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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Champions League is as wide open as ever

Many contenders capable of claiming club soccer’s ultimate prize

The calendar has officially turned to February, signaling the return of the UEFA Champions League, the world’s premier professional club soccer competition. Last season’s tournament was one of the most dramatic in history and this year is shaping up to be no different. There are tight title races in almost all of the top domestic leagues in Europe and many teams will be fighting on multiple fronts to take home the coveted trophies that fans demand. 

The Champions League round of 16 begins in the weeks of Feb. 18 and 25, with the return legs commencing on Mar. 10 and 17. 

Borussia Dortmund vs. Paris Saint-Germain

Borussia Dortmund have been reinvigorated by the winter acquisition of striker Erling Haaland from Red Bull Salzburg. The 19-year old Norwegian promptly announced his arrival with a flurry of seven goals in his first three appearances, including a 34-minute hat trick on his debut. 

Dortmund has all the tools to hurt teams on the attacking end, with stars like Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus and Paco Alcacer leading the line, but the team has its share of vulnerabilities defensively. Dortmund has experimented with a number of different formations this season in search of some balance and stability.

In many ways, it’s been a typical season for Paris Saint-Germain. Les Parisiens are strolling through Ligue 1, both domestic cups and secured a top finish in their group heading into the knockout stages of the Champions League.

For the first time since his arrival, Neymar appears to be in good health heading into the round of 16 battle. The Brazilian is playing some of the best football of his life currently and finally seems to be happy in Paris after a long period when he tried to leave the club.

This time, it’s Kylian Mbappe who’s creating the negative headlines. The 21-year old Frenchman has clashed with manager Thomas Tuchel on several occasions in recent months, each time due to his frustrations of being substituted mid-game. There appears to be some tension and a possible power struggle between the two, which will loom large in the summer transfer window. Mbappe has been long rumored to favor a move to Real Madrid in the near future. 

As usual, there is significant pressure on PSG to win the Champions League this year, especially given the relative weakness of the competition’s usual contenders. The club spends more money than just about any other club, so yearly disappointments on the biggest stage are simply unacceptable. 

PSG is as dangerous as ever with the “fantastic four” of Neymar, Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and Mauro Icardi leading the front line. Additionally, they’ve seemed to mitigate some of their past defensive issues and should feel confident with the experienced Keylor Navas between the sticks. 

Prediction: PSG to advance

Atletico Madrid vs. Liverpool

Liverpool is unquestionably the hottest team these days, shattering every record in front of it on the way to breaking the club’s 30-year title winning drought in the Premier League. The Reds have it all — the best defender in the world, a top goalkeeper and one of the most dangerous attacking trios. 

Liverpool is on pace to be the quickest side to clinch the title in Premier League history, which should allow them to fully focus on keeping the European Cup on Merseyside two years running. 

What manager Jurgen Klopp has done at Anfield is truly astounding. His genius personnel moves, player development and winning culture have instantly thrust Liverpool into one of the most exciting times in its storied history. 

It’s been an extremely disappointing campaign for Atletico Madrid thus far. The team has slumped all the way to sixth place in La Liga and will have to fight just to finish in the top four and gain Champions League eligibility next season. As a result, pressure is heavily mounting on Diego Simeone, the highest-paid manager in the world, to turn things around in a hurry. Atletico Madrid recently crashed out of the Copa Del Rey with a humiliating loss to a third division side, which has only cranked up the pressure on Simeone and his squad. 

The problem is quite simple: Atleti is not creating nearly enough scoring chances and seems incapable of putting the ball in the back of the net at times. They are in the bottom 15 in goals scored among all 98 sides in Europe’s top five leagues and have struggled to fill the void left by Antoine Greizmann, who left for Barcelona in the summer. Twenty-year-old wonderkid Jao Felix, a record signing in the summer, was tapped to carry the load in Greizmann’s absence, but has struggled to adjust to life in the Spanish league.  

Atleti is very stingy in its own box, having conceded a La Liga-low 15 goals in 22 matches, and capable of going as far as goalkeeper Jan Oblak can take them. With that being said, Liverpool have been held scoreless just once this season in all competitions and is sure to nick a goal at the Metropolitano before taking things back to Anfield in mid-March. 

Prediction: Liverpool to advance

Atalanta vs. Valencia 

This pairing has the potential to be a captivating, high-scoring match-up over two legs. Outside of Manchester City and Liverpool, Atalanta scores more goals (59) than any team in Europe’s top five leagues. The team is in position to claim another top-four spot in Serie A and continues to prove that last year’s success was no fluke.

Valencia has endured one of the strangest nine month stretches imaginable, yet continues to persevere and churn out results. After beating Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final in May, clinching the club’s first trophy in a decade, its owner decided to fire the manager, technical director and CEO during a tumultuous period in the fall. Players were completely outraged and openly voiced their frustrations, while some fans responded with violent measures. 

Tensions have since eased off and Valencia remains in the fight for a top-four spot in La Liga, while advancing to the Champions League knockout round for the first time since 2012-2013. The club is loaded with an assortment of budding superstars, many of whom are highly coveted by rival clubs. Valencia has a history of developing premier home grown talent and selling it off for huge profits. 

Much like it’s off-field affairs, the team is incredibly inconsistent on the pitch but has an ability to rise to the big occasions, with the help of a raucous home environment at Estadio Mestalla. 

Prediction: Valencia to advance 

Tottenham Hotspur vs. RB Leipzig

Tottenham experienced its own dose of dysfunction throughout the fall, after a miraculous run to the Champions League Final last spring. Spurs suffered some embarrassing losses and began to slip in the Premier League table, leading to the firing of former manager Mauricio Pochettino. Jose Mourinho immediately stepped in and gave the squad a lift, as Spurs currently sit within striking distance of fourth-place Chelsea and have a place in the FA Cup fifth round. While veteran midfielder Christian Eriksen departed for Inter Milan during the winter transfer window and star striker Harry Kane is doubtful to return from injury this season, Son Heung-min has stepped up with goals in four straight matches. 

RB Leipzig are a high-octane side that employs a high press and heavy attacking mentality. They are led by star forward Timo Werner, one of the top scorers in Europe with 20 goals. Many top sides across the continent have been pursuing Werner and he will likely transfer to a new club in the summer. 

Leipzig is in the thick of a tightly-contested, four-team title race in the Bundesliga. The club was only founded in 2009 but quickly catapulted up the German football system and has been knocking on the door of a Bundesliga crown for several years now. 

Mourinho’s tactics are certainly one-of-a-kind, as his teams are content to sit back and concede lots of possession and then hope to hurt opponents on the counter attack or pounce on mistakes. It can be a dangerous way to play at times, but Tottenham have been able to get by even when not playing at its best. They will have their hands full with a side as threatening as Leipzig. 

Prediction: RB Leipzig to advance 

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich

With first-year manager and club legend Frank Lampard at the helm, Chelsea finds itself back in the knockout round after a two-year hiatus. The Blues, one of the youngest teams in England, are hanging on to the fourth spot in the Premier League but have struggled to demonstrate any sort of consistency in their play. 

They have lacked a reliable finisher up top, as youngsters like Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have endured the ups and downs expected for players of their age. Lampard tried to land a striker on the transfer market but failed to work out a deal with the likes of Edinson Cavani or Dries Mertens, so Chelsea will have to make do with what it has. 

The Blues have struggled to defend home territory at Stamford Bridge, dropping points to inferior sides, but have put forth some impressive efforts on the road. 

Kepa Arrizabalaga, the most expensive goalkeeper of all time, has struggled mightily and was recently dropped to the bench. It remains to be seen how long Lampard will keep him on the sidelines, as the boss is reportedly looking for a replacement in the summertime. 

Bayern Munich have a storied history in this competition, having played in it 12 straight years and lifting the trophy a total of five times. They won the last seven Bundesliga titles, but will have to hold off stiff competition from Dortmund, Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach to win it this season. 

Bayern are obviously the much more experienced team in this match-up and no moment will be too big for its players in any circumstance. 

Bayern has had its own vulnerabilities on the back line for the past two or three years, but have the luxury of Manuel Neuer in front of goal to keep things close.

With a lineup of star-studded midfield and forwards, this team always has a chance to make a deep run and outscore whoever it comes up against. Striker Robert Lewandowksi has shown no signs of slowing down at age 31 and can single-handedly be the difference maker in many situations. Bayern was the only team in the Champions League to sweep all games in the group stage and is heating up at the right time.   

Prediction: Bayern Munich to advance 

Napoli vs. Barcelona 

Napoli has taken a huge step backward this season in Serie A and is likely to miss out on European football altogether next season, barring a massive late-season run. Former manager Carlo Ancelotti paid the ultimate price and was fired in early December.

Napoli are capable of rising to the occasion when the pressure is on, as evidenced by recent victories over Juventus and Lazio. They are the only side to beat Liverpool this season and even managed to grab a draw in the return leg at Anfield. Overall, they fared quite well in the group stage and can always harness the power of the Stadio San Paolo on big nights. 

Barcelona is going through a period of unprecedented turmoil and just suffered through a nightmarish week. The team crashed out of the Copa Del Rey in disastrous fashion with a 1-0 loss at Athletic Club, before a public spat broke out between Lionel Messi and sporting director Eric Abidal shortly thereafter. Messi was upset by comments that Abidal made to the media about the recent sacking of former manager Ernesto Valverde, and the entire situation has blown up in the news. 

Frustrations are starting to mount as Barca has fallen behind Real Madrid in La Liga and the team continues to put up concerning performances. A recent season-ending injury to forward Luis Suarez has further magnified Barcelona’s struggles to surround Messi with productive playmakers who can create goals. Lucrative signings like Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele haven’t lived up to expectations and the team is almost entirely reliant on Messi to win. 

In truth, this is a problem that Barca has faced for quite some time and one that won’t suddenly go away with an aging roster. Nonetheless, Barca still has a lineup full of world class talents and is capable of beating anyone in the world on a given night. The team is unbeaten in its last 35 Champions League games at the Camp Nou and will expect to take care of business against Napoli. 

Prediction: Barcelona to advance

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City

This is undoubtedly the most attractive of the eight matchups in the round of 16, with star power at every position on both sides.

Real Madrid was the three-time defending champion heading into last year’s competition, but endured its worst season in two decades and bowed out to Ajax at this stage of the competition. 

Madrid has returned this season with a renewed focus and intensity, especially on the defensive end where the performances have been exponentially better than in the past. Before last week’s shocking defeat to Real Sociedad in the Copa Del Rey, Madrid was riding a 22-match unbeaten streak. The early exit from that domestic cup was certainly a disaster for Las Madristas, but it shouldn’t mitigate the progress made over the past couple months. Real Madrid has seemingly turned a corner and manager Zinedine Zidane has made it a top priority for the club to win La Liga for the first time in three seasons. 

Manchester City rewrote the Premier League record books over an historic two year run in which they were the class of English football. The only piece missing throughout manager Pep Guardiola’s time at City has been success in the Champions League. The Citizens have dominated the league and most domestic cups, but continually find ways to crack under the pressure of the bright European lights. With rumors of Guardiola’s time coming to a close and
Liverpool running away with the Premier League, the time is now for City to erase the nightmares of past failure on this stage. 

Manchester City are currently in a run of bad form domestically, exhibiting clear weaknesses in defense and failing to be clinical in attack. Some of the problems are a result of a piling up injury list, but there’s far too much talent and investment into this squad for the team to keep underachieving. 

As far as the bookies are concerned, City is the +310 favorite to lift the trophy in Istanbul at the end of May. Even so, the matchup with Real Madrid looks a lot more even than it did when the draw came out in December. 

Prediction: Real Madrid to advance

Juventus vs. Lyon 

This is probably the most lopsided pairing in the round of 16, with an overmatched Lyon side taking on Juventus, the top club in Italy. 

Juventus has a slight three-point advantage in Serie A over Inter Milan and fully expects to win the Scudetto for the ninth year running. They’ve lost only twice all season and are looking to avenge last year’s shock defeat to Ajax in the quarterfinals. Christiano Ronaldo came to Turin with one primary goal in mind: win the Champions League.

Lyon narrowly escaped the group stage on matchday six to advance to the knockout round for the third year in a row. The team has been very competitive in Ligue 1 this season and hasn’t lost any league match by more than one goal. Lyon has an opportunity to secure silverware in the Coupe de la Ligue final against PSG in early April. 

Prediction: Juventus to advance 

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org


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