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UEFA Champions League round of 16 preview I

UEFA Champions League round of 16 preview I
February 13
18:26 2018
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BY JONATHAN LEDGER

Finally, the Champions League is back and it’s the period of real football- knockout stage. After a rather drab group stage which saw the last year’s finalist Juventus scrapping through on the last matchday and Real Madrid not winning its group, the big boys are set to collide and the prospects of real entertainment looks promising again.

Of the 16 teams left in this year’s competition, only Porto, Besiktas, Shakhtar Donetsk and Basel come from outside the supposed “Big Five Leagues” of England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. There is also the prospect of an English team winning for the first time since Chelsea’s 2012 triumph with five clubs still represented in the round, and big clubs already clashing- ditto Real Madrid against Paris Saint-Germain. First legs will played on 13-14 and 20-21 February, while the second legs will be played between 6-7 and 13-14 March. This first of a five-part series will preview games to be played on 13 February.

FixturesDate
Juventus vs Tottenham Hotspur13 February
FC Basel vs Manchester City13 February
FC Porto vs Liverpool14 February
Real Madrid vs Paris Saint-Germain14 February
Chelsea vs Barcelona20 February
Bayern Munich vs Besiktas20 February
Sevilla vs Manchester United21 February
Shakhtar Donetsk vs AS Roma21 February

JUVENTUS vs TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

This tie throws up an opportunity to see how far Tottenham have come in Europe as the Lillywhites come up against last year’s beaten finalist. The north London club comes into this round thrashing last season winners Real Madrid 3-1 in the best performance of the group stage, going unbeaten in the process (5 wins, 1 draw) while Juventus scrapped through on the last matchday. Juventus are however unbeaten in their past 26 home games in Europe, and Massimiliano Allegri’s team seem to be coming together over the past two months. They are on an 11-game winning streak in all competition, winning the last seven without conceding, and have scored 10 goals in the last 3 matches. Also in Paulo Dybala, they have a player who can win the tie on his own, and an on-fire Gonzalo Higuain would be needed against a Tottenham side that collected the most points in the group stage. Juventus did not concede a goal at home in the group stage, while Tottenham only kept clean sheets against lowly APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus.

Tottenham, on the other hand, have a formidable team knitted together by the technically savvy coach Mauricio Pochettino, fired on by the goals of England striker, Harry Kane who has scored six times in this year’s UCL competition, and the assists of Christian Eriksson. Add the workaholic Dele Alli, and a well-drilled backline, Tottenham could prove the real surprise package of this year’s competition. Tottenham are also on the form, losing just once in 15 games (to Manchester City) in all competition, winning 10 of those games.

Caveat: Juventus are on a six-game unbeaten run against English Premier League teams, winning the last three; Tottenham have won four out of five two-legged games against Italian opposition.

Verdict: Juventus’ form and experience should see them through and a clean sheet at home would be vital. Tottenham have had troubles against top teams this season (bar an out-of-sorts Real Madrid and an ultra-defensive Manchester United), and an in-form Juventus would add to this statistic.

FC BASEL vs MANCHESTER CITY

This tie also throws up two teams meeting for the first time in Europe together. Rampaging Manchester City, who were in the semi-finals of the 2015-15 season losing to eventual winners Real Madrid are looking to assert themselves as a powerhouse in European football and have the pedigree of champions league winning coach Pep Guardiola to help them achieve their objective. Swiss Champions Basel on the other hand are trying to reach the quarter finals for the first time in the Uefa Champions League era, and coach Raphael Wicky- in his first year as senior coach, having been promoted from the youth team- would be handed a confidence boost in the fact that his men already defeated City’s neighbor, Manchester United, in the group stage. Basel had a stellar group stage, thrashing Benfica 5-0 and defeating Man United to amass 12 points. However, their erratic form this season has seen them defeated at home by lowly Lausanne Sports in the Swiss League, and CSKA in the UCL. The Swiss champions can, however, look to the burgeoning talents of Cameroon-born Switzerland Dimitri Oberlin and Morocco-born Mohamed Elyounoussi to lead them to possibly the biggest shock of the season.

Pep Guardiola’s City side are rampant in England with 16 points ahead of second placed Man United in the EPL, and can therefore shift their focus to the Champions league proper. The Citizens did their group stage business professionally, losing only when it didn’t matter on the last day to Shakhtar Donetsk. In Kevin de Bruyne, they have an in-form playmaker and potential Balon d’Or winner. The 26-year old Belgium international has had a hand in most of City’s good plays this season, also chipping in with three assists and a goal in five UCL games. Add a Sergio Aguero who is on-form, the much-improved Raheem Sterling, the experience of Fernandinho, an improved backline and Guardiola’s tactical prowess, Man City could prove too much in this season’s competition for most teams.

Caveat: City have been eliminated at this stage in three of their four appearances by Barcelona (twice) and Monaco (last season). Basel have won once in four attempts against English opposition in two-legged encounters.

Verdict: This is a stage too far for FC Basel, Manchester City to overcome and overwhelm the Swiss champions.

FC PORTO vs LIVERPOOL

Two former Champions league winners on the card in this game. Erratic Portuguese champions FC Porto, who managed to avoid the big boys avoided the big boys were matched up with an erratic Liverpool side. Sergio Conceicao’s team advanced from an equally erratic group, keeping just a clean sheet in six games, while Liverpool managed three- two coming against minnows Maribor. However, what Liverpool lack in clean sheet against good teams, they compensate with goals. The exciting forward line comprising the speedy Mohamed Salah and Saido Mane, and the technical striker Roberto Firmino contributed 16 of the 23 goals Jurgen Klopp’s men scored in the group stage. Although Philip Coutinho has departed to Barcelona, the Merseyside club will feel they are in capable hands with the triumvirate. Also, the presence and calming influence of a physical Virgil van Dijk in defence could stem their susceptibility to defensive blunders.

Porto are no pushovers themselves but the 2004 UCL winners under Jose Mourinho could decide not to show up for the occasion- as seen on the first matchday of the group stage when they got beaten 3-1 by Besiktas- or they could suprose themselves with an impressive outing (3-0 trouncing of Monaco away from home in September comes to mind). They’ve got some attacking firepower of their own in Vincent Aboubakar and Moussa Marega, two potent strikers with pace and power that can upset a timid Liverpool defence. Algeria’s Yacin Brahimi adds pace, and the skills of Hector Herrera could prove vital.

Caveat: Porto have not defeated Liverpool in their previous four European encounters.

Verdict: Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing approach to football could prove too much for the Portuguese side who prefer a possession-based patient style of play. Expect Liverpool to do the roasting at Anfield.

REAL MADRID vs PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN

The most glamorous tie of the round: twelve-time winners Real Madrid against a mesmerizing PSG team that can call on the world’s most expensive player in Neymar Jr. The UCL defending champions made UCL history last season by becoming the first team to win the competition back-to-back in the modern era. However, they have run off steam in the current campaign, especially in the league where they are 17 points behind arch-rival Barcelona. They also finished second behind Tottenham in the group stage, and were well beaten 3-1 by the English team. This downturn in fortune has coincided with a dip in goals for talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, the current Balon d’Or winner and Portuguese national team captain scoring a meager 22 goals in all competition, a poor return for a striker who has scored over 40 goals per season since 2008. However, the 33-year old saves his best for this competition and is currently this season’s highest goalscorer with 9 goals, scoring in every group game and the Santiago Bernabeu faithfuls will hope he continues this streak to lead them to victory over an equally glamorous PSG side.

French champions PSG, on the hand, want to build a team that can make the UCL it own just like a Real Madrid and they see victory in this game as a statement of intent which would reverberate throughout Europe. They have already shown their prowess this season, topping a group that includes the deadly Bayern Munich. Apart from Neymar’s tricks, striker Edison Cavani goals and Angel Di Maria’s industry could prove vital. Teenage prodigy Kylian Mbappe has Champions league experience too and could do damage if afforded the space. The experience of Dani Alves and calmness of Thiago Silva in defence are also important if the Qatar-backed French capital club wants to take the next step to being considered an European superpower.

Caveat: Records? No need, just enjoy the game!

Verdict: This game could go all the way to extra time in the second leg. PSG have gone off form in recent weeks eventhough they are still winning, while its just difficult to predict which Real Madrid wil walk unto the pitch: the one that smashed Juventus in the final last year on the team that lost to Villareal in the league. However, PSG’s Spanish coach Unai Emery mostly comes short against the top teams, and this could prove to be a chink in PSG armor.

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