The UEFA Champions League is back after a two-month hiatus with four games taking place this week. Below are the top stories ahead of the Round of 16 clashes on Tuesday and Wednesday:
Madrid vs. PSG - The must watch match of the week
These are the nights that every soccer fan dreams of – a weeknight clash between two European giants showcasing two of the best players in the world. While some might have hoped this tie was played in a round closer to the finals, this highly anticipated matchup is one that will certainly entertain.
Paris Saint-Germain has dominated Ligue 1 this season, currently sitting top of the league by 12 points. Although Neymar has been making light work of his domestic opponents, scoring 19 goals and providing 11 assists in the league, he may find it more difficult to break down the likes of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane at the heart of Madrid’s defense. But PSG has plenty of goal threats including Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe. This year's high-scoring squad set a UEFA Champions League record this season by scoring 25 goals in the group stage.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid has had a season to forget domestically, finding themselves battling for a top 4 finish rather than a title race with Barcelona. Their poor form has sparked rumors that Zinedine Zidane’s time may be running out if results don’t improve, despite leading his squad to back-to-back Champions League titles. Madrid will be boosted by a 5-2 win at the weekend including a hat trick for Cristiano Ronaldo. Los Blancos will be hoping to secure 3 points at the Bernabeu ahead of the second leg in Paris.
Is this the year an English team wins the title?
To many pundits surprise, all 5 English teams remain in the competition – Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham. It marks the first time that any nation has had five teams in the knockout round before.
Man City, Liverpool and Spurs will be in action this week and have been in good form of late. With a comfortable 16-point lead in the Premier League, Man City is certainly one of the favorites to lift the UCL trophy in May. And Pep Guardiola has a pedigree of success in the competition, winning the Champions League twice with Barcelona, in 2009 and 2011.
Tottenham and Chelsea face tough opponents in Juventus and Barcelona respectively. But Spurs will feel confident after a 2-0 preseason victory against the Italian giants. Chelsea has not only experienced past success against Barcelona in the Champions League, but they are, however, the last English team to win the UCL title, in 2012.
Man United and Liverpool have "easier" matchups on paper against Sevilla and Porto respectively, and will be hoping to advance to the quarterfinals as they continue on their search for silverware.
A rematch and a couple of first competitive matchups
Tuesday’s games will be the first competitive meetings for the clubs involved, as Manchester City is set to face FC Basel in Switzerland while Juventus host Spurs.
Basel is unbeaten in their only two games at home in the knockout stages in the competition but has never advanced past the round of 16. Man City has been one of the most exciting and dominant teams in Europe this season and will be looking to keep their hopes of a winning a quadruple alive.
Tottenham finished unbeaten and top of their group ahead of current holders Real Madrid. Their group stage performance and recent form should give them plenty of confidence going into Turin. Juventus are looking to improve on their runner-up finish last term. The Old Lady eliminated Barcelona at this stage last season. And they are nearly unbeatable at home in the competition, with their last defeat coming against Bayern Munich in 2013.
Liverpool is unbeaten against Porto in their history, winning and drawing twice. But both draws have come in Portugal and Porto would be pleased with another tie in leg one against a dangerous Liverpool attack.
Tactical battles and the advantage of group winners
The first round of a two-leg tie can be a cagey battle with the away team seemingly content to take a scoreless draw into the deciding second leg; and the home side not wanting to concede a goal which could prove particularly costly given the away goal rule.
But that notion will likely be lost on Man City, Liverpool and Spurs. Not only does a more cautious approach not suit their style of play, but all three teams boast prolific goal scorers in Sergio Aguero, Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane. While the marquee matchup is Madrid vs. PSG, the other three games should offer attractive soccer and goals.
Group winners have progressed in 72.3% of round of 16 ties since the current competition format was introduced in 1992. This bodes well for group winners Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and PSG heading into their respective leg one away matches.
Author: Michael Daly