Predicting the outcome of matches in the Champions League last 16 is often a fruitless task, as anticipating how different styles, that have been honed in their respective domestic leagues, will interact with one another on the European stage is nigh on impossible.
Teams that have not faced each other in years will square up, with very different line-ups to when they last faced off. That being said, it is incredibly fun to do, so I thought that I would have a go.
UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Throws Up Some Spicy Contests
Much like last season, COVID-19 will see us have a very different Champions League than we are used to. Fans will be incapable of providing the 12th man and now it seems that several sides will lack any form of home advantage altogether, with pandemic-related travel restrictions being imposed, causing games to be relocated to neutral venues, such as Budapest. How this affects proceedings remains to be seen, but with the last 16 approaching, I have decided to take a look at who I believe will be victorious in the upcoming ties.
RB Leipzig v Liverpool
When most English fans think of RB Leipzig, they think of the fast-paced, attacking, free-flowing side that tore Tottenham Hotspur to pieces in last year’s Champions League. As a result, it may not come as a surprise to some of you that Leipzig currently has the best defensive record in the Bundesliga this season.
In recent years, Leipzig has provided a couple of high-profile transfers to the Premier League, in Naby Keïta and Timo Werner. However, a re-investment in youth, on top of an ability to siphon the best players from their sister club RB Salzburg, mean that Leipzig has been able to cope with the departures of their star players and continue to go from strength to strength under star head coach, Julian Nagelsmann.
Liverpool fans will be particularly familiar with their opposition, having no doubt watched highlight reels of defensive duo Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté, whom the club was linked with signing, to replace the injured Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, in the January transfer window. Such a high-calibre signing has seemingly been pushed back to the summer, but any notions that you may have that Liverpool will be able to waltz through this Leipzig defence are misplaced.
Admittedly, Leipzig is not as threatening as they have been in recent years, as Manchester United exposed in the group stages, but the fact that they still emerged from that group after such a damning 5-0 loss is testament to this side’s character. Their resilience and youthful determination will pose a significant challenge to a struggling Liverpool side, whose Premier League title defence is in tatters due to their leaky backline.
All of that being said, I expect Liverpool to still progress, for with Manchester City seemingly set to cruise to another Premier League crown, Liverpool look poised to go all out in the Champions League in an attempt to make this season yet another success story under manager Jürgen Klopp.
FC Barcelona v Paris Saint-Germain
Two sides that have had relatively disastrous seasons by their lofty standards so far, this clash between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain is completely unlike what anyone would have expected if we were to have been told that these teams would have met at this stage in the competition at the beginning of the season.
Both teams have seen their domestic form improve considerably as of late, but Barça are still eight points behind La Liga leaders Atlético Madrid, having played a game more and PSG, well, to put it simply, they are somehow not at the top of Ligue 1.
Under new management this season, both sides appear to be in transition, with Ronald Koeman seen by many as a temporary appointment at Barça, until a new Club President is elected that brings in Xavi as head coach, who can hopefully convince Lionel Messi to retire at the club.
PSG, meanwhile, have recently replaced Thomas Tuchel with Mauricio Pochettino as their manager and will still be adjusting to his training techniques. However, the French side certainly seems in a better place under Pochettino, with the Argentine wasting little time in finally collecting the first honour of his managerial career, less than a week after arriving at the club.
Still, I find it hard to look past Barça in this one, as Neymar has once again picked up an injury that rules him out of a vital Champions League clash, meaning that Kylian Mbappé – who has recently been non-committal on his own future with the club – will once again have to carry the load.
You may point out that Lionel Messi is in a similar wantaway situation at Barça, but I still find it hard to subscribe to the idea that he will leave the club where he has such icon status and, if it is truly his last season at the club – at least in his mind – then you can bet your bottom dollar that he is going to commit everything in ensuring that it is one to remember. He is, after all, still the best in the world.
Verdict: FC Barcelona
FC Porto v Juventus
Yet another two sides struggling in their respective domestic leagues (this is beginning to feel like the most un-Champions-like Champions League ever), you could be forgiven for thinking that both sides’ focus will be elsewhere in this clash.
Indeed, you may be right, for Porto will be desperate to close to runaway leaders Sporting Lisbon and Juventus must surely be keen to win a 10th Serie A title in a row, extending their record run and not wanting to give impetus to the Milan sides feeling that they can have a revival. However, for their fans, I suspect that you would be wrong.
Both sets of supporters have seen their teams dominate domestically over the years, but neither has seen their side victorious of the grandest of European stages in over a decade. Unfortunately for Porto fans, bar some major miracle, that waits for looks set to go on, with this current of the team a shadow of the side that won José Mourinho arguably his greatest Champions League crown back in 2004. Juventus more than have the ability in their squad to steamroll the Portuguese side and we know that Cristiano Ronaldo lives for these big moments.
However, although I foresee a Juventus victory, I do not expect it to be without some tricky moments, for the Italian side have yet to develop a real identity in Andrea Pirlo’s first year in top-level management and have look bereft of ideas going forward at various stages this season. It might be a close encounter, but, over two legs, Juventus should have enough to see them through.
Ronaldo’s two first-leg goals lead Juventus to the Coppa Italia final ⚪️⚫️ pic.twitter.com/JrK4qgQAWf
— B/R Football (@brfootball) February 9, 2021
Sevilla v Borussia Dortmund
Well, who would have expected Sevilla to be higher in La Liga than Borussia Dortmund are in the Bundesliga at this stage of the season? After a disastrous spell in charge of Real Madrid, Julen Lopetegui looks to have found his mojo again at Sevilla, who have kept pace with Los Blancos and Barça this year, perhaps without seeing the widespread praise in the media that such an achievement deserves.
Dortmund meanwhile, are currently led by inexperienced caretaker manager Edin Terzić, who is just 38 years old. Terzić is not entirely an unknown quantity, having worked under Jürgen Klopp during his time at Dortmund and Slaven Bilić at Beşiktaş and then West Ham United. However, for Terzić to be in charge of the club that he has loved and supported since he was a boy at this stage in the Champions League, is very unfamiliar waters.
The star power certainly favours Dortmund, possessing two of Europe’s top young talents in Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho. Still, with both players rumoured to be leaving the club – although neither has been having a particularly poor season – their commitment can be questioned, for they will not want to risk getting an injury at this stage in the campaign.
A case could certainly be made in Dortmund’s favour that their Bundesliga title challenge is gone, so the Champions League is all that they have to go for, whereas Sevilla will be desperate to remain in the top four of La Liga to secure the Champions League revenue again for next season.
However, I only made such an argument earlier for Liverpool because Liverpool has a realistic chance of winning the Champions League. Dortmund does not. Currently sitting 6th in the Bundesliga, they would be better placed to focus on domestic competition, ensuring that they remain in Europe’s elite competition next season ahead of what promises to be a transformative transfer window for the club. Managerial experience prevails.
Lazio v FC Bayern Munich
Lazio heads into this game in some terrific form, with Simone Inzaghi making a name for himself as a manager at the Stadio Olimpico, just as he did as a player. Ciro Immobile remains as prolific as ever, as Lazio continue to push for a top-four spot in Serie A.
However, how can you look past Bayern Munich and Hansi Flick? The German giants have scored 58 goals in just 20 Bundesliga matches this season and recently defeated Mexico’s Tigres UANL to win the Club World Cup.
This was Bayern’s 6th trophy in less than nine months, meaning that they achieved a clean sweep of the domestic and European titles available to them in 2020, whilst also becoming the first team to match Barça’s sextuple of 2009.
It has to be the reigning champions.
Verdict: FC Bayern Munich
Atlético Madrid v Chelsea
A clash between two top teams will usually get your pulses racing but, on paper, this game promises to be a snooze fest. Thomas Tuchel has implemented a possession-based style of football in his short time at Chelsea that, although so far widely successful, has left the team lacking the same attacking spark. When blended with Diego Simeone’s typically tight Atlético side that pride themselves on their defence – even if rightly so – we have a game that will surely be a tactical tussle as opposed to being goals galore.
Both sides could once more be forgiven for the primary attention being elsewhere, with Chelsea desperate to ensure that they remain in Europe’s elite competition next season and Atlético being even more determined that they remain on course to win a first La Liga title since 2013–14. That being said, this is the Champions League, so still expect both sets of players to be fired up and ready.
Tuchel being in the dugout gives Chelsea a greater chance of progressing than if Frank Lampard had remained, with defensive solidity looking key in this contest. The German will be aware of the significance of this game, starting shortly after his appointment that he knew his remit was essentially titles or bust.
Nevertheless, of the two, Atlético is undeniably the better side at this moment in time. Although an upset is certainly on the cards, the fact that Simeone is well aware of his best side and his players are all tuned into his tactics – and they should be, as he enters his 10th year at the club – whereas Tuchel is still trying to work out his best players and get his systems ingrained in their heads, should mean that Atlético prevails.
Verdict: Atlético Madrid
Borussia Mönchengladbach v Manchester City
Could this game have come at a better time for Manchester City? Already given what appears on paper a fairly easy tie, the Cityzens appear to effectively be Champions-elect in the Premier League, finally gaining some clearance at the top of the table.
Liverpool, who many expected to be City’s nearest title challengers, appear to have relinquished their defence of the title with manager Jürgen Klopp recently conceding defeat. City has been collecting clean sheets like they are going out of fashion and are among the league’s top scorers too.
Borussia Mönchengladbach deserves credit for reaching this far in the competition, for no one really gave them a chance to emerge from a group featuring both Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Not only did they qualify, but they did it in style, scoring 16 goals along the way. In fact, they will have counted themselves very unfortunate to have not topped the group, such was their dominant performances in several of the games. However, currently engaged in a fierce battle for European places in the Bundesliga, this tie looks to be one step too far for Mönchengladbach. Simply put, knockout games in the Champions League are different gravy.
Pep Guardiola’s side has fallen apart in the past in the latter stages of this competition but, with their newfound defensive resilience, I do not expect that to be the case this time around. A lot of their recent success has been achieved without star men Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Agüero and if they can get that duo back fit and firing, City have every chance of going all the way.
Verdict: Manchester City
🔵 Unstoppable? Manchester City have now won a record 15 games in a row in all competitions. 💪#UCL pic.twitter.com/TyYD9ZJBtd
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) February 11, 2021
Atalanta v Real Madrid
If you look solely at statistics, there is no need to panic at Real Madrid. They topped their Champions League group and sit second in La Liga only to a very impressive Atlético that have lost just once all season.
However, delve a little deeper and the issues run deep. Abysmal defending left them on the brink of elimination from the competition not long ago and it has been a common theme for Los Blancos this campaign. Reports have begun to emerge that head coach Zinedine Zidane wants to leave at the end of the season, for promises regarding recruitment have not been met.
There appears a great deal of unrest at the club, with talented young prospects being allowed to leave on loan, leaving a threadbare-looking squad of ageing, disgruntled players, who are running out of a contract. Of course, Zidane is a specialist in the Champions League, becoming the first manager to win the trophy in three consecutive seasons in his first spell in charge at Real. Still, the signs are not good.
Atalanta meanwhile, despite some disappointing domestic form, showed that they have an attacking force to be reckoned with, with their enterprising style of play on full show as they defeated Liverpool at Anfield in the group stages of this competition. In the return leg though, they were put to the sword.
Overall, if you are betting on an upset, I would go with this one, for both sides’ lack of defence should produce an open-ended, exciting affair that will surely be a great watch. That being said, unless you count a Sevilla win as an upset- and I am not entirely sure that you should – I do not expect any upsets to occur this year, with the return of two-legged ties making the squads with superior quality and experience to play an important factor.
Verdict: Real Madrid
This season has been one of the most unusual in recent times, with unfamiliar sides topping each of Europe’s top domestic leagues at various points in their respective campaigns. As a result, FC Bayern Munich and Manchester City, despite being the best two sides left in the tournament, will probably not meet one another in the final, even if there happens to be a draw that allows for that eventuality. However, after a close analysis of each of the 16 teams remaining in this year’s competition, I just cannot foresee many – if any – upsets at this stage in proceedings.
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