Champions League preview: first round of 16 matchups
It’s that time again. This week marks the return of the Champions and Europa League back into our lives. But this time the stakes are higher than they were in the fall during the group stage round. We are now headed for ties consisting of two legs in both Europa and Champions League. With the Round of 16 commencing in the UCL and Round of 32 in the UEL, there are some great matchups heading our way.
For this edition, we are going to look at the bigger competition, which is clearly the UCL. The first four legs will be played this week, two on Tuesday and two on Wednesday. A majority of the matchups see English teams traveling to various parts of Europe while a star studded clash takes place in Madrid. Let’s jump right in.
Manchester City - Basel FC
It’s clear that Manchester City are ready for Europe. They are running away with the Premier League and have shown some real class in doing so. Pep Guardiola’s team has shown enough dominance in the Prem to prove they will be a force to be reckoned with come Champions League time. With players like Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne in great form, the Manchester City attack continues to stay dangerous. Due to injuries they might not be as explosive as they have been but still fantastic nonetheless. It’s even scarier that the offense can become even better considering City just put 5 goals past Leicester City in their most recent game. It was a good bounce back after their shocking 1-1 draw against Burnley, who played their hearts out I must add. With the league firmly decided, a spot in the FA Cup 5th round, League Cup finalists, and in the Round of 16 in the UCL, Manchester City are staring at some major silverware. The round to the grandest of them all starts in Switzerland.
Although they are the underdogs, don’t think FC Basel won’t put up a fight. The Swiss team will surely come out swinging at home with a rabid crowd cheering them on and things could get interesting if they get an early goal. Currently second in the Swiss Super League right now, Basel have had a good run of form heading into this first leg. However, they have only played two games due to Switzerland's massive winter break. In those two games, they have had mixed results, losing in one but winning their most recent. But to Basel’s credit, they have had some really good success in this season's Champions League, finishing only three points behind Manchester United for first in Group A. They also had a gem of a performance in Matchday 6 when they smashed Benfica 6-0 to send them to the Round of 16. It was the perfect ending to a game which they can hang their hats on. One player to look out for on FC Basel is striker Dimitri Oberlin who is currently on loan from RB Leipzig. He’s scored 8 goals in 11 games and is Basel’s best chance at goal. He could take advantage of a bad mistake from Man City’s defense and pierce through for a vital goal for FC Basel.
Prediction: Manchester City are the favorites to win this tie by a mile and an early goal likely takes Basel out of it. 3-0 Man City.
Juventus vs. Tottenham Hotspur
This will be the best matchup on Tuesday as Spurs travel to Turin to take on a battered Juventus team. A game in Italy caps off a marathon sprint for Spurs, who are finishing their toughest stretch of the season. In their most recent fixture, they grabbed a vital 3 points against bitter rival Arsenal with Harry Kane’s header being the game winning goal. In games against Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal with an FA Cup tie mixed in, Tottenham walked out of the fight with 3 wins and one draw. It was a very impressive finish for what looked like a stretch where they may drop a game. But they never faltered and were even able to give some of their key players rest or have them come off the bench in the North London Derby last weekend. Spurs won’t have guys at full stamina but they will be a little more rested than originally thought. Obviously the main man to talk about will be Harry Kane and he faces a sturdy test against the always stable Juventus defense. This time he will be facing a backline of Giorgio Chiellini and Medhi Benatia, two defenders who have played really well this season, especially the former despite getting up there in age. It will be a battle between the two and a very physical one at that. Spurs will be facing a deficit of their own as Toby Alderweireld didn’t make the trip to Turin. This is a huge blow to Spurs and it will leave a hole in their defense.
However, they aren’t the most injured team in this tie. That goes to Juventus. The Serie A champions are coming into this game on eggshells as they will be missing two key players in Paulo Dybala and Blaise Matuidi. Both are key but especially the former who could have caused major problems for the Spurs with his off the ball movement and wicked shot. Thankfully for Juventus, Gonzalo Higuain is looking like his goal scoring self and is looking like he will cause enough problems on his own. With Alderweireld out, Higuain will look to pounce when the opportunity presents itself. Massimiliano Allegri will have some options to choose from in terms of Dybala’s absence. Douglas Costa and Federico Bernadeschi will be the likely candidates. Bernadeschi had himself a great game in Juventus’s last match. Against his former club Fiorentina, he scored a cheeky free kick to open the scoring in what was a grueling 2-0 win for the Old Lady. It helped them keep pace with league leaders Napoli. Juventus are battered in terms of injury and are missing their most dynamic player in Dybala but this is an experienced side and at home, they are basically unbeatable.
Prediction: This is a tough game but Juventus are at home and it’s tough to go against Allegri’s men in Turin. But a late goal against Harry Kane makes for an even more exciting second leg in Wembley. 2-1 Juventus.
Porto vs. Liverpool
Another matchup in Wednesday’s slate features the third and final English team, Liverpool, traveling for a grueling first leg in Portugal. Jurgen Klopp’s team are coming into this game on a 4-game unbeaten streak after their shocking loss to Swansea City on January 22nd. In their most recent game they ran past Southampton with goals from Roberto Firmino and the ever-present Mohamed Salah. As we all know, Liverpool present a potent attack and one which could carve up Porto very quickly if they aren’t careful. Liverpool is like a stick of dynamite, waiting to go off at any time, they just have to light the match themselves. With their high energy and ever-constant press, expect Liverpool to be all over Porto. They will be waiting to pounce on any mistake and given the first leg is in Portugal, mistakes leading to away goals are maximized. The only thing for Jurgen Klopp will be which midfield/subs he wants to make. The key man to obviously watch will be Salah, who has been on a tear to begin this season. He’s been a top player in the Premier League and the man who makes everything click for Liverpool.
Meanwhile, this will be a key game for Porto and easily their toughest game all season. But they do have one advantage on their side and that is their attack. They are also coming off a huge win against Sporting CP in the first leg of the Portuguese Cup and a 4-0 shellacking of Chaves in league play. They are coming in with some momentum and could send the Estadio Do Dragao into a frenzy with an earlier goal. Their talisman is striker Vincent Aboubakar who has a very solid season in the Primeira Liga. Throw in the ever-creative and pacy Yacine Brahimi and you could got some problems for the Liverpool defense. Despite getting some reinforcements, Klopp’s side still looks shaky at the back and are prone to giving up some really soft goals. It’s a part of the crazy style they play and Porto can certainly catch them napping once in a game. However, a big blow to the Portuguese side was dealt when it was announced Danilo Periera was going to be out for the first leg. He is a big part of their midfield and is the rock in front of the back line. Porto will also be missing Ivan Marcano as well and that is a huge blow to their backline. Missing two of their best defenders, Porto is already looking exposed before the game even starts. It’s never a good sign against any team but especially against Liverpool.
Prediction: This is going to be a rough game for Liverpool against Porto but questions still loom about the Reds defense. So much so I’m gonna go with a 1-1 draw with Porto grabbing an equalizer late.
Real Madrid vs. PSG
Last but not least we have the juiciest matchup of the week. Real Madrid vs. PSG in the Santiago Bernabeau. Ronaldo vs. Neymar. Cavani vs. Bale. Ramos vs. Silva. You could go on and on about these individual matchups. But it does pit two teams who have done the complete opposite in terms of their domestic success. We all know it’s been a nightmare for Real Madrid in La Liga as they sit 17 points behind leaders FC Barcelona. It’s been horrific this season as they have been knocked out of the Copa Del Rey as well. So with both domestic titles out of the question, it’s the UCL or his job for Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane. Unlike his last big game (El Clasico), the legendary attacker has to play his cards right. The only problem he will be facing in his lineup will be the loss of Dani Carvajal and will slot Nacho in his spot who is like a utility defender on this Los Blancos team. You can expect the trio of Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo to be revving to go. Bale didn’t play over the weekend and is Madrid’s most in-form attacker. Yet, we all know who the X-Factor is on this Madrid team. It’s CR7. He has had not a season to his usual standards and is on the side watching his rival Lionel Messi run riot over European football. This is Ronaldo’s time to remind everyone who he is and he could easily turn this tie around with a couple of goals in the first leg. The Paris defense is sturdy but they will be in for a unique test against a Madrid team which can flip their attacking switch at any time. Especially one which has had some rested players to it.
Speaking of PSG, they are in cruise control in the league and the rest of the French competitions. They haven’t faced stiff competition this whole season, even in Europe apart from matchups against Bayern Munich early in group stage play. There isn’t much to discuss about this PSG squad because we all know what they are about. Like Real Madrid they rely on a very talented trio of Mbappe, Cavani, and the golden boy Neymar. The Brazilian has been killing in Ligue 1 and is showing to be a Ballon D’Or candidate in the future. This game against Real Madrid could be one big step towards that. If he’s able to show out in this matchup, it will greatly boost his chances of winning the trophy and PSG’s chances of advancing. With the speed of Neymar and Mbappe, the Real Madrid defense will have to be careful as PSG could easily strike on the counter and grab a vital away goal. The pressure is on everyone in PSG. It’s on Unai Emery as his job is on the line as well. It’s on Neymar as he showed with his move away from FC Barcelona, he wants to be the man somewhere and prove his worth. This is his chance to shine and show he made the right decision leaving Spain. It’s also on the entire PSG board in a ways to justify the crazy spending which took place this summer. If Paris aren’t able to get past a shaky Madrid team in the Round of 16, major questions will be asked of everyone. Especially after the debacle which led to their elimination last season.
Prediction: This will be the best game of 2018 thus far. It’s reasonable to doubt PSG’s experience in Europe, which is exactly what I’m gonna do. This is going to be a high scoring affair though. 3-2 Real Madrid.