Champions League action resumes with knockout stages

Champions League action resumes with knockout stages

Photo Credits: JEREMY DANG / AGGIE

Europe’s premier club competition is the best that soccer has to offer

After a two-month hiatus, the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League returns this week with the start of the knockout stages. The last 16 teams remaining will face off against each other over two legs, with a three-week break separating the home and away fixtures. The victor of each matchup will be decided by the final aggregate score, with away goals scored acting as the tiebreaker.

The Champions League is currently going through a period of transition, marked by some important rule changes.

For the first time in the competition’s history, a video assistant referee (VAR) will be utilized during matches, starting with the upcoming Round of 16. VARs can be used in situations that have a significant impact on the outcome of the game, such as plays involving goals scored, red cards, decisions on penalty kicks and identifying the correct player for a yellow or red card. The technology has already been implemented in the FIFA World Cup, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga and other various domestic cup competitions. The English Premier League will begin using VARs next season.

UEFA is considering scrapping the away goals rule, which has come under much scrutiny over the years, but that decision won’t take effect until next season at the earliest. The rule was implemented in the mid-1960s, when it was much more strenuous for a team to travel to away matches, and scoring a goal on the road was a huge accomplishment. In today’s landscape, while teams travel by luxurious charter flights that typically only last a few hours at most, scoring an away goal just doesn’t mean as much. As a result, UEFA is considering getting rid of the rule to discourage teams from playing a more defensive style.

Manchester United vs Paris Saint-Germain

This match-up looked massively different back when the teams were drawn in mid-December.

Manchester United was in the midst of a nightmarish run under former manager Jose Mourinho, who was subsequently fired one day after the draw. Since then, interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has injected an immense energy into the club, as United has gone 7-0-1 in the Premier league and won both of its FA Cup ties since his appointment.

Solskjaer has been able to unleash the attacking prowess of the Red Devils, led by the likes of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford. Both players have scored a half dozen goals apiece in the eight league games and will look to keep the momentum going against Les Parisiens.

Paris Saint-Germain has been nearly spotless this season with the exception of a couple slip ups in the past four weeks, when the team dropped out of the Coupe de la Ligue and suffered its first Ligue 1 loss to Lyon.

PSG will be missing superstar forward Neymar for at least nine more weeks, after the Brazilian suffered a metatarsal fracture in his right foot in a Coupe de France game in late January.

Predicted Winner: PSG

Roma vs Porto

It would be an understatement to say that this has been a strange and frustrating season for Roma. After falling one game short of reaching last year’s Champions League Final, the club decided to sell top goalkeeper Alisson Becker and talented midfielders Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman over the summer. The club was able to take advantage of a relatively easy group to advance to the knockout stages but is fighting to keep a spot in the top-10 in Serie A. Last week, Roma suffered an embarrassing 7-1 loss to Fiorentina to fall out of the Coppa Italia.

Porto has a wealth of experience playing in the Champions League, having participated eight times in the last decade. The team currently holds a slight first place advantage in the Primeira Liga in Portugal, with the hopes of winning the league for the second year in a row.

Predicted Winner: Roma

Ajax vs Real Madrid

Ajax overcame a lot of obstacles to reach the knockout stages, advancing through three qualifying rounds in July and August and going undefeated in the group stage. The team has fared well in Eredivisie play and is always a tough opponent to play on their home turf in Amsterdam. Nonetheless, they are a considerable mismatch for the Spanish giants Real Madrid.

Real Madrid is going through its worst season in 20 years, having lost 10 matches in all competitions. The club has had to adjust to life without Cristiano Ronaldo and deal with the sudden resignation of former manager Zinedine Zidane over the summer. Julen Lopetegui was the man chosen to succeed Zidane but was fired in late October after a catastrophic start to the season. His replacement, Santiago Solari, has led the club to a 9-2-1 record in La Liga since then.

No matter what happens in league play, Los Blancos always seem to get up for Champions League matches. The three-time defending champions should have no trouble advancing to the next round.

Predicted Winner: Real Madrid

Tottenham vs Borussia Dortmund

Up until three weeks ago, nothing could go wrong for Tottenham. The Spurs enjoyed their best ever start to a Premier League campaign and were steadily keeping pace with leaders Liverpool and Manchester City. The team pulled off a miraculous comeback to escape the group stage of the Champions League and also found itself 90 minutes away from heading to the Carabao Cup final.

In a span of 14 days in January, Tottenham’s season was turned upside down, as attacking stars Harry Kane and Dele Alli both sustained injuries in back-to-back games against Manchester United and Fulham. One week later, the team was knocked out of the Carabao Cup and FA Cup within four days. Both players are hoping to return to action at some point before the end of the month and could potentially be available for the second leg against Dortmund.

Borussia Dortmund currently holds a seven-point lead atop the Bundesliga and has been firing on all cylinders for the majority of the season. The team’s dreams of unseating Bayern Munich as the champions of German football for the first time since 2012 are starting to become a reality. Forward Marco Reus, the second-leading goalscorer in Bundesliga, leads a lethal attack along with midfielder Jadon Sancho.

Predicted Winner: Borussia Dortmund

Liverpool vs Bayern Munich

Bayern Munich has struggled this season in the Bundesliga but still sits within striking distance of Dortmund in second place. Veteran striker Robert Lewandowski leads all scorers in the Champions League with eight goals thus far, but will have to play without fellow attacker Thomas Müller who is suspended for both legs of this match up.

Liverpool was leading the Premier League for most of the season in search of its first title in 29 years but has seen a dip in form as of late. The Reds narrowly slipped by Napoli to escape the group stage, which propelled them to a wildly successful 8-0 run in December. A close 2-1 loss to Manchester City in early January ended the Reds’ undefeated run in the Premier League and has catapulted the team into a rough stretch that included two shaky wins and a pair of consecutive draws.

Liverpool will need one of those special European nights at Anfield next Tuesday to give them confidence to head into the second leg at the Allianz Arena. The Reds will benefit from the return of center back Virgil Van Dijk in that second leg, after he serves his one game suspension for getting a yellow card against Napoli.

Predicted Winner: Liverpool

Lyon vs Barcelona

Lyon has been in good form lately, handing PSG its first Ligue 1 loss two weeks ago and losing just once in 2019. The club pulled off a shocking road win over Manchester City early in the group stage and got another point from them later on but will need a miraculous upset to take down mighty Barcelona.

As expected, Barcelona is leading La Liga and cruised through the Champions League group stage without breaking a sweat. The team was looking to avenge its historic loss against Roma in the semifinals last season, when it let a three-goal lead slip away in the second leg. Barcelona, led by Lionel Messi, shouldn’t have much trouble dismantling Lyon on the way to its 12th consecutive appearance in the quarterfinals.

Predicted Winner: Barcelona

Atletico Madrid vs Juventus

Juventus, the only team left in Europe with an unbeaten mark in league play, has enjoyed unparalleled success this season in Serie A, boosted by the summertime arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. Nonetheless, the Italian side showed some vulnerability in the group stages with shocking losses to Young Boys and Manchester United. Overall, Juventus has come excruciatingly close to tasting Champions League glory in recent years but lost both of their appearances in the final since 2015.

Atletico Madrid knows the struggle of heartbreaking defeat in the Champions League better than most teams in Europe. Ronaldo, in his time with Real Madrid, has tortured Atletico in this competition, knocking them out four times in the past five years. The Portuguese legend helped deliver an extra time win in the 2014 final and netted the game-winning goal in a penalty shootout victory in the 2016 final.

World-class striker Antoine Griezmann and his teammates will hope to change their fortunes with Ronaldo wearing a different jersey this time around. Atletico has proven to be a resilient bunch in the face of adversity and always has a chance with superstar goalkeeper Jan Oblak in front of the goal.

Predicted Winner: Juventus

Schalke vs Manchester City

Manchester City continues to go toe-to-toe with Liverpool atop the Premier League, in search of its second title in a row. Despite having unbelievable success in England recently, the Champions League is the one competition that has always evaded the Citizens, who have only made it past the round of 16 twice in the last decade. A victory in this year’s tournament would be huge for the legacies of all-time team greats like forward Sergio Aguero and center back Vincent Kompany. Manchester City would need a meltdown of epic proportions to prevent them from moving on to the quarterfinals.

Schalke has taken a significant step backwards this season in the Bundesliga, currently sitting in 12th place with a mere 22 points. The team was fortunate enough to end up in Group D, by far the easiest group in the Champions League this year, but really isn’t worthy of a spot in the knockout stages.

Predicted Winner: Manchester City

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org

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