By Neil Leverett
- UEFA Champions League last 16 conclude as second legs begin on Tuesday night
- Liverpool and Spurs must overturn deficits, Manchester City well poised as Chelsea face Bavarian mountain
- Valencia-Atalanta, Paris Saint-Germain-Borussia Dortmund returns to be played behind closed doors in wake of Covid-19
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE – As the second legs of the Champions League begin on Tuesday night, all four Premier League clubs face differing tasks to reach the quarter-finals.
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Liverpool seek Kop roar
As Liverpool romp ever onward towards Premier League glory, the Merseysiders will this week put off their impending league celebrations, as they welcome Atletico Madrid to Anfield for the the second leg of the UEFA Champions League last 16.
Stung by a typically stubborn and obdurate Diego Simeone performance three weeks ago, the holders welcome their Spanish counterparts on Wednesday night with another electric and potentially famous night in front of the Kop in the offing, looking to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the Wanda Metropolitano.
With Saul Niguez‘s fourth-minute effort proving sufficient in Madrid, Jurgen Klopp‘s men were unable to bag an away goal against Los Coloncheros and having not kept a clean sheet in all of their last five in all competitions, that presents a grave threat to their aspirations of defending the European Cup.
Atleti are not exactly water-tight in defence either – having not earned a shut-out since the Spanish Super Cup back in January – but the threat the former finalists pose is very real. An away goal for Simeone would be priceless, but even then Liverpool will still retain hope of a comeback.
Indeed it was less than 12 months ago against Barcelona, the Reds enjoyed one of their most famous European nights, coming from three goals down after the Nou Camp leg, to sensationally net four to book their place in the final last May.
Further drama could be on the cards here, but Klopp’s men right now are looking a little nervy and can be exploited. The visitors will look to keep things tight and pinch one on the break. That might make things tricky for the hosts, but the Kop in any case will be roaring on Liverpool toward another famous Anfield night. This could be quite a thrill ride.
Can away form spur Lilywhites in Germany?
As Tottenham Hotspur likewise look to progress into the final eight, their scoreline reads the same after 90 minutes but with an away leg to come in Saxony, RB Leipzig are favourites to book their very first quarter-final berth.
Following Timo Werner‘s spot-kick in North London, Julian Nagelsmann‘s side welcome the Lilywhites to the Red Bull Arena with an away goal advantage.
A team still challenging Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga monopoly at the summit of the German top flight, Leipzig sit third in the standings – despite having slipped off the pace somewhat in recent weeks.
The continued absence of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min remains a difficult situation for Spurs to manage, and Jose Mourinho takes his side to Germany on Tuesday whose only away win in Europe this season was against relative fodder in Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade.
Mourinho’s sheer presence here could be a real psychological factor, however Leipzig have a penchant this term for racking up the goals in their own back yard and have more strings to their bow that just Werner, with Marcel Sabitzer and Christopher Nkunku ones to watch on the return leg.
As two sides that both drew at the weekend, Spurs were outclassed at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and are perhaps fortunate to not be further in arrears. However, the visitors may be consoled in the statistic that at home in the Group stages, Leipzig failed to keep a clean sheet and lost to Lyon 2-0 back in October.
There is also the memory of their famous Amsterdam evening last spring against Ajax, but they will attempt to replicate that result without Son. If Werner is on song the hosts should be too strong, but the Spurs have the ability to get at their opponents still. This one is in the balance.
Blues’ Bavarian mountain
Of all 16 teams remaining, Bayern Munich appear best set to reach another quarter-final and after a resounding 3-0 defeat of Chelsea, the Blues face a mammoth task in reaching the last eight at the Allianz Arena in a week’s time.
As former Arsenal man Serge Gnabry again tormented Premier League opposition on his return to the capital, the German’s brace together with a strike from Robert Lewandowski at Stamford Bridge leaves Frank Lampard‘s charges with the stiffest of tests to score three – without reply – in Bavaria.
Lampard himself was part of the Blues side that stunned the reigning Bundesliga champions in the Champions League final in 2012, however the former England man is set with an even greater feat to hit three at the very least against Die Roten – on their own turf.
As the second helping of Premier League versus Bundesliga, like Spurs, Chelsea might draw hope with the fact that Bayern are not quite their previous impenetrable selves this term and have conceded twice at home on five separate occasions. – losing twice also.
Hansie Flick has his men ticking right now however, and though Bayern rather laboured to a win against Augsburg on Sunday afternoon, the mountain standing before Chelsea is tall indeed.
Though Ross Barkley and Pedro have come into positive moments in a Blues’ shirt, the visitors will have no choice but to throw the kitchen sink at Bayern from the opening whistle. That will surely leave Lampard’s side open to the counter, and with the pace and menace the Bavarians have in their locker, this is surely now a step to far. Going forward in the competition, Bayern could be hard to stop.
Citizens best poised for quarters
Still gripped by the threat of Financial Fair Play – and fresh off a Manchester derby defeat, Manchester City at least appear best set of all four English top flight sides to be in the hat for the last eight draw on March 20, after a stirring 2-1 win against a still below-par Real Madrid last time out.
Whilst boss Pep Guardiola gets to grips with perhaps his biggest spell of managerial uncertainty yet, the Spaniard nevertheless has the chance to book to Citizens’ place in the quarter-finals at the Etihad Stadium.
With Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne‘s two away goals under their belts, City’s rather troubled season could yet have end in quite the high and the club seek their first semi-final berth after last year’s VAR drama with Spurs last season.
Zinedine Zidane‘s second coming as Los Blancos steward has been met with far more uncertainty and after defeat to Real Betis this past weekend in La Liga, Real are now more than a climbable obstacle, whereas in Champions Leagues past, the three-time consecutive winners were untouchable.
De Bruyne himself missed the derby defeat to the Red Devils with a shoulder injury – which will be a concern to Guardiola – but in a week’s time, said issue should be resolved, allowing the Belgian’s timely return.
Los Blancos still have the raw pace and trickery in Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior to cause them problems, but with Karim Benzema finding consistency difficult, the goal advantage in front of the their own fans should set City up for a place in the last eight.
In the four other ties, Atalanta have one foot in the quarters after their latest tour-de-force this season against Valencia. With a 4-1 lead to take the Mestalla, the side from Bergamo will however play their game behind closed doors in the wake of the growing spread of Covid-19 back in Italy.
For Los Che, a three-goal swing is not inconceivable, however the hosts’ problems in defence are well documented and with La Dea’s front three of Josip Ilicic, Duvan Zapata and Papu Gomez still on song in Serie A, Valencia would have to put in their showing of the season to deny the Italians.
The other game set to be played in front of a empty stadium will see Paris Saint-Germain face Borussia Dortmund, a goal down at the Parc des Princes. Perhaps robbed of a blockbuster occasion, Erling Braut Haland‘s first leg brace gives BVB the upper hand in the first instance anyway and now on effectively a neutral ground, Dortmund will be confident of putting pay to Les Parisiens’ Champions League hopes once more.
The final two ties are intriguingly poised. After a 1-1 draw at the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli will be eyeing an upset in Catalonia against Barcelona. Antoine Griezmann‘s vital strike against the Partenopei however, will still see La Blaugrana as favourites to progress, given their formidable European rap sheet at home.
Lyon travel to Turin a week on Tuesday with a precious goal lead via Lucas Tousart‘s lone goal at the Groupama in the first leg versus Juventus. As the outstanding favourites to progress here, the Old Lady face a tricky test against the French side, who know that a goal will leave Maurizio Sarri‘s men needing three goals to reach the last eight.
Cristiano Ronaldo has again been in prolific form this season, however it will likely be Juve’s ability – or not – to shut Lyon out that will decide this tie. Rudy Garcia has proved in the past to be canny customer, and if his charges play their cards right, OL could shock the former European champions.
The UEFA Champions League last 16 second leg ties begin on Tuesday evening, as Tottenham Hotspur travel to RB Leipzig, kick-off 20:00 UK time.
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