BY JONATHAN LEDGER
Last week saw Liverpool and Manchester City run riot away from home, Real Madrid confirming their Europian pedigree against PSG, and tottenham relying on the calmness Dembele and Kane plus the luck of Higuain missing a penalty to earn a 2-2 draw against Juventus.
The Champions League Round of 16 continues this week with the possibility of Messi punishing a floundering Chelsea at Stamford bridge and Bayern continuing their renaissance under Jupp Heynckes against Besiktas.
CHELSEA vs BARCELONA
When Russian Oligarch,Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea at the turn of the millennium, he wanted his new club to play attacking football like Barcelona. While his team have not reached that standard, they successfully created a modern European rivalry. Games between these two teams has always been a spectacle, and with both sides parading stars such as Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard, more drama should be served tomorrow. Add veteran playmaker Andre Iniesta who broke Chelsea’s hearts in 2009 at the semi-final stage, and the likes of Suarez, Morata and former Barcelona players Cesc Fabregas and Pedro who are currently Blues, another contest would ensue tonight. Barcelona talisman, Lionel Messi, who is a five-time Balon d’Or winner and arguably the best player in the world would also be out to prove his credentials against the Stamford bridge club against whom he has not scored in 8 games. His penalty kick miss in 2012 was pivotal in barca’s elimination at the semi final stage, and Chelsea went on to win the trophy. Barca’s new coach has adapted well to his new surroundings after a summer switch from Athletic Bilbao, and the Catalonians have not lost in the league this season. He has also made Barca stronger defensively and it remains to be seen if Chelsea’s epileptic attack set to be led by former Real Madrid youngster, Alvaro Morata, can hurt Pique et al. Chelsea, on the other hand, have put up a feeble defence of their EPL title and have crumbled in the past month, only earning some respite against dreadful sides West Brom and Hull City. Coach Antonio also looks weary but the Italian is known for his tactical prowess and this game is another to prove his CV.
Caveat: Chelsea have not lost to Barcelona in the last 7 meetings (2 wins, 5 draws). Also, they have already defeated a Spanish side, Atlético Madrid, this season in Spain at the group stage.
Verdict: it’s going to be a tupsy-turvey tie and Chelsea would need to win at the bridge. The jury is however still out for Barca against the big teams, Chelsea would prove a sterner test compared to the out-of-sorts Real Madrid.
BAYERN MUNICH vs BESIKTAS
Besiktas, champions of the Turkish Super Lig, will be facing an uphill task tonight in their effort to qualify for their first ever quarter final appearance against the might of Bayern Munich, the German champions who are seasoned champions league contenders.
The Istanbul giants won their group, becoming the first turkish side to do so, but Bayern are bidding for their 7th successive quarter final appearance and are primed to do so. After a rather awkward opening to the season which saw them sack Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti, veteran manager Jupp Heynckes who won the Champions League with Bayern the last time he was in the competition has come in to steady the ship, with Bayern losing just once in 23 games since he came out of retirement. In Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, tricky wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, creativity of on-loan midfielder James Rodriguez and Thomas Muller who has a knack for scoring important goals, FC Hollywood could prove too much for Besiktas. However, Senol Gunes’s men can gain confidence from the fact they won all their away games in this competition this season, and can count on the experience of old heads such as former Real Madrid defender, Pepe, former Manchester City striker, Alvaro Negredo, and the tricky Queresma.
Caveat: Last time the two sides met in the UCL in Germany, Bayern defeated Besiktas 6-0.
Verdict: Besiktas lost their joint highest goalscorer Cenk Tosun and have been struggling since he left for Everton in January and this tie would prove too much for them. Bayern to ease through to the next round.
SEVILLA vs MANCHESTER UNITED
The last of the English sides to sneak into the competition, Manchester United qualified as Europa League champions, a title usually enjoyed by Sevilla.
This tie is however epitomized by the two coaches. Sevilla’s Vincenzo Montella favours an all-out attacking game, while Jose Mourinho likes to build his games on a solid defence.
Vincenzo Montella replaced Argentine Eduardo Berrizzo in december and results have improved, and 27-year old French striker Wissam Ben Yedder can’t stop scoring. He leads the club’s goals chart in the competition with 8 goals and he scored three times in both games against Liverpool at the group stage. But the Andalusians just can’t keep a clean sheet, and were recently picked apart 5-1 by Eibar. On the other hand, former Real Madrid coach and two-time Champions League winner, Jose Mourinho has steadied the Red Devils ship post-Ferguson, spending over £300 million to achieve the task. The Portuguese tactician’s next step is making United an European super club again and with Pogba and Sanchez, he has two superstars who can win a game single handedly. However, it is not the best of times at the theatre of dreams with reports of the Special One falling out with several of his players, notably Pogba. The signing of Sanchez could yet prove to be masterstroke, while the return of Ivorian defender Bailey from injury should shore up a leaky defence. Big Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku has scored over 20 goals this season, mostly against average teams, and he could star in this encounter again.
Caveat: Sevilla have never won a Round of 16 tie.
Verdict: Manchester United have not been superb of late and have suffered defeats against lowly side, including at Basel. However, Mourinho knows how to get the job done.
SHAKHTAR DONETSK vs AS ROMA
A replay of 2011 round of 16 tie in which Ukrainian champions Shakhtar won both legs comfortably 5-2 on aggregate, this tie would be all about revenge. Roma won their group ahead of Chelsea and Atlético Madrid and their performances have been based on team work, a similar ethos shared by their opponent. And in Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko, they have a striker that can deliver the goals to kill of Shakhtar. Paolo Fonseca’s men, however have shown their mettle already, winning all home games including defeats of Italian Serie A leaders Napoli, and English Premier League runaway champions Manchester City.
Caveat: Roma have not featured in the quarter finals in a decade.
Verdict: Too close to call a winner here, but it’d be nice if Shakhtar, an outsider, can go through to the next round for the competition to retain its element of surprise.