This season’s Champions League group stages had several surprises in store for us. In Group B, Real Madrid lost two games to Shakhtar Donetsk but still advanced at the cost of Inter Milan. In Group C, defending Portuguese champions FC Porto finished second in the group, surprising Marseille and Olympiacos. In-form Manchester United were unable to pass Leipzig and PSG and will instead play in the Europa League.
The first of two legs will start for every team this week, so the Champions League returns to its usual form of being a marathon rather than a sprint. Nonetheless, the tournament will still be very interesting and high-stakes. Here is my analysis of the Round of 16 first legs:
Key Player: Mohamed Salah, Liverpool. Who else? Salah has been in prolific form for Liverpool, scoring 23 goals and grabbing four assists. He also has experience in the Champions League, with 30 goals to his name.
Analysis: This matchup is one that has been highly anticipated since the draw in December. However, both teams were title-contenders in good form during that draw, and that can no longer be said of either. Since the draw, Liverpool have lost five Premier League games including their last three matches to Brighton, Manchester City, and Leicester and been knocked out of the FA Cup. Leipzig have only lost two, but they have been dropping points as league-leaders Bayern are pulling ahead. Leipzig also won’t have home-field advantage because of quarantine rules, so the match will be held in Budapest.
Prediction: This will be a close, defensive match with neither team wanting to give up much in the first leg. Liverpool have not been playing well (especially on defense) but need Champions League success in a season to forget. Leipzig are playing well but will want to sit back and avoid conceding any goals at what is technically a home game. I predict a narrow 1-0 victory for Liverpool.
Key Player: Francisco Trincão. This is a risky choice, considering there’s a decent chance Trincão won’t even play against PSG. However, he should because he could be the difference. He initially struggled after being bought from Braga for a massive fee. However, Trincão has three goals in his last two games for Barcelona including a brace in his first start of the season. Trincão is finally settling in with Barcelona and he’ll show that if he starts against PSG.
Analysis: Barcelona-PSG has become an instant classic thanks to Barca’s dramatic 6-5 aggregate victory in 2017, secured in the 95th minute. Both teams in currently involved in close title races as PSG are second and Barcelona are third in Ligue 1 and La Liga respectively. Barcelona are in the midst of a financial crisis but are enjoying a fine Champions League campaign and are in good form in La Liga. Barcelona also have home field advantage, although that might not make as much of a difference as it usually does.
Prediction: With Neymar injured, PSG dropping ridiculous points (a 3-2 loss to relegation contenders Lorient), and the fact that the game is in Barcelona, things don’t look superb for PSG. I predict Barcelona dominate the first leg and win 3-1.
Key Player: Erling Haaland. Haaland is one of the top strikers on the planet right now, despite an injury and Dortmund’s poor form in the Bundesliga. He has scored 23 goals in 23 games in all competitions and continues to prove himself on all levels.
Analysis: If the season ended today, neither of these teams would be too happy with their positions. Some saw Sevilla as underdogs who could surprisingly win La Liga due to the chaos some of the usual competitors (Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Valencia) faced. Sevilla are currently fourth. Meanwhile, Dortmund were many people’s favorites to win the Bundesliga but find themselves currently in 6th, outside of a European competition spot.
Prediction: Dortmund score freely but also concede freely. This will show in a 3-3 draw in Seville.
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite his age (36!), Ronaldo continues to have another fine season. In all competitions, he has scored 23 goals and gotten four assists despite missing four games this season due to coronavirus.
Analysis: Two teams on opposite ends of the spectrum. Juventus have the best defense in Serie A, conceding just 19 goals. However, offensively they have scored only the sixth most goals in Italy. Porto, on the other hand, have scored the most goals in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, but seven other teams have conceded fewer goals.
Prediction: Porto will want to avoid conceding any goals at home, but Juventus will really want those away goals. Porto will sit back for most of the match, but their faulty defense will let them down once more as they lose 2-0.
Key Player: Edouard Mendy. There may be many players in this match that are better. Heck, Mendy isn’t even the best goalkeeper in this match. However, Mendy has been a massive improvement over the tragedy that is Kepa Arrizabalaga. Having a competent goalkeeper between the sticks gives Chelsea a chance.
Analysis: Again, two teams that are completely different. Chelsea had a massive offseason, spending €247 million on various underperforming players. Ultimately the lack of success combined with the poor transfers cost Blues coach Frank Lampard his job, and since then new coach Thomas Tuchel has led Chelsea to fourth. Meanwhile, Atletico spent 1/3 of the money and their top scorer, Luis Suarez, was a free transfer. Atletico are first in La Liga.
Prediction: Last season Atletico looked good, knocking Liverpool out of the Champions League but fell short in the quarter-finals, but will get off to a good start this season by beating Chelsea in a close match, 2-1.
Key Player: Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski is easily the best player in the world right now. He has scored 30 goals this season and will be hugely important against Lazio’s solid defense.
Analysis: Bayern are currently first in the Bundesliga, but are nowhere near last season’s form. Still, they are a top team who can be considered favorites to at least make the Champions League final. Lazio, on the other hand, were somewhat surprised to advance to the round of 16, but are struggling in Serie A at just seventh. Worse for Lazio, rivals Roma are currently third.
Prediction: On paper, Bayern should win this handily. However, as previously mentioned Bayern haven’t looked very convincing, but they should still run out with a 2-0 victory at least.
Key Player: Karim Benzema. Benzema is the top scorer on Real Madrid this season and has been huge this season. In the Champions League alone, Benzema saved Real five points with his four goals.
Analysis: Atalanta are no longer the same fairytale team that made last season’s Champions League run. The main difference is captain Papu Gomez, sold to Sevilla after an argument with manager Gasperini. Several other players have departed, and the team are falling in Italy’s rankings. Real Madrid are also having a down season by their standards. They have been eliminated from the Copa del Rey, Supercopa, and far behind in La Liga to city rivals Atletico.
Prediction: Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has reportedly been told that he’ll be fired if Real don’t win the Champions League this season. Whether or not they’ll do that remains to be seen, but it’ll get off to a good start with a dominant 4-0 victory over Atalanta.
Key Player: Yann Sommer. Sommer is one of the Bundesliga’s best goalkeepers and has been huge for Mönchengladbach, keeping two clean sheets in the Champions League. With Sergio Agüero dealing with injuries, he could will look to add to that total against Manchester City.
Analysis: Mönchengladbach have been overachieving this season. They navigated a tricky group stage of Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and Shakhtar Donetsk to surprisingly reach the Champions League Round of 16. Whilst Mönchengladbach are only seventh in the Bundesliga, they have only suffered four defeats. Late goals have not been kind to them, as they have tied nine games. Unfortunately for Mönchengladbach, they are up against Manchester City. City have won their last 16 games and are undefeated in the last 23 matches they’ve played.
Prediction: Manchester City’s run ends here. Mönchengladbach pull another rabbit out of their hats, beating Manchester City 2-0.
The Champions League is finally back to its old, two-leg format that was abandoned last season due to coronavirus. This will be exciting, and hopefully this will be the start to things return back to normal as several leagues are allowing trickles of fans back into stadiums. By the second leg in March, there is a chance of even more fans being allowed in the stadiums. All we can do is hope.
Who do you think will win the Champions League?
Image Courtesy of GFDL, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
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