday’s victory over Augsburg, as it was confirmed that defender Dayot Upamecano will join league rival Bayern in the summer. To counter this frustrating news, Leipzig announced the permanent acquisition of Manchester City loanee Angeliño for €16.3 million. The in-form wing-back has been an integral cog in Leipzig’s machine this season. The Spaniard has played more minutes than any other Leipzig outfielder, as well as grabbing an incredible eight goals and nine assists from the left wing.
Angeliño’s attacking output has helped Leipzig fill the void left by Timo Werner after his summer switch to Chelsea, but it is commanding striker Yussuf Poulsen who leads the line, finding the net on nine occasions in all competitions this term. Alexander Sørloth (Crystal Palace flop, Trabzonspor goal machine) and Hwang Hee-Chan (who tormented Liverpool for Red Bull Salzburg last season at Anfield) have both failed to effectively partner Poulsen, forcing Christopher Nkunku to often slot in up front. Wonderkid Dani Olmo and captain Marcel Sabitzer have impressed together in midfield ahead of holding anchor Kevin Kampl. Even with Emil Forsberg and Dominik Szoboszlai set to miss the first leg, there are no real weaknesses in this exciting side to pick away at. The same cannot be said of their opponent.
Liverpool. What a mess. The Champions League is now Liverpool’s only chance to win silverware this season. Jürgen Klopp has already ruled out a Premier League title push: “I have to say we want to be champions, and of course we do, but… we need performances for it and we don’t have that.” The immense injury crisis in Merseyside is at its peak with Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Ben Davies, Fabinho, Naby Keita, James Milner, Diogo Jota and Divock Origi all expected to miss out. One player Klopp has always been able to rely on is Alisson, but even the Brazilian shot-stopper has become increasingly complacent. Five monumental mistakes in recent defeats to Leicester City and Manchester City led to four goals conceded. His complacency further unsettles a makeshift centre-back pairing ahead of him, which for this tie will likely feature captain Jordan Henderson alongside new recruit Ozan Kabak (who struggled against Leicester), Nat Phillips or Rhys Williams.
Klopp, stumped on how to improve his stopgap back line and dispirited goalkeeper, will be relying on his trusted trio up top to outscore a formidable Leipzig team smelling blood. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino must all improve in Hungary. Suffering from a drop in morale and struggling without the fantastic creative outlets in midfield they have benefitted from in seasons past, the fearsome front three have been underwhelming this season. Perhaps a testament to the high expectations placed on Salah, the Egyptian has scored just ten non-penalty goals this season, Mane has struggled for fitness and Firmino has just three goal contributions in his last ten league games. This is a Liverpool side struggling in every department coming up against a well-oiled machine in the form of Nagelsmann’s Leipzig. However, Liverpool are European royalty, they thrive on this pressure. Leipzig are still yet to win a major honour in their short history, could the Champions League be their first? They’ll need to see off the mighty Reds first.
Sevilla vs Borussia Dortmund
Sevilla welcome Borussia Dortmund to Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán on Wednesday night. Following their Europa League triumph in August, Julen Lopetegui’s men are now sitting inside the top four in La Liga (losing just twice in their last fifteen games — to Madrid pair Atléti and Real) and eased through a Champions League group involving Chelsea, Krasnodar and Rennes. There are so many interesting players plying their trade in Andalusia. There is veteran captain Jesús Navas, former Barça midfielder Ivan Rakitić and January signing Papu Gómez, formerly of Atalanta. But praise must be reserved for a select trio of Sevilla starters who are going under the radar.
Spearheading the attack is Youssef En-Nesyri. The Moroccan international is not expected to create for others, his exceptional defensive work makes up for that. Instead, he just scores a lot. The striker grabbed four goals in the group stages, and his thirteen strikes in La Liga have him joint-second with Lionel Messi in the scoring charts. Holding up the midfield is Fernando. The 33-year-old is one of Europe’s most underrated ball-winners, both from dribbling opponents and from pass interceptions, and with his superb reading of the game, the Brazilian can spray passes to start attacking transitions. Lastly, Jules Koundé — who is perhaps not going under the radar anymore as he has been linked with Manchester United and Real Madrid. Comparisons with Sergio Ramos have been made and they are understandable. The two share similar qualities, and there are not many defenders in Europe who are simultaneously as adventurous and assured as the 22-year-old.
The visiting side, with their even more exciting squad, have sadly disappointed this season. Interim manager Edin Terzíc has failed to take Dortmund out of the slump that led to the sacking of Lucien Favre in December. Die Borussen may have topped their Champions League group but domestically, a shameful run of just one win in six league games leaves the strugglers outside the top four. One positive for Terzíc is that his team have not forgotten how to find the net. Dortmund have scored in every game this season, excluding a freak blank against Augsburg. Erling Haaland has still put up outrageous numbers (1.31 goals or assists per 90), Raphael Guerreiro has kept his post-lockdown form from last season and even the unsettled Jadon Sancho has shown glimpses of his past self. The issues are at the back.
This team leaks goals. Dortmund, famous for their ‘heavy metal’ football put in place by Jürgen Klopp, have struggled with their defence for a while now. Favre did manage to regularly keep clean sheets, but when his side did concede, the floodgates would open, most damningly against lesser opposition. Favre’s final game — a 5-1 thumping at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt — is proof of this. Terzíc decided his predecessor’s back three had no use anymore and switched to a back four that always features Mats Hummels and Guerreiro alongside Thomas Meunier and Manuel Akanji when the latter two are available. The players are quality, but incredibly naive. No matter how many times they concede a type of goal, it happens again. They struggle with set-pieces, they lose the ball playing out from the back, they defend too narrowly, and most frustratingly of all for a side that can play such beautiful counter-attacking football, they can be horrendous at defending opposition breakaways. Thankfully for Dortmund, their Spanish counterpart are not the type of side to prey on complacent ball-playing defenders, enjoy getting in behind opposition defences and use wingers to stretch narrow back lines… right?
Porto vs Juventus
Wednesday’s other fixture is between two clubs who have both lifted the European Cup on two occasions each. Tactically, Porto are simple. They line up as a good and proper, old-fashioned, Mike Bassett ‘four-four-fucking-two’. Sergio Conceição’s flat 4-4-2 gets the best out of strike partners Mehdi Taremi and Moussa Marega, allowing Sérgio Oliveira and Jesús Corona to express themselves from midfield. A back four of right-back Wilson Manafá, former Newcastle United defender Chancel Mbemba, captain (and general sociopath) Pepe, and loanee wing-back Malang Sarr is the go-to for Conceição and has been a relative success for both defence and attack, despite the club’s league position.
Much like Barcelona, Dortmund and Liverpool, both Porto and Juventus have struggled domestically this season. Porto are falling behind Sporting CP in the Primeira Liga at an alarming rate following two draws and a loss in their previous three league fixtures. The 2019/20 Portuguese champions were solid, if unspectacular, in the Champions League group stages at least. Crisis-hit Marseille and lacklustre Olympiacos were both disposed of home and away, while a point against Manchester City thanks to a 0-0 home draw — which Porto finished with 33% possession and an xG of 0.1 — gave the Dragões a respectable thirteen points from eighteen.
Meanwhile, Juventus trail both San Siro occupants in the league after struggling to adapt to life under inexperienced manager Andrea Pirlo. The 41-year-old former midfield maestro certainly has not failed in his first season as a manager, even if a tenth consecutive Serie A title eludes Juve — those avoidable early season draws to Crotone and Hellas Verona must still sting. The novice would have been thrilled when he watched the group stage draw in October, with a floundering Barcelona, as well as eastern European lightweights Dynamo Kyiv and Ferencvaros the only teams standing in their way to the knockout rounds. The Old Lady topped the group with fifteen points. Pirlo has already won the Supercoppa Italiana in January, he is a game away from his first major honour with a Coppa Italia final against Atalanta set for May, and he will be expecting himself to be able to guide his team past Porto.
Pirlo will be counting on his team keeping up their solid defensive record. Like Conceição, the Italian often sets up with a 4-4-2 formation, but often changes his tactic when in possession of the ball and attacking the opponent. This is typically a fluid variation of a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3. Danilo is a mainstay at full-back with Alex Sandro ordinarily deployed on the opposite flank. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are the most experienced centre-back pairing available, but are rotated frequently with Matthijs de Ligt and Merih Demiral. Pirlo has a plethora of midfielders at his disposal and rotates accordingly, with Federico Chiesa and Rodrigo Bentancur standing out amongst the others. The two forwards are Alvaro Morata and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both men, who have thirty-six goals between them in all competitions, are heavily relied upon. Any hope of Juventus winning, or even going far, in this competition rests on their shoulders. Perhaps one more than the other.