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Monday, September 27, 2021

Preview of the UEFA Champions League knockout stage

As European giants prepare for their do-or-die situation, many look to make history.

One of the most popular competitions in the world to watch is the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League. Only the top teams of Europe qualify to then see who is the strongest of them all. 

This past year, because of the pandemic, the Champions League coordinators had to squeeze in more than 1,000 matches throughout Europe in four months. 

When the round of 16 came around, the League did not invite club representatives due to these unprecedented times. To stay on schedule, strict rules were applied to all European leagues and players had to make difficult sacrifices.

Since European soccer resumed back in August, over 110,000 COVID-19 tests have been administered by players and officials. Less than 1% returned with positive results.

With everything going according to plan thus far, the round of 16 of the 2020-21 Champions League will kick off its first leg on Feb. 16 and 17, with the second legs taking place on Feb. 23 and 24. 

RB Leipzig vs. Liverpool

Liverpool isn’t entertaining crowds the same way they were back in 2018. Thiago Alcântara, Sadio Mané and Mo Salah are as dangerous as they can be in the attacking third and if Roberto Firmino enters the matches at full strength, Liverpool will be one of the best teams remaining as they hope to capture another title.

On the other side, last season Leipzig almost made it to the Champions League final and is still a very talented team today. 

They are a strong team in all positions even with their new players, especially their top Norweigan scorer Alexander Sørloth and Hwang Hee-Chan. With one of the more intriguing matchups left in the round of 16, the teams will surely entertain.

Barcelona vs. Paris Saint-German

Barcelona has been through several changes regarding their coaching staff and board. Superstar Lionel Messi has attempted to leave, their forwards have left and new recruits are replacing essential players. While they aren’t the dominant force of years past, they have to tighten things up if they want to win another Champions League with Messi on the squad.

Paris Saint-German is seeking revenge matches in this matchup after suffering a heartbreaking loss at the hands of Barcelona years ago. They are stronger on the defensive side and their offense is still sharp like in previous years, but they no longer have Thiago Silva, who kept the back organized. All eyes will be on former Barcelona star Neymar, as he hopes to capture PSG their first Champions League title. 

Sevilla vs. Dortmund

Sevilla’s strongest asset this season has been their backline. They are difficult to break and even then they have Yassine “Bono” Bounou who is an all-around goalkeeper. This team finished second in their group, losing just once in group play. Sevilla hopes to reach just their second quarter-finals in club history and carry the momentum forward.

On Dortmund’s side, management thought it would be a good idea to add more youth to the squad entering the season and the Champions League. Jude Bellingham, at 17 years old, has been featured in their mid-field many times with American Giovanni Reyna, having the most assists. Their right, left and center midfield work well with one another, yet their defense has to be matured and strengthened if they want to make it into the final eight and possibly beyond.

Porto vs. Juventus

Porto has lost a lot of key players, like Danilo Pereira and Alex Telles, but has still been a team with full force. Recently signed 27-year-old Felipe Anderson has a high chance of performing exceptionally well in the forward position. Porto has become a staple in the Champions League, and hopes that this underdog squad can win their first title since 2004.

Juventus has been introduced to several players and coaches, making it difficult to adjust to a style of play. Andrea Pirlo became the new manager and this will be his first experience with Champions League knockout matches as a coach. 

It’s critical that Pirlo immediately catches up on his knowledge and adjusts to the game if he wants to come out with a champion, because he has a great group of players who are more than capable of winning the trophy. While the team looks different from the one who made the final not too long ago, being led by Cristiano Ronaldo comes with expectations and many believe that it is win or bust for the Italian squad.  

Atlético Madrid vs. Chelsea

Atletico Madrid has strengthened all their tactics, but they have lost a very important midfielder, Thomas Partey, to Arsenal F.C. In turn, they have brought in Lucas Torreira who has been a great addition to the team.   

They will be tough to break down defensively and their mid-field is one of the strongest remaining. The only question is whether their offense will perform with Luis Suarez being their only tenacious forward and after only scoring seven goals in six group stage games, the offense will need to show up if they want to get back to the final. 

Chelsea has massively improved on defense with Thiago Silva and most importantly, their striking on goal has been a very crucial element because of Edouard Mendy. On top of that, Kai Havertz is a good fit for the team for finishing on goal, something that they’ve been missing. In one of the most evenly contested matches in the round of 16, this will surely deliver some fireworks.

Bayern Munich vs. Lazio

Last season, Bayern took the crown as the best team in Europe and offensively it has strengthened their squad even more. As far as the mid-field option goes, they lost  crucial player Thiago Alcantara to Liverpool and their defense is showing some weaknesses. 

Even then, they haven’t been glaring due to their great Bundesliga campaign once again and their dominant group stage performance. Heavily favored, Bayern is hoping their Champions League defense lasts much longer than this. 

Lazio is looking like they are in good shape with Ciro Immobile and Felipe Caicedo picking up the slack for their teammates. The midfield and attacking are solid and their defense needs work before they face teams with a well-grounded offense, like Bayern. While they still hold the possibility of upsetting the favorites, they will all need to be at the top of their game.

Atalanta vs. Real Madrid

Atalanta has been able to hold onto their talent the past couple of years and has been competitive. While they have been underwhelming in Serie A and were fortunate to fall in a favorable group, they will need to be firing on all cylinders to upset the Spanish giants. 

For the first time in over 40 years, Real Madrid did not sign anyone during the summer open transfer window leading up to this season. They have many young players who were able to find their depth behind the older players.

Sergio Ramos is one of the older players who must be reserved for important matches, but because of his experience, leadership and mentality he must be in the starting line-up or else the team may face some upsets. Although they are set up differently than they have been in previous years and struggle to put the ball in the net at times, the Madrid squad hopes to not overthink this matchup and walk into the next round. 

Mönchengladbach vs. Manchester City

This is the first time that Möchengladbach has ever qualified for the round of 16, thanks to their exceptional manager Marco Rose. Finishing with eight points in group play, they were able to take advantage of the goal difference and went along to the knockout stage. While they don’t possess the big names, they always seem to score timely goals and they hope to continue their historic run.

As for Manchester City, Pep Guardiola and his team faced what looked like one of the most challenging groups yet. But, they ended up finishing with five wins and one draw, earning themselves the top spot. Their run in recent years can be considered dominant, but their Champions League drought continues to dangle over their head. City has currently been struggling with many injuries, but they hope that it won’t be needed in this round. Having never made a Champions League final in club history, they hope this is the year they can achieve the elusive dream.

Written by: Katherin Raygoza — sports@theaggie.org 


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