UEFA Champions League Preview

The first week of the return of the Champions League last week produced goals galore and a couple of heavy defeats for Barcelona and Arsenal, with elimination beckoning for both sides.

Below we preview the second half of the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League 2016/17.

UEFA Champions League

Leverkusen vs Atletico

Two of Europe’s most industrious sides clash in this tie, which promises some tactical polish underneath the grit these two teams are often best known for.

Leverkusen vs Atletico Preview

How They’re Doing Currently:

Leverkusen’s season has been largely disappointing; the team has already lost 9 league games (they lost 10 last season); and they’ve found themselves marooned in mid-table, over 20 points behind leaders Bayern Munich, and nearly 10 points off the Champions League qualification pace. Their prospects against a potentially accessible opponent in Atletico Madrid for the Round of 16 remains one of the few lights to shine over a very forgettable campaign.

Atletico’s fortunes feel mixed for their current campaign. Their impressive Champions League group stage performance coupled with semifinal exit in the Copa Del Rey has done little to add colour to their disappointing campaign in La Liga. Simeone’s team still boast great defensive numbers, but their set piece threat and tendency for late winners has all but disappeared. Their record in Europe is excellent though, with only Real Madrid having been able to eliminate them in all of the past 3 campaigns.

Players to Watch:

Centre back Jonathan Tah will be critical to Leverkusen’s chances of winning; the German’s aerial dominance, read of the game & ability to handle one-on-one situations will be important to keep the likes of Antoine Griezmann quiet. Young winger Julian Brandt has made an impressive attacking contribution to his team’s fortunes with his speed and dribbling qualities. In goalscoring respects, look no further than Mexican Javier Hernandez to play the critical role in worrying the Spanish defence with his movement and finishing ability.

Atletico’s fame for robust and industrious play makes midfielder Koke arguably the most important player in this tie against the intense work rate of the German side; his abilities to both win the ball back and add creativity and invention will be critical. Superstar Antoine Griezmann is the obvious starlet worth watching, and his goals will be important in achieving the aim he’s set for himself in getting Atletico to another final. The wildcard is goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya; since replacing the injured Oblak, Moya has presided over a statistically similar defensive contribution, and IF he does play ahead of Oblak, it remains to be seen if he’ll maintain this in Europe.

Expected result

Both sides have mixed form coming in, but Atletico’s squad and pedigree in Europe are noticeably superior to the German side. The score may not like reflect a large gap between the two, but expect Atletico to repeat their elimination of Leverkusen in 2016/17 as it was in 2015.

Manchester City vs Monaco

This is the first meeting between these sides in European competition.

Manchester City vs Monaco Preview

How They’re Doing Currently:

After some mixed patches of form, Manchester City appear to be climbing out of the slump and have capitalised on the erratic form of their rivals. Coach Pep Guardiola hasn’t had a smooth transition into English football, but the considerable depth of attacking talent at his disposal is slowly but surely making up for defensive frailties and the team’s inability to adopt Pep’s tactical philosophies as quickly as they’d like.

Monaco are a revelation in this season’s Ligue 1 campaign. They’ve offered genuine competition to their richer neighbours in the capital, and Leonardo Jardim’s team have found a devastating groove in attacking quality; they’re still the best scoring team in all of Europe’s major leagues. With several young talents shining as a collective, and Jardim’s tactical masterminding yielding great results, the French side make a great case for this year’s Champions League dark horse.

Players to Watch:

Attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne has been integral to Man City’s fortunes this season with both his creativity and goalscoring contributions to a star studded team. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Manchester City progressing without Sergio Aguero – their top scorer may have found himself on the bench on the odd occasion for tactical reasons, but there’s little argument he’s the best player in a Citizen shirt. The wildcard is centre back Nicolas Otamendi, who at times has seemed the only defender worth noting this season, and he’ll be critical to organising the defence in order to keep out the free scoring Monaco.

Given Monaco’s scoring prowess, it seems disingenuous to focus on a defensive player, but Fabinho has been massively influential to Monaco’s defensive solidity. The former fullback has displayed his great positioning and defensive recovery to even greater effect in midfield. In attacking respects, Monaco are spoilt with attacking riches, but arguably their young prospects Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappe are the most exciting; both possess loads dribbling trickery and pace, and both of them have reached double figures in the goalscoring charts already this season.

Expected result

Guardiola has more experience than Jardim in these encounters, and Manchester City are on the revival trail having improved recent form to climb the English league table. However, Monaco and Jardim have a certain charm to them at the moment, and they have the recent memories of knocking out Arsenal at this stage in 2015 to inspire further belief. So while the English side are favourites, don’t be too surprised if Monaco make a big impression by claiming Manchester City as their next scalp.

Porto vs Juventus

Two of the Champions League’s most regular actors face each on the same stage for the first time since they met in the group stages of 2001.

Porto vs Juventus Preview

How They’re Doing Currently:

FC Porto have quietly made up ground on leaders Benfica in the Primeira Liga in recent weeks after an indifferent 1st half of the season. The Dragons have little else to play for given their early exit from both domestic cups, and while the European stage is important to the club’s legacy, coach Nuno Espirito Santos may well be more preoccupied with extending his side’s unbeaten league run rather than focus too much attention on the Italian champions.

It’s been business as usual for Juventus, who enjoy a solid lead in Serie A, and face a spirited Napoli in the Coppa Italia semifinals. The Bianconeri are looking well on track for yet another Serie A title, and coach Allegri has spoken in recent weeks that their 6th consecutive title remains their priority.

Players to Watch:

Midfield general Danilo Pereira has continued his impressive form from last season for Porto, and given their emphasis on defensive game control, his battle with Pjanic and others in the Juventus midfield could be the decisive contest for the tie. Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas has been mostly good between the sticks, but still seems as likely for a high profile error as he does a clean sheet. Young starlet Andre Silva has been in mixed form of late, but Porto will be hopeful that the European stage helps the striker recapture the goalscoring touch that helped his side navigate the group stage.

Former Porto left back Alex Sandro has been superb for the Bianconeri these season, offering his excellent balance of attacking support and defensive resilience to fill the void left by Patrice Evra. Top scorer Gonzalo Higuain has almost overtaken the haul scored by Paulo Dybala from last season, so already his value to Juventus’ fortunes is easy to quantify. But the key player is likely to be the maestro Miralem Pjanic; the Bosnian’s incredible passing ability and game leadership from midfield will be integral to unlocking Porto’s fairly stubborn defence.

Expected result

That both coaches of these sides have suggested their league campaigns are the priority is interesting. Arguably Porto have more at stake than Juventus in that respect given the lack of trophies in recent years, but the Italians would hardly relish losing the chance to break a record in consecutive Serie A wins. That said, the prospect of elimination at this early stage in Europe given the talent at the disposal of Allegri seems unwelcome enough to suggest it’s Juventus who has both the depth and quality to see themselves past Porto to the next round.

Sevilla vs Leicester City

While experienced Europa League campaigners Sevilla are quite used to the slog of European football in its latter stages, English champions Leicester City will play European football after Christmas for the first time in their history.

Sevilla vs Leicester Preview

How They’re Doing Currently:

Coach Jorge Sampaoli had large shoes to fill from the departing Unai Emery, but the Argentine has responded emphatically. Sevilla successfully navigated the Champions League groups stage and find themselves in a chance to reach the last eight of the competition for the first time since 1958. Their La Liga campaign has been their best in years, threatening to break the hegemony of the usual top 3 (Real, Barcelona, Atletico). And it was their 2-1 win over Real Madrid in January that finally ended the latter’s 40-match record unbeaten streak.

English Champions Leicester City have found their favourable fortunes from last season impossible to sustain. The Foxes’ form has deteriorated to the extent that they face a battle to ensure they at least remain in the same division they topped at the end of 2015/16. Their UEFA Champions League campaign remains the season’s sole silver lining; but their concerns with domestic matters should play massively into Sevilla’s hands.

Players to Watch:

Sevilla’s improvements are well characterised by key midfielder Steven N’Zonzi whose midfield dominance and combative energy have been consistently delivered upon regardless of the opponent. Spanish winger Vitolo’s versatility, big game temperament and physicality has been well leveraged already this season by coach Sampaoli. Top scorer Ben Yedder has impressed since arriving with his pace, finishing and ability to link up with teammates through solid short passing.

If Leicester are to progress, it’s key that the team banks on its attacking talents to undo the industry of their Spanish opponents. Thus, regardless of form, striker Jamie Vardy has to recapture the goalscoring qualities that so often characterised Leicester’s prowess in the counterattack. Likewise, Algerian attacking midfielder Riyad Mahrez’s dribbling ability, creativity and tendency for effective attacking support will also be key to occupy Sevilla’s combative midfield. The different ingredient could also be Islam Slimani, who offers something much more physically imposing in the box, and more threatening in the air.

Expected result

Sevilla’s experience, much improved form on last year and superior performances and quality are hard to look past against a Leicester City side who no longer possess the romance and charm of their title winning campaign. Sevilla to progress. Because surely Leicester can’t conquer this challenge either… can they?

*League placings correct at time of publishing.

 

Previous Round Preview

While many usually recognise the 14th of February by its more familiar annual mask of Valentine’s Day, with its dressings of roses, chocolate and all things romantic, for football fans, it will take on a different meaning. Instead, for them, they’ll likely be trading loving glances at their partners to take in the return of the gold standard of football – the UEFA Champions League. Football’s most coveted European trophy commences its knockout stage on Tuesday 14th February and Wednesday 15th February with 4 intriguing ties featuring familiar rivalries and the 3 most successful teams to play in the tournament in recent years.

Previous Preview

Below we preview the first half of the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League 2016/17.

Benfica vs Dortmund

This tie brings together two of Europe’s football cultural giants, with iconic colours, stories of past glories, and two sets of fans with tremendous reputations for being amongst the finest in Europe.

Results-Benfica-vs Dortmund

How They’re Doing Currently:

On the surface, Benfica’s fortunes appear largely as you’d expect; they’re top of the Primeira Liga, having held the lead since September, and despite a wave of injuries, have kept the results mostly consistent. However, there’s been an odd lull in defensive stability in recent weeks, and this has allowed rivals Porto to make up lost ground in the title race.

By comparison, Dortmund have appeared largely frustrated figures at this in this season’s Bundesliga. They’re off the title chasing pace, and while they’ve managed to string together a 7 match unbeaten run, BVB have kept a mere 3 clean sheets in their league campaign, exacerbating their lack of wins relative to leaders Bayern and surprise package Leipzig.

Players to Watch:

Benfica will be eager to see their pivotal goal machine Jonas hit a strong patch of form going into this tie; especially given his absence due to injury through the entire Group Stage. Their most important player, however, is attacking midfielder Pizzi, whose form has dwindled in recent weeks affecting the team’s build up and fluency. Lastly, goalkeeper Ederson has maintained his superb form, and will likely be called upon to compensate for any lacking defensive displays in front of him.

Dortmund meanwhile, will be delighted that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is back with the team following his nation’s African Cup of Nations exit; there’s little doubt his goalscoring brilliance will prove crucial in this matchup. Also in attack, Ousmane Dembélé continues to show genuinely special flashes of footwork and his mazy runs could frighten a vulnerable Benfica defence. Lastly, expect young midfielder Julian Weigl to orchestrate matters from midfield; some of his passing displays this season have been nothing short of breathtaking.

Expected Result:

On the surface, it’s hard to look past Dortmund. The German side were prolific in the UEFA Champions League Group Stage with their table topping 21 goals, and their free scoring style could well be the kryptonite to Benfica’s setup. Add a Benfica team with concerns on the form of key players (especially Pizzi), and missing a couple of their best performers (Grimaldo, Fejsa), and their generally poor record against German sides, and conclusions lean considerably towards Dortmund to progress.

PSG vs Barcelona

This will be the 3rd time since 2013 that PSG have crossed swords with the Catalan giants in the knockout phase, and the French side are yet to enjoy progress at Barcelona’s expense.

PSG vs Barcelona

How They’re Doing Currently:

New PSG coach Unai Emery hasn’t found Ligue 1 as one-sided as it was in 2015/16. Nonetheless, they’ve kept pace with goal-flush league leaders Monaco. They’ve also added to the sheer embarrassment of squad riches in the January transfer window with the signings of German wonderkid Julian Draxler and promising Portuguese prospect Goncalo Guedes. It’s this depth and quality that has kept PSG in all competitions, even if the football and certain results haven’t always been to the high ambitious standards expected of the team.

Meanwhile, Barcelona have managed to temper their relatively indifferent start; but still trail their rivals Real Madrid. The goalscoring resources available to coach Luis Enrique haven’t failed him either, to the extent that the Catalans didn’t feel the impact too much of various injuries to legends Messi and Iniesta. It’s in defence where Barcelona have experienced disruption in personnel, particularly with consistent injuries sustained by UEFA EURO 2016 star Samuel Umtiti.

Players to Watch:

New signing Julian Draxler has already made a goal-scoring entry into his early PSG career, and his qualities provide Emery with very different options to leverage. The young German will no doubt help take some defensive attention away from Edinson Cavani, who’s on the cusp of his best ever goal return in his career. But it’s arguably midfielder Marco Verratti who could prove the most critical player in the tie for the French side. Barcelona’s attack will pose a massive threat unless they’re starved of the ball, and the Italian is integral to both defensive interruptions and possession retention.

It’s become cliche, but it’s not possible to mention key players for Barcelona and not start with Lionel Messi. The world’s best player still forms the pivotal cog in (arguably) world football’s most frightening attacking trio. Uruguayan team-mate Luis Suarez has been equally prolific in La Liga. But it’s perhaps goalkeeper Ter Stegen who holds the key to victory; his promotion to first choice keeper has been largely solid, and his influence may be critical to victory over PSG.

Expected Result:

With both sides having incredible depth of talent, and quality in abundance, it’s too close to call. That said, it may just be that Barcelona’s experience, Emery’s struggles to meet the sometimes excessive expectations upon PSG, and the presence of the best player on the planet that may just edge Barcelona over the line. Just.

Bayern vs Arsenal

Incredibly, this tie showcases the 3rd time that Bayern have met Arsenal in the Round of 16, with the former responsible for eliminating the latter at this stage in 2013 and 2014.

Bayern vs Arsenal

How They’re Doing Currently:

New Bayern Munich coach Carlo Ancelotti isn’t getting the same kind of romanticised press that his predecessor Guardiola received, but for all the concerns about the team being relatively unconvincing in performance, and various players in mixed form, the high standards of the German giants remain intact in the results column. Bayern are still intact in all competitions, fresh off an 8-match unbeaten run in the Bundesliga where they still are on top of the table, and their squad remains one of the deepest and experienced in Europe.

Arsenal’s 2016/17 campaign appears all too familiar; a lack of signings to inject an inherent shift to a higher level of competitiveness, an over-reliance on young prospects perhaps trusted too much to deliver a sustained title challenge, and poor results against stronger sides in the league undermining a good record against weaker ones. It’s once again a case of how far one hopes they could go, rather than being convinced that they are on the cusp of another English or maiden European title.

Players to Watch:

While it’s usually Bayern’s experienced players that often make the biggest impact, young midfielder Thiago has established himself as their most critical cog in their tactical engine this season. As always, striker Robert Lewandowski continues to pile up an astounding goalscoring record, and it’s proved to be additionally valuable given the lacking form of teammate Thomas Muller. Having recently announced his impending retirement, veteran Philipp Lahm will no doubt be keen to leverage this opportunity for one last Champions League medal.

The importance of Alexis Sanchez to Arsenal’s fortunes can’t be understated; his class, and goals, in particular, have been a key part of anything good the Gunners fans have been able to cheer. The form of Mesut Ozil may be both mixed and tepid; but the experienced German played well in the Group Stage and the larger stage of the Champions League could do well to enable him to recapture some critical form. Goalkeeper Petr Cech hasn’t yet played for Arsenal in the Champions League this season, but his favourable history of matches against Bayern should make him an essential, valuable and possibly crucial selection.

Expected Result:

Bayern’s form and performances have been mixed, but the defending German champions still possess a deep squad, rich of talent. It doesn’t hurt that they have so many players capable of controlling a game alongside others who can unlock stubborn defences at the drop of a hat. Arsenal are a good team on their day, but over two legs, it’s hard to look past Bayern’s pedigree.

Real Madrid vs Napoli

30 years after Diego Maradona’s Napoli met tasted defeat in a two legged European Champions Clubs’ Cup tie against the Real Madrid, the two sides face each other again for the first time in the UEFA Champions League.

RealMadrid-vs-Napoli

How They’re Doing Currently:

The spanish behemoth that is Real Madrid are in mixed mood ahead of the knockout phase vs Napoli. While Zinedine Zidane’s players broke the record for the longest unbeaten run in Spanish football (40 games), those highs were balanced by the end of that run in defeat to Sevilla and a fairly tame exit in the Copa Del Rey quarterfinal vs Celta Vigo. Los Merengues are still ahead in the La Liga title race, also with games in hand on the chasing pack.

Napoli’s 2016/17 campaign has been another promising affair, with the team placing well in the league, while also managing to progress in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League. Despite the shocking departure of top scorer Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus in the summer transfer window & recent injury to key striker Arkadiusz Milik, the Italian side are top scorers in Serie A, and come into the tie against the defending European champions off a 12 game unbeaten run in league competition.

Players to Watch:

The timing of Luka Modric’s return from injury could be highly fortuitous for Real Madrid; the midfielder’s class in game control, intelligence and playmaking ability could provide invaluable against the underrated Napoli midfield – assuming Modric can get match fit in time. Predictably, top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo will also be important to Real’s fortunes, while captain and veteran defender Sergio Ramos merits attention from Napoli’s defences, especially in late-game situations. Ramos’ 8 goals thus far this season are a career best, and the majority of them have tended to be scored in the final minutes of Real’s more evenly matched fixtures.

It’s unlikely Napoli will beat the Spanish giants without leveraging their goal threats, thus the energy, creativity and leadership of captain Marek Hamsik will be critical to their prospects. Especially since he’s on the cusp of his best ever goal scoring season. 2016’s Belgian Footballer of the Year Dries Mertens has been prolific, and is fresh off a hat-trick in Napoli’s 7-goal demolition of Bologna. The wildcard is arguably young Polish midfielder Piotr Zieliński, who has impressed since arriving in the summer from Udinese, particularly with his dribbling ability and passing.

Expected result

Real Madrid are one of only two sides in the Champions League who haven’t failed to reach a semifinal at the least in the last 5 seasons, and it’s hard to see their experienced side fail to repeat this, let alone against a spirited, talented, but nonetheless weaker Napoli side. The Italian side has the tactical aptitude to run it close, but this is likely the best they can hope for.

*League placings correct at time of publishing.

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