The Champions League is back! The first legs of the Round of 16 clashes take place over the nights of February 12 and 13, as the eight group toppers visit the runners-up they’ve been drawn against.
While it’s the first knockout stage, the clashes already see many European giants pitted against one another. Some of the matchups include sides which would feel they’re genuine contenders for the Champions League crown this season.
AS Roma vs Porto
The fact that this is arguably the lowest profile match of the eight shows how illustrious the matchups are, given that both Roma and Porto have been heavyweights of the European competition. Roma reached the semifinal last year, while Porto topped their group – albeit the least strong on paper, featuring Schalke, Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow.
While Roma have been scoring lots of goals at home in the Champions League, Porto have been unbeaten in their last five away contests – including, again, the three that featured in the group stages. Roma would be hard to beat in the first leg at home, and Porto would be happy to settle for a draw.
Lyon vs Barcelona
Given Barcelona’s recent failures in the Champions League – especially considering the standards they’ve set over the past decade and a half – it’s evident that the Catalan giants are prioritising the European crown this season. While they’re still comfortable favourites for La Liga, they would’ve preferred to have had an even bigger cushion heading into February so that they could concentrate completely on the Champions League.
Lyon shouldn’t pose too big a problem for Barcelona, but in recent seasons the La Liga leaders have been losing out to teams about which the same has been said. The French side would be hoping to avoid conceding at home, but that would be hard against an attack spearheaded by Lionel Messi, who should be fit for the contest.
Liverpool vs Bayern Munich
Liverpool and Bayern are having a contrasting season domestically. The six-time German champions are falling off the pace in the league they’ve owned this decade, while the English giants have perhaps their best chance to win the Premier League in three decades.
While Liverpool finished runners-up in the Champions League last season, it’s evident that the league is the priority this season. However, with early cup exits, Liverpool don’t have any other distractions and can go full-on in both the competitions.
The last non-Spanish side to win the Champions League, Bayern might put more eggs in the European basket this season. However, they’ve exhibited little to show that they can go deep this season.
Manchester United vs Paris Saint Germaine
When the draw was made in December, this clash was supposed to be a mismatch despite the high profile it brought to the table. However, things have changed at Old Trafford under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and United would actually feel they have a chance of outdoing the French league leaders. This is especially true given that Neymar Jr is set to miss the clash.
However, the glittering PSG ensemble has been put together for this competition. And therefore, it’s obvious that they would need the win more than United, despite the turnaround in fortunes for the English side.
United have a better chance of beating PSG without Neymar in their ranks. But the Parisians still have the edge in this one.
Schalke vs Manchester City
This time last year talks of a Manchester City quadruple were echoing. This was owing to Pep Guardiola’s side exhibiting unprecedented dominance domestically. However, repeated failures in the Champions League have meant that the Citizens’ European ambitions are gauged with more caution. They’re in the League Cup final and in the FA Cup fifth round as well, but given how tightly contested the Premier League is this season, is there a case of too many open fronts for City?
Despite their runners-up finish in Bundesliga last year, Schalke are struggling domestically this season. That could give them motivation to go all out in Europe. However, it’s hard to see them troubling a City side that could be on the verge of great things this season.
Tottenham Hotspur vs Borussia Dortmund
This is a clash between two sides who have challenged the respective status quos in their leagues. However, while Dortmund have silverware to show for it, their Round of 16 opponents don’t. Both these sides are very much a part of their respective title races, even though Dortmund have a healthy lead and Spurs still outsiders in a race that many feel is between City and Liverpool.
Will Dortmund’s focus on wrapping up a first league title in seven years take their eyes off Champions League? However, with Spurs still only five points off the top in the Premier League, do they feel they are genuine league contenders, something that they perhaps wouldn’t feel about the Champions League? This one has the potential to be thoroughly entertaining.
Ajax vs Real Madrid
Despite completing a hat-trick of Champions League titles – four in five seasons – not many expect Real Madrid to contest this year’s final. Their struggles following the departure of Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo are evident in La Liga.
Even so, the European champions are still in the Copa del Rey, and have habitually priotised the Champions League over everything else. But are they good enough to do it without Ronaldo?
Majority feel that they are not. But they should still be too strong for Ajax. This is despite the exciting Dutch side given Bayern a run for their money in the group stages. There could be goals in this one.
Atletico Madrid vs Juventus
Quite possibly the tie of the round. Juventus have put all their energy into winning the Champions League this season. While they’ve owned Serie A recently, Ronaldo’s purchase was designed to conquer Europe within the next couple of seasons. Having topped their group, Juve would’ve wanted a lesser challenge than Atletico Madrid, who remain the only real competition for a dominant Barca in La Liga.
The loss at home against a depleted Manchester United would’ve been a wake-up call. But the Italian champions can no longer afford any rude awakenings, now that the competition has entered the knockout stages.
This is the stage that Cristiano Ronaldo was brought in for. And containing him would be crucial, if Atletico are to have any chance.