Champions League Round of 16 Analysis
Background Photo: Fernando Pascullo, CC BY-SA 4.0
The group stage complete, the draw held, the Champions League knock-out stages are set. Fans around the globe, by which I mean me, cannot contain their excitement. There are too many juicy matchups.
Some teams fired up their respective UCL campaigns with incredible starts. Others just punched the clock. When the Round of 16 takes place in February, a few will add to the unpredictability factor by switching roles. One or two who bossed their groups may take an opponent for granted. Sides who struggled to make ends meet may suddenly display a wealth of form.
With the possibilities dancing in our heads like sugar plums, let’s have a look at the Round of 16 draw.
On paper, this is City’s free pass to the quarterfinals. By far the biggest mismatch in the draw, the Germans arrive as the weaker team in a very weak group. Pep Guardiola doesn't do weak.
In 2017/18, Dominic Tedesco's Konigsblauen defied expectations by finishing runners-up in the Bundesliga. Quite the overachievement. They defied expectations again in the group stage, by not living up to the standard they'd set. Schalke ended the group five points behind Porto.
The danger for Tedesco's side is inconsistency. On their day, Schalke can surprise anyone. The problem this season is those days are too rare. Floundering in 13th in the Bundesliga, an 18-team league, Schalke shouldn’t represent a difficult hurdle to City’s prospects for progression in the competition they covet most.
This is not the draw Juventus wanted. Atletico Madrid are perhaps the one team in the competition who have the coach, experience and know-how to stop Cristiano Ronaldo. Massimiliano Allegri must devise a plan to break Diego Simeone's barriers while remaining conscious of his own vulnerability. Atleti live to counterattack.
The home advantage is crucial for Los Colchoneros in the first leg. Any deficit can be made up in Juventus Stadium's electrifying atmosphere but the pressure must be exerted. Look at what Real Madrid [and Ronaldo] did there last year. Goals will be at a premium. Expect this to be a chess match in which the loser will not deserve to lose.
Diego Simeone has swallowed plenty of sour pills since becoming Atletico’s coach. This has all the makings of yet another one. The final is at their Wanda Metropolitano but they must travel a long road to come home. Atletico conceded only five goals during the group stage but showed a new vulnerability on the road, losing the top spot when thrashed 4-0 by Borussia Dortmund. Juventus remain a favourite despite two defeats in the group stage. With Ronaldo in their ranks Allegri should have just enough firepower to find a way through Simeone’s miserly defence.
This is the tie you can afford to miss. Roma are nothing like the team who reached last season’s semifinal. Porto topped their group over struggling Schalke. These are the two teams everyone wanted in the draw. The irony of their match is what makes the rest of the round so enticing.
As it happens, Roma actually has a bone to pick with Porto, who knocked them out of the 2016 Europa League. Even though they finished second in the group, last season’s semi-finalists are favourites in this duel.
Porto claimed five wins and a draw in their easy group. None one they faced had Roma's firepower. Eden Dzeko, anyone? Cengiz Under? Stephan el-Shaarawy? Aleksandar Kolarov has four goals from the back. It'll be a completely different kettle of fish for Porto in February and everyone knows you shouldn't order fish on Tuesdays.
Not a draw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will relish. Paris Saint-Germain finished above Liverpool in their group and we saw what Liverpool did to United in Jose Mourinho's last game. It's difficult to see United stopping PSG’s attack.
The two sides have no significant history, however, which makes it a curious encounter. Les Parisiens are just happy to have avoided the big guns for once. Much can change before February. Look at United's last three days. As things stand now, PSG are heavy favourites to progress. Solskjaer has work to do to repair United's confidence and reputation. With the Premier League as well as Les Rouge et Bleu in mind, his work should begin in defence. It remains to be seen if he's given help in the winter transfer window.
One of the most evocative ties of the round matches two clubs with massive European histories and heritage. Ajax and Real Madrid own 15 European Cups between them.
Ajax missed a great opportunity to claim the top spot in Group E. Their reward? A date with the back-to-back-to-back defending champions. This is not the Real Madrid everyone knows and fears, though. Then again, they weren’t at this point last season either. What was I saying about a lot changing in a short time?
You can argue Santiago Solari and Zinedine Zidane are hardly at the same level. As players, you win. As managers, they come into the Real Madrid job travelling much the same path and equally experienced. The main difference? Solari cannot write Ronaldo into the team sheet.
On paper, it seems as if Ajax should be the more worried side. In reality, it's Los Blancos who should be careful and prepared. If not, the Dutch side will tear them apart. Frenkie de Jong is a budding world-class playmaker. Hachim Ziyech can finish. Veterans like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Daley Blind contribute. The latter picked up a hattrick against De Graafschap in Eredivisie play last week. Madrid dropped an admittedly meaningless match against CSKA Moscow 3-0 to wrap up the group stage.
Fans [rightly] question where the club's pride has gone that such a thing could happen at the Santiago Bernabeu? Solari has RM back in La Liga's title chase but his repairs on Julen Loeptegui's wreckage are far from complete.
Spurs made the knockout stage by the skin of their teeth and are rewarded with a clash against the current Bundesliga leaders, off to a scorching start under new manager Lucien Favre.
It is quite clear Favre is the man to make Dortmund competitive again. Mauricio Pochettino’s side beat Dortmund twice in the group stages in 2017 but they're a different prospect these days. Six points clear at the top in the Bundesliga after tasting their first defeat last Tuesday, they will be formidable opponents. England forward Jadon Sancho has emerged as a major talent in Dortmund’s vibrant young team. The 18-year-old's contributed five goals and seven assists in the Bundesliga. Marco Reus is resurgent. Paco Alcacer comes off the bench like Chicharito on steroids.
Spurs' fighting spirit can't flag if they are to advance. While BVB are a new team, Tottenham refused to change a thing in the summer window. Following a World Cup summer and a heavy holiday fixture period, there may be a toll to be paid. The words finely balanced come to mind looking at this match-up
Lyon are dangerous. Manchester City found out as much in their group. OL's youthful aggression can deliver a jolt to Ernesto Valverde's Catalans if they're not on their toes. Nabil Fekir excels. Memphis Depay has never been this lethal. Bertrand Traore, Maxwell Cornet and Hassem Aouar make a strong supporting cast.
Barcelona are a different beast, However. On a mission to make up for last season’s embarrassing exit to Roma, it's difficult to imagine them caught napping again but there are distractions. The Cules' usual dominance in La Liga is challenged by several clubs. Sevilla have held the top spot for stretches. The Blaugrana have found it hard to secure three points on a weekly basis.
Defensive vulnerabilities have been exposed. A top European side like Lyon is always poised to capitalise on such weakness. The January transfer window could be a crucial one for Barca, who are trying to lure Ajax youngster Matthijs De Ligt south. Edwin van der Sar, the Ajax CEO isn't having it, though. He's gone on record that the Dutch giants are not a selling club in this window. Barca need someone with Gerard Pique showing his age and Samuel Umtitit on the injury list.
At the other end, Valverde has fewer worries. Problem child Ousmane Dembele displays red-hot form when he can be torn away from the PlayStation. The boss is trying to find playing time for all his stars, including Philippe Coutinho, Luis Saurez, and a promising Argentine named Lionel Messi. As imposing as Lyon might be,it's Barcelona's tie to lose.
Bayern aren't as daunting as Borussia Dortmund. Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool are. Yet, this tie is not a given.
Niko Kovac proved Bayern still have punch in the thrilling 3-3 draw with Ajax last week despite ageing stars struggling and youngsters not quite ready to break through. Bayern are not the force of old. Kovac hasn't sold everyone on his qualifications to manage the team.
Meanwhile, Klopp has the Reds in maximum overdrive, attacking less but defending formidably. It's the Merseysiders, not Manchester City, who top the Premier League. Finalists last year, they added Alisson Becker in goal, Fabinho, Naby Keita in the midfield and Xherdan Shaqiri up front with the intent to complete unfinished business. Bayern has it all to do to stop them.