Europe- and the world- welcomes back the premier club competition and it’s the round of the big clubs.
The usual suspects of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona are on a roller coaster ride, but the impressive Manchester City and tricky duo of Roma and Sevilla could put a clog in the big boys’ wheels.
Juventus vs Real Madrid
A repeat of last season’s final in which Real trashed Juve 4-1. This season has however seen Madrid up the tempo in Europe while Juve just qualified from the group stage on the last day, while they needed a brave Wembley performance to get to this stage. The Old Lady of Turin have however been in top form since January, with Higuain leading from the front. Mercurial Argentine forward Paolo Dybala has also played his way to form in recent weeks and a shaky Los Merengues defence should further motivate him.
However, defending UCL Champions Real Madrid always seem to play their best in Europe. Despite a shambolic domestic campaign, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored in every European game this season and his scoring form (22 goals in 13 games; 7 goals in 5 games against Juventus) should continue. Madrid’s fringe players, especially Vasquez and Asensio are both back in form and should complement the superstars of Modric et al.
Caveat: Juventus have eliminated Real Madrid in their last three meetings in knockout rounds, the last one was in 2015, a 3-2 aggregate victory.
Prediction: The absence of midfield linchpin Miralem Pjanic in the first leg in Turin is a huge blow, while Benatia too will be missing in defence. Apart from Ronaldo’s red-hot scoring form, Zidane has got his tactical nous back, first team players are injury-free, Real Madrid are firing once again and they should advance.
Sevilla vs Bayern Munich
Vicenzo Montella’s mind must be a haunted space right now. The Italian coach would be asking himself the seemingly obvious question of how to defeat the ever-imposing Bayern team. A superlative display over Barcelona on Saturday in which the trio of Banega, Nzonzi, Vasquez and Correa tore the Catalans’ midfield and defence to shreds would bring optimism. However, the two-minute crazy spell inspired by Messi in which they conceded twice at the end would be the biggest worry. Another dilemma is the choice of striker, wasteful Luis Muriel over Round of 16 hero and highest goalscorer Wissam Ben Yedder who has scored 10 goals in the competition this season. However, Bayern are no Barcelona, neither are they a Manchester United. The Germans have a mean defence, a domineering midfield and a punishing attack, led by Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski and veteran winger Arjen Robben, that can score all kinds of goal at any time. The Bavarians also have experienced heads all over the pitch- the oldest squad in the competition with an average age over 30 years- and they should get the job done.
Caveat: Bayern have qualified for the semi finals, five of the last six seasons, only losing to eventual winners, Real Madrid in the quarter finals last season.
Prediction: Sevilla need a good first leg in Spain (at least two goals and a clean sheet) if they harbour any hope if continuing their European fairy tale, and much of that would depend of the striker Montella starts: Muriel who wastes a truckload of chances or Ben Yedder who converts them. However, Bayern should finish the job in the second leg at the Allianz Arena if Sevilla show resoluteness in Spain.
Barcelona vs AS Roma
Barcelona are well on the road to achieving an unbeaten season in La Liga but their European sojourn is only waiting to unravel. They have had Lionel Messi to thank on numerous occasions this season, including the Round of 16 win over Chelsea. The Argentine is having a barnstorming season which is papering over the many cracks of what is believed to be one of the weakest Barcelona sides in years. Coach Ernesto Valverde’s pragmatic approach has also been of great help, putting together the right unit for any occasion and he has mostly used his substitutions to great effect. Although it would seem that they have the luck of the draw in the epileptic Italian team, AS Roma, it should however be noted that the capital outfit are an unpredictable bunch performing when least expected. Radja Nainggolan and Edin Dzeko must be at their devastating best, while goalkeeper Alisson Becker must perform heroics to create the platform for Roma to penetrate a rather weak Barca midfield and defence. The waning powers of Iniesta and loss of Busquets to injury is evident as an incisive team will bypass the rather static midfield with 2-3 passes.
Caveat: Barcelona have been eliminated at the quarter final stage in the past two seasons, while Roma were thrashed 7-1 by Manchester United in their last appearance in this stage of the competition.
Prediction: Leo Messi. His contribution should determine the outcome of this potential banana skin of an encounter for Barcelona.
Liverpool vs Manchester City
Only two of four English teams survived the last round, but it was no surprise that the best duo did. This is my match of the round due to the dedication of both teams to attacking football. Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing style of winning back the ball will serve as panache for the occasion while Kevin de Bruyne should continue his already impressive season. Mohamed Salah has been enjoying a breakthrough season on his return to England, with the duo of Mane and Firmino acting as perfect foil for the explosive Egyptian striker. The Qatar-sponsored City also have game changers all around the pitch, from Sane and Sterling on the wings to Aguero and Gabriel Jesus upfront supplied by the magical feet of Silva and the aforementioned De Bruyne.
Caveat: Both teams have met twice this season and shared 12 goals, with City contributing eight of them. However, Liverpool are the only team to inflict defeat on them in the EPL.
Prediction: It’s attack vs attack in England, and if Klopp’s attack can subdue City’s improved defence to win at home in the first leg, the Anfield side can again tame the Citizens to progress. However, their unimpressive defence could be their undoing against a free-scoring Man City attack.