By Neil Leverett
- The UEFA Champions League resumes on Tuesday with eight two-legged last 16 ties staggered over two week intervals
- Holders Liverpool return to Spanish capital to face Atletico Madrid, whilst Chelsea face Bayern Munich
- Spurs face tricky RB Leipzig test as Manchester City clash with Real Madrid, with two-year ban looming
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE – As the UEFA Champions League returns with for the last 16, we preview the first leg of all eight ties set to take place over the coming nine days.
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It almost seems an eternity since the UEFA Champions League went into hiatus last December, on the completion of the 2019/20 edition’s Group stages. As Handel’s famous ditty gears up once more to boom from the tannoys of grounds across the continent, the Round of 16 begins in earnest this week.
Nine weeks on from the draw in Nyon that threw up a number of mouth-watering ties, the eight two-legged match-ups are no longer a distant premise with mid-February now upon us, as the 16 remaining teams in this year’s competition begin their respective passages to the final at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul at the end of May.
With the second legs set to take place next month, first, Tuesday sees the curtain go up on this season’s knockout stages. Here is all you need to know about all eight first leg last 16 ties.
Holders Liverpool return to Madrid
Tuesday’s opening night perhaps fittingly sees holders Liverpool continue their journey toward retaining the European Cup, as Jurgen Klopp‘s men face Atletico Madrid with a return trip first up to the Wanda Metropolitano in the Spanish capital – the scene of the Reds’ sixth crowning last June against Tottenham Hotspur.
With the Premier League all-but mathematically sewn up, the Merseysiders may now be afforded the luxury of seeking the same unique treble Manchester United achieved in 1999, with the FA Cup still up for grabs also.
In previous years, a two-legged clash against Los Coloncheros would arguably be as tough as it gets, but in the light of the departure of Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona, Diego Simeone‘s charges have rather lost their way this term.
Sitting 13 points off the pace of their capital rivals Real Madrid in La Liga, Atleti have just a single win in their last five league games with the goals having largely dried up also.
The big-money arrival of the precocious Joao Felix from Benfica has yet to bare real fruit, and despite the Portuguese’s absence through illness here, it is doubtful whether the aforementioned forward would get to grips with the Liverpool back line in any case.
Instead, the onus will be on the likes of midfield dynamos Saul and Koke, with Vitolo set to lead the line with the in-form Angel Correa in tandem. Kieran Trippier is also set to miss out on a reunion of sorts with the Reds after last year’s final, and despite still lacking real defensive nous, the England full-back’s expected absence after groin surgery will be a big loss in attack.
On the subject of defence, Felipe is beginning to fill the boots of the now departed talismanic Diego Godin but again shipping two more goals last Friday night to Valencia, can the Brazilian be a strong enough influence to smother Liverpool’s omnipotent attack?
Few sides – if any – could thwart this current Liverpool side with their current mojo, and with Mohamed Salah having returned to form, Sadio Mane set to unleashed and Roberto Firmino‘s penchant for a midweek European night, Atleti will likely be set up to shut the Red machine down, or try. This could be a tight one.
Make-or-break Los Blancos tie for Pep?
When both names came out the hat in Switzerland before Christmas, Manchester City versus Real Madrid was easily the blockbuster tie of the round. Now however, this clash suddenly represents far more than the multi-billion pound and euro outlays of two of the biggest clubs in world football, in the light of the Cityzens’ impending two-year European ban.
Denied a semi-final berth via VAR last season, this is a now massive deal for City and in particular boss Pep Guardiola, who after falling behind Liverpool by some margin, is being forced to answer some difficult questions – including whether the Spaniard could suffer the ignominy of the sack in the near future.
Like Liverpool, City’s capital opponents are arguably at their weakest in some time – despite sitting at the top of the Spanish league standings. Defensively, Los Blancos leave a lot to be desired under the second coming of Zinedine Zidane, and are increasingly finding life at the Bernabeu as anything but straight forward.
Held at home again to Celta Vigo 2-2- only days ago, Madrid were dumped out the Copa del Rey by Real Sociedad 4-3 a fortnight back and are finding the balancing act a particularly precarious task.
Eden Hazard has thus far also flopped spectacularly, but could the Belgian find better favour against a side he so often terrorised in England? Where Hazard has failed to even score a league goal, Gareth Bale appears to also have his mind away from the club.
On the flip side, Sergio Aguero is back to something close to his best, whilst in Raheem Sterling despite his alarming dip in form still has the existing threat to cause Real serious problems – similarly to as he did against Spain on the international stage.
Despite on the verge of being plunged into crisis, City will be slight favourites to reach the last eight. Both sides have their defensive issues, but for City, provided Aymeric Laporte plays the majority of the 180 minutes, Guardiola should still have his dream alive.
Blues face Bayern test
Perhaps one of the most intriguing ties sees former European champions in Chelsea and Bayern Munich meet, with a certain dash of history between Premier League and Bundesliga sides.
As the side that beat the Bavarians on their own patch in the 2012 Champions League final in Munich, the Blues lost on penalties in the 2013 Uefa Super Cup in Prague the last time the duo met.
Both outfits are in a somewhat transitionary phase, with Frank Lampard having adapted well to the life at the top level of management, whilst Bayern themselves are attempting to regain their feet under Hans-Dieter Flick following the sacking of Niko Kovac in November.
Any side that carries Robert Lewandowski as their number nine cannot be overlooked, but the German threat is about so much more than the again-prolific Polish hit-man. Serge Gnabry has rather tailed off in his form of late but the former Arsenal winger is a sizeable threat to Chelsea.
As are veteran Thomas Muller, Ivan Perisic and Philippe Coutinho who will all be looking to impress on the big stage. Should he be given the chance, left-back Alphonso Davies is making huge waves in Germany, and as the player earmarked to takeover from David Alaba, is one of the fastest and most potent full-backs in Europe.
Chelsea have their own threats in supply of course. Tammy Abraham will be keen to show his potential, whilst Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi will likewise be further proof of England’s own new flourishing era. For defender Antonio Rudiger, this will also be a special occasion as a former Borussia Dortmund youth player, and who will be keen to get one over against his former and loathed rivals in Bayern.
This feels like a bridge too far for Lampard to cross such is the threat Bayern pose, but it is worth remembering that as a player, it was Lampard who was involved when Chelsea broke Bavarian hearts eight years ago.
Leipzig pose threat to Lilywhites
As last year’s runners-up Spurs were drawn against RB Leipzig, Jose Mourinho‘s men are probably marginal favourites to again reach the quarter-final stages of the Champions League. But discounting Julian Nagelsmann‘s vibrant and attacking Saxony outfit would be a huge error.
With the Portuguese at the helm, the two-time competition winner will bring with him all that experience that entails, however the Lilywhites will have to up their game defensively, with the predatory Timo Werner on the charge.
The driving force of the Die Rotten Bullen’s surge up the Bundesliga table, Leipzig remain just a point behind Bayern in the race for what would be a sensational Meisterschale come May.
Patrik Schick is slowly getting back to his goal-scoring form on loan from AS Roma, whilst Marcel Sabitzer and Emil Forsberg are amongst the most creative midfield duos in Germany.
Spurs will naturally have the menace of Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura in the their ranks, but they will have to get the better of centre-back duo Dayot Upemecano and Nordi Mukiele, with versatile left-sided defender Marcel Halstenburg one to keep an eye on. Then there is Dani Olmo who last impressed in the Champions League for Dinamo Zagreb before his winter move from Croatia this past window.
Quite a few already have Spurs in the last eight, but ask any regular viewer of the Bundesliga and they would say Leipzig will be a difficult game for Mourinho’s men. Add to that the North Londoner’s growing problems at the back and the outcome of this tie feels like a 50/50 call.
The other four ties carry equal fascination for different reasons. Perhaps the clash that could steal the Round is the Italian-Spanish meeting between Atalanta and former winners Valencia, with both teams carrying a very real shot at a quarter – if not semi-final – berth.
Under Giampiero Gasperini, La Dea have broken into the Italian top four in Serie A, and after making their Champions League bow this term, made a rousing comeback in the Group stage to reach this avenue in the competition.
As one of the most aesthetically pleasing sides on the continent, Atalanta’s attacking unit of Josip Ilicic, Papu Gomez, Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata – the latter having missed much of the campaign due to injury. Indeed, it is Zapata who is the X-factor in this tie.
Los Che’ meanwhile are equally adept in offence as they showed against Chelsea, with Maxi Gomez and Rodrigo Moreno Valencia’s chief goal threat. Whatever and whomever takes centre stage, defences are unlikely to be on top in this one making for what could be two high-scoring affairs in Bergamo and back in Iberia.
The remaining three games all have the element of glamour in them beginning with Napoli’s tall task against Lionel Messi‘s Barcelona, however the Partenopei have in recent weeks been building under Gennaro Gattuso and beat Juventus in the league a few weeks back. A trip to the San Paolo is never an easy one, but La Blaugrana will be confident of making the last eight.
Paris Saint-Germain versus Borussia Dortmund is another potential firecracker, but equally could be tight. Les Parisians may have their best chance to win a first European Cup in this moment and with Kylian Mbappe, Mauro Icardi, Edinson Cavani, Neymar and a re-invigorated Angel di Maria, Thomas Tuchel‘s men will take some shifting this season.
Standing in their way however, BVB boast one of the most lethal finishers in the game right now in Erling Braut Haaland who since his switch from free-scoring Red Bull Salzburg in January, has already netted nine goals in six games for the YellowBlack. The Norwegian will be flanked by Jadon Sancho who continues to impress, whilst Julian Brandt is another of Germany’s bright jung things.
The final and no-less riveting match-up sees Lyon look to take on the might of the Old Lady, as Juventus mount their latest challenge – with Cristiano Ronaldo no-less – to reclaim ‘Ol’ Big Ears’ for the first time since 1996.
The UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg ties begin on Tuesday 18 February, including Liverpool’s trip to the Wanda Metropolitano to face Atletico Madrid, kick-off 20:00 UK time.
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