Champions League Round of 16; Week 1 Recap

Half of the Round of 16 first leg fixtures are in the books following Wednesday’s games in Madrid and Porto. All four matches were filled with plenty of goals and drama from Europe’s elite clubs (17 goals in four matches). While Man City and Liverpool have one foot in the quarterfinals after comprehensive victories, Spurs/Juventus and PSG/Madrid have everything to play for in the reverse fixtures on March 6/7. If you missed the matches, not to worry, DSD Champions League specialist Mike Daly recounts the events as they happened and looks forward to the Leg 2 rematches.

Real Madrid's bench makes the difference in crucial victory over PSG

PSG started off on the front foot, scoring a pivotal away goal as Adrien Rabiot converted from close range after a clever flick from Neymar. But, despite Real’s struggles this season, the 12-time European Cup champions found ways to unlock the PSG defense, led by their talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s two goals weren’t the flashiest – a converted penalty and a fortuitous knee-touch off of a deflection – but nobody can deny his ability to be at the right place at the right time in the big games. Ronaldo now has 11 goals in 7 Champions League matches this season, and a remarkable 101 goals in the competition for Real Madrid (116 total including the 15 he scored for Manchester United).

For all of the hype around PSG, they fell short on the big stage and questions will be asked of PSG manager, Unai Emery. Emery surprisingly dropped club captain, Thiago Silva, from the starting lineup. The makeshift back four conceded a penalty and two late goals. A pair of domestic titles is the minimum requirement for a team full of talent, especially after the club’s spending spree in the summer. A Round of 16 exit from the Champions League would be a massive disappointment, especially against a Real Madrid side that currently sits in fourth in La Liga. While Neymar was instrumental in Barcelona’s thrilling comeback against PSG in the Champions League last year, the Brazilian struggled to combine with Cavani and Mbappe as the typically dangerous attacking trio could not find the back of the net.

Zinedine Zidane's tactical genius proved to be the difference. Substitutes Gareth Bale, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio brought energy and attacking prowess to a match that otherwise could have ended in PSG's favor. It was Asensio who set up two goals to break the 1-1 deadlock and give his team the advantage heading into the second leg in Paris. PSG’s subs, Thomas Meuiner and Julian Draxler, did not have a similar impact and Angel Di Maria will be wondering why he was left on the bench against his former club. However, with an away goal in their pocket, a 2-0 result in Paris would still see PSG through to the quarterfinals.

Tottenham rains on Juve's early parade

Juventus started the match in dreamland. Gonzalo Higuain scored a golazo and converted a penalty inside the first 10 minutes in what looked set to be a long night for Spurs. However, Tottenham battled back and halved the deficit in the 35th minute as Harry Kane rounded Gigi Buffon to convert Dele Alli’s pinpoint through ball. Juventus failed to restore their two-goal lead just before half as Higuain rattled the crossbar on his second penalty attempt of the night. After the interval, Tottenham pressed on and were rewarded in the 71st minute with a brilliant free kick driven low to the goalkeeper's side by Christian Eriksen – Spurs first goal from a set piece in the Champions League this season.

Despite Tottenham’s nightmare start, they managed to turn the game on its head and controlled the majority of the final 80 minutes. Juventus had come into the game only allowing a single goal in their last 16 matches in all competitions. Juve’s dominant defense combined with their remarkable home record makes Spurs comeback even more impressive. Gigi Buffon will be disappointed with both goals he conceded, as he wasn’t at his sharpest on the night. And despite a brace, Higuain will also be frustrated he didn’t put the tie out of sight in the first half.

Juve boss, Massimiliano Allegri, dismissed critics that stated Juventus were favorites to advance ahead of the match in Turin. After his team squandered a two-goal lead, Allegri stated, “we go to London tied and we play a final, and probably they will be under more pressure than us.” The pressure may indeed be on Tottenham, but they will be confident after a resilient display and the advantage of two crucial away goals. Juventus could be boosted by the return of their star, Paulo Dybala, who missed out on the first leg through injury. My prediction: 90 minutes may not be enough to decide a winner at Wembley.  

Manchester City and Liverpool cruise

Manchester City continued their strong European campaign with a 4-0 thrashing of Basel in Switzerland. City’s strength in depth shone through as Ilkay Gundogan bagged a brace while Bernardo Silva also found the back of the net. Three goals from a couple of players who have struggled to find minutes this season prove City has plenty of weapons. Sergio Aguero continued his good run of form, blasting a 22-yard shot into the bottom left corner, while the frozen Basel goalkeeper simply watched.

Similar to City, Liverpool outclassed Porto in a commanding 5-0 victory. Despite losing their playmaker, Philippe Coutinho, to Barcelona in the January transfer window, Liverpool still boasts an attacking force that is one of the most intimidating in Europe. Their front three comprised of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane were all on the score sheet. Jurgen Klopp will be delighted to have seen Mane back to his best, netting a hat trick. James Milner has quietly tallied 7 assists in the Champions League, three more than any other player (De Bruyne, Neymar and Firmino each have 4 assists, tied for second).  Salah continued his brilliant season with another special goal that displayed his composure as he calmly juggled the ball over the Porto goalkeeper and placed it in the back of the goal. He now has 30 goals this season in all competitions. 

Man City and Liverpool made it looks easy in their first leg ties and can afford to make several changes to their starting XI, taking comfortable leads into their second leg home fixtures.

 

Author: Mike Daly