James Carson, Sports Editor.
It’s the pre-Christmas present which football fans eagerly anticipate every year. As another 288 group games concluded in the UEFA Champions League; the annual pilgrimage of club representatives and footballing grandees to the UEFA headquarters in Nyon ensued to determine the fate of the remaining 16 teams.
With the draw structure pitting group winners against second place teams, provided they hadn’t competed in the group stage or the same league, there was potential for eight exceptional ties. With runners-up including last year’s finalists Real Madrid and Juventus, UCL mainstays Bayern Munich and the English Champions, Chelsea. Regardless of who the group winners drew, this year they were certainly guaranteed a challenge to progress in Europe’s premier club competition.
PSG v Real Madrid:
Without question, the tie which has attracted the most attention is the mouth-watering clash between Paris Saint Germain and back-to-back champions Real Madrid. Having topped their group and comfortably leading Ligue 1 domestically, under pressure PSG manager Unai Emery might have hoped for a slightly easier challenge than Real. Sporting a dominate attack spearheaded by the world’s most expensive player Neymar, teenage prodigy Kylian Mpabbé and Edison Cavani, attack is unquestionably PSG’s modus operandi. But as exposed by Bayern Munich with a heavy 3-1 defeat in the final match of Group B, there remains a fragile and exploitable base behind this dynamic attack.
Emerging from the heralded ‘Duodécima’ and a rampant UEFA Super Cup victory over Manchester United, it seemed that Zinadine Zidane’s dominate side would once again be unstoppable. But the defence of their crown has spluttered with unconvincing performances against Tottenham and Dortmund with the once feared front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema being blighted by inconsistency, injury and lethargy respectively. The question will be if Madrid can formulate a game plan which doesn’t exclusively hinge on the talents of Ronaldo and take the game to a potentially fragile and untested PSG in this blockbuster tie.
Chelsea v Barcelona
With the excellent form of English sides in Europe this year, Chelsea’s fate was already confined to one of PSG, Barcelona or Besiktas. But the English Champions once again will face a familiar foe in the Catalan side for the tenth time since 2005. Whilst Chelsea can cling to an outstanding record against Barcelona with only two defeats and memories of the path to the 2012 Champions League taking a dramatic path through the Camp Nou, Antonio Conte’s side will have to exhibit the defensive solidity and clinical attack which led to the Premier League title last year to stand any chance against the European giants.
League form can be deceptive, indeed with Real Madrid faltering, Barcelona have raced to the front of a wide open La Liga. The trouble facing Barcelona has been filling the £197 million hole in the team left from Neymar’s record transfer to PSG, but with injuries blighting his replacement Ousmane Dembélé and star striker Luis Suárez, the impressive start by manager Ernesto Valverde perhaps has benefited from fortunate circumstances. But one would be utterly foolish to write any team off which possesses the majestic Lionel Messi, as once again the path to the next stages will hinge on Chelsea’s ability to contain the Argentinian magician.
Juventus v Spurs
It has been a turbulent season for last year’s defeated finalists Juventus, with their hegemony in Serie A being challenged from numerous challengers. Indeed, Massimiliano Allegri’s side has looked a shell of its former self, the aging defence comprised of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Gianluigi Buffon has been disappointing and the inability to effectively replace the departed Leonardo Bonucci with Medhi Benatia has blighted the bianconeri. Whilst Juventus has seen a resurgence of late with a convincing away victory to league leaders Napoli and hard-fought draws against Barcelona and Inter Milan, the Turin side could pose a formidable test to Tottenham.
Its difficult to believe that this is Spurs’ first dalliance in the knockout rounds of the Champions League since their resurgence under Mauricio Pochettino, the trouble in adapting to European football seems finally to have subsided for the North London side. With convincing victories against Real Madrid and Dortmund to top Group H, Tottenham will have to take the next step in their development to progress to the meaningful stages of the Champions League. With the goal scoring machine in Harry Kane and ample time for Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen to recover the high level of form we are accustomed to, Spurs can have confidence in the chances of marching into the next round.
Shakhtar Donetsk v Roma
Undoubtedly the game which presents the greatest spectacle for the footballing purist is the clash which has largely gone under the radar due the magnitude of other fixtures. As the unlikely team to make it out of the group containing Manchester City and Napoli, it is easy to see why the navigational skills of Paulo Fonseca saw him linked with the vacancy at Everton. With a free-flowing style of football run through the Brazilian spine of Bernard, Marlos, Taison and Fred, the side displaced from Donetsk due to the ongoing Ukrainian conflict will be a more competent adversary in their temporary home of Kharkiv.
In their first season without their mercurial Captain Francesco Totti, few Roma supporters could have envisaged topping a group containing Chelsea and two-time finalists Atlético Madrid. But thanks to a dominant 3-0 victory over Chelsea, the giallorossi have continued to develop under new manager Eusebio di Francesco. With a distinct high pressing style and two talismanic players in former Manchester City striker Eden Džeko and the stylish midfielder Radja Nainggolan, the Stadio Olimpico could be braced to host many European nights this term.
Sevilla v Man Utd
The side that every compassionate football fan is cheering on is undoubtedly Spanish side Sevilla; during their home clash with Liverpool finding his side three goals down, head coach Eduardo Berizzo delivered a half-time team talk that his squad would not forget. By informing his players he was battling prostate cancer and continuing to coach the side whilst undergoing treatment heralded a remarkable response on the pitch. Their second half comeback against Liverpool scoring three goals to secure an unlikely draw is testament to the commitment and desire which Manchester United will face when they meet the Andalusians.
This season has been one of chronic inconsistency for José Mourinho’s side, capable of attacking brilliance some weeks where a clinical attack has dispatched numerous teams by four goals. But equally this season has been one of frustration for not seeing this enterprising football against sides like Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea where the Reds have performed below their attacking potential. Mourinho will have to go beyond the tactics which guided United to last seasons Europa League to pass this tricky Spanish test and advance in this competition.
Bayern v Besiktas
Perhaps the biggest transformation in this year’s group stages belongs to the revitalised Bayern Munich. Since their abject start under Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern have returned to their dominant best since his dismissal and led by legendary manager Jupp Heynckes the Bavarians bare resemblance to the side which won the 2012/13 Champions League. But in Besiktas the Munich side face a considerable challenge, having comfortably defeated Bayern’s domestic rivals RB Leipzig in both legs the Turkish side will present a sizable challenge to a talented Bayern side. With a vociferous home atmosphere ready to greet Bayern in the return leg, if Besiktas can survive their trip to Munich this tie promises to be a classic European clash on the banks of the Bosporus.
Porto v Liverpool
Whilst the games tackled so far present fascinating contests of style, tactics and European giants; the clear beneficiaries of these exceptional ties outside of the neutral spectator was Liverpool and Manchester City who received nominally easier ties. Prior to matchday three, Liverpool had struggled to draw at home to Sevilla and on a tough trip to Spartak Moscow, but to the credit of manager Jurgen Klopp and the ruthless attacking play of the ‘fab four’ of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Phillippe Coutinho, the Anfield side would collect 10 of 12 points from the final four group games. Their tie against knockout stage regulars Porto has the potential to present challenges with a talented team which is fending off stern competition from Benfica and Sporting Lisbon to lead the domestic Primeira Liga, but Liverpool will approach this tie as firm favourites.
Basel v Manchester City
It’s a tough life being a Manchester City fan currently, eleven points clear at the top of the Premier League and having comfortably topped Group F, the draw against Basel gives City an excellent opportunity to translate their rampant domestic form to the business end of the Champions League. Whilst Guardiola’s side will encounter a disciplined Basel side playing an effective 343 formation which helped deliver victory against Manchester United on matchday five, the challenge of using this system to slow the momentum of the magnificent City is a daunting prospect.
Each game presents its own fascinating and unique set of questions, the road to the final in Kiev presents many twists and turns for Europe’s elite. With fixtures starting on the 13th and 14th of February, it will provide an easy Valentines present for any other half who is football obsessed.