Predicting the unpredictable: Champions League last 16 preview

(Image courtesy of UEFA via Getty Images)

After the madness served up by last season’s Champions League knockout stage, here’s hoping for something similar in 2020.

The 2019-20 UEFA Champions League group stage felt like an extension of the previous campaign’s fusion of thrilling absurdity and sheer brilliance. It was the first time ever that all those advancing from the group stages were from the “big five” European leagues, calling into question whether the competition is better or worse off without a perceived underdog in the latter stages.

And yet, the last 16 of this year’s competition has a few obvious contenders for that title, along with just about every other ingredient necessary for a blockbuster round of elite-level continental football. From this point on, the standard and competition increases as things begin to get more unpredictable. That didn’t stop me trying to do exactly that. Here are my previews and predictions for each last 16 tie…

Atlético Madrid vs. Liverpool:

This tie is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated of the Champions League’s return. In what is likely to be a fascinating match-up of opposing styles with managerial masterminds in each dugout locking horns, the tactical trade-off will make or break Atléti’s chances of overcoming the continent’s most dominant force as of now.

The match-up sees Liverpool return to the scene of last season’s triumph — their sixth in their prestigious history — the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. The Reds arrive in great shape, with their injured players returning to the squad and in a generally confident mindset befitting their dominant form. They have been persistent in their ability to find a variety of ways to win games this season, a characteristic that may prove necessary once again against Simeone’s charges.

2019-20 may be the last chance for Atléti and their charismatic Argentine leader. With injuries to key players and doubts over fitness all over the pitch, Simeone will be given little to no choice to opt for a style he has historically favoured in such occasions anyway. His side will give up possession and invite Liverpool to break their staunch rear-guard down, but will need to be diligent in tracking back and nullifying Liverpool’s main threat — service from wide areas.

It has been suggested that Simeone may opt for the option of double full backs to stop crosses from Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, cutting the supply line to the potent front three and then hope to take what chances they get. The Spanish side will relish their reputation as rightful underdogs in this tie, with the end goal of looking to get a narrow victory and ideally not concede an away goal – giving themselves a chance at fortress Anfield in the second leg.

For Liverpool, though, playing Atlético in a knockout tie is not as dauting a proposition as it may have been in previous years. Simeone’s men seem to be approaching the end of a cycle, while the Reds are at an unprecedented peak and have never lost a two-legged tie in Europe since Jurgen Klopp’s arrival. This will be no different.

VERDICT: Liverpool go through

Borussia Dortmund vs. Paris Saint-Germain:

This could be a goal fest. With both teams lethal in attack and defensively shaky, the potential for a flurry of goals is high.

There is shared feeling of Champions League underachievement between these two; PSG in particular should be one of the favourites to win the tournament this season and must make a better attempt than they have previously – having never made the semi-finals and increasingly finding a variety of humorous ways to cave in under the European spotlight. On paper, they have one of, if not the best forward lines in world football, but have they learnt from past mistakes and can they take that extra step to being genuine Champions League contenders?

Dortmund, on the other hand, have an exciting, vibrant collection of young stars headlined by Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland – who lit up the group stages with eight goals, earning himself a move to Germany in January at a time when he could virtually have gone anywhere he pleased. The Norwegian, alongside Sancho, will hope to overpower the French champions and their own stars, most notably Neymar, Ángel Di María and Kylian Mbappé.

Ultimately, there is more pressure on PSG in this tie, with the consensus being that Dortmund are able to play with the shackles off and a sense of freedom unlike that of their serially-underachieving (in European terms) French counterparts. Yet, I think the Ligue 1 side will rise to the occasion, at least for now, moving closer to an inaugural semi-final appearance, and who knows beyond that. Regardless, with an array of talented, young attackers on show, this game could be one for the ages and the best overall display of attacking football in the round. Hopefully it doesn’t disappoint.

VERDICT: PSG go through

Atalanta vs. Valencia:

Perhaps the least anticipated game, yet the hardest to call. With the fourth and seventh place sides in Italy and Spain facing off in this season’s final 16 in Europe, this could actually be the most unpredictable and entertaining tie of the round.

Atalanta have already made history by reaching this stage, and have nothing to lose at this point, making them dangerous opposition. The Bergamo-based team have the 14th-highest wage budget in Italy and have already earned more from this campaign than their wage bill for the year. What’s more, their qualification to this stage signifies the first time a team has lost all three of their first games in the group stage (since the introduction of a solitary group stage in 1992) and qualified. While this hints at a poor group — which contained Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb along with runaway winners Manchester City — it also indicates the strength of character of this Atalanta team who will be eager to continue creating history by venturing deeper into the competition.

In a sense, the draw was kind to both teams here. While Atalanta will feel as if they have a genuine chance of progressing — achieving some impressive results since the turn of the year — Valencia will be just as just as optimistic about their chances in a tie that could determine this season’s Ajax. The 2004 Uefa Cup winners topped their group ahead of, ironically, Ajax and Chelsea – both of whom they beat away from home. They can utilise that apparent strength in the first leg here, and while this is a tough one to call, I fancy Atalanta to do it.

VERDICT: Atalanta go through.

Tottenham vs. RB Leipzig:

Set to be another interesting tactical battle, this tie could be won and lost based on counter-attacking.

Both teams have fast threats on the turnover, but Spurs will be damaged by the ongoing absence of Harry Kane and the recent injury of Heung-Min Son, who will likely be out for the remainder of the season. In another battle of wits between managers – this time between José Mourinho of old guard vs the face of the new generation of coaches, Julian Nagelsmann. Undoubtedly, the German side enter the tie as favourites, having won group G and pushing Bayern Munich tooth and nail in the Bundesliga title race.

From a joint perspective, Mourinho and Spurs will be out for Champions League redemption, following last season’s final defeat along with the Portuguese’s waning reputation as one of the game’s truly elite managers. As he approaches three months in charge of Tottenham,  Mourinho is already building the team in his image: as underdogs who can win games when they are outplayed. This may be the case again, depending on Leipzig’s approach and how they deal with being favourites in new territory, having never reached this stage of the competition before.

Leipzig, on the other hand, could be a dark horse. With exciting young players such as Timo Werner, Dayot Upamecano and Christopher Nkunku among those in the shop window having been linked with summer moves across Europe. The German side’s approach will likely be a balance of their high-press and confidence in possession, but they may be forced to dominate, coming away from their natual counter-attacking style that suited them so well in their recent Bundesliga class vs Bayern.

Nagelsmann’s men hold the cards for the first game knowing they return home for the second leg, but progression in the Champions League may damage their Bundesliga title assault on Bayern. Either way, I expect them to defeat Spurs and to end another of Mourinho’s chances at winning a trophy in his first season in North London.

VERDICT: Leipzig go through

Timo Werner competes with a Lyon defender during a group stage encounter in October. The German striker has been the subject of interest from a number of Europe’s biggest clubs and will provide Tottenham with a serious threat in their last 16 tie. (Image courtesy of Kevin Voigt/Xinhua/IANS).

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich:

A repeat of the dramatic 2012 final in this competition, this seems to be a mismatch. Chelsea will likely be dreading coming up against the team who posted the best group stage record ever, with six out of six wins and an all-time record goal difference of +19.

The first leg taking place at Stamford Bridge is another advantage for the German champions, who love playing in London and have a great record in the capital. Just this season, they demolished Spurs on their own patch, with Serge Gnabry scoring four in a 7-2 victory. They are unbeaten in London since 2005, unbeaten in their last 12 European away games and spearheaded by this season’s top scorer in the competition, Robert Lewandowski, who already has 10 goals. A formidable prospect for Chelsea.

Generally this season, Frank Lampard’s team have conceded too many goals and their form has taken a hit since around the time of group stage qualification vs Lille in November. Their best hope is to play on the counter-attack, using Tammy Abraham as an outlet and getting runners around and beyond him to trouble Bayern defensively.

The biggest key to victory in this tie, however, is undoubtedly the midfield battle. Chelsea fans’ favoured trio of Jorginho, Kovacic and Kante in the centre of the park may go some way to stopping Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcântara dictating the game, giving them an increased chance of taking something to Munich to defend in a few weeks’ time. I can’t see that happening; Bayern will prove too strong and experienced for their opponents over 180 minutes.

VERDICT: Bayern go through

Napoli vs. Barcelona:

Napoli sacked Carlo Ancelotti within hours of a convincing 4-0 defeat of Genk (their biggest in Champions League history) which secured their qualification from group E.

Ancelotti’s replacement, ex-AC Milan and Italy midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, has had a largely positive effect on the Naples side, who have recorded impressive victories over Juventus and Lazio in domestic competitions in the past month. What’s more, they were the only team to beat LFC this season (excluding the Aston Villa Carabao Cup debacle), and will take confidence from qualifying and give this tie a good shot. Gattuso’s team have the tools to trouble Barca and will count on their home record and bearpit atmosphere at Stadio San Paolo to gain a first-leg upper hand before heading to the Catalan capital. Kalidou Koulibaly and Kostas Manolas in defence coupled with nippy threats at the other end of the pitch such as Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne will all be crucial.

On the other hand, Barcelona rarely keep clean sheets and will look to Messi for brilliance to overshadow their deficiencies, as has been the case for a significant period now. The emergence of 17-year-old Ansu Fati has provided a new spark, but Barcelona’s biggest obstacle to success in the Champions League has now become themselves and the ghosts of exits past. The remaining trauma from comeback defeats to Roma and Liverpool in 2018 and 2019 respectively are likely to have left deep wounds, but, as ever, Messi will be the key to their progress and propel them into the quarter-finals.

VERDICT: Barcelona go through

Lyon vs. Juventus:

This is a terrible draw for Lyon, who will be hopeful rather than optimistic of qualifying. Yet, little else was to be expected as they scraped through a group made up of one outstanding side, Leipzig, and three others scrapping it out for the second spot.

The French side will struggle to compete, given the existing gulf in class between themselves and Juventus having been compounded by a series of injuries to key players, most notably Memphis Depay and Jeff Reine-Adelaide.

Juventus will hope that Cristiano Ronaldo can take them that extra step — or few extra steps than last season’s quarter-final defeat to Ajax — and this could be one of the Portuguese star’s last opportunities to prove his greatness. It is, normally, the type of pressure he rises to and situation he usually thrives in. In similar fashion to a number of Europe’s grandest clubs, Juve will be desperate to make up for last season’s failure, along with disappoints of bygone years – most notably their final losses in this competition to Barcelona and Real Madrid in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

Could Sarri — the reigning Europe League winning manager — be the man to end Juventus’s wait for this trophy? It has been a long 24 years. Whether or not they manage to go all the way, this is the end of the road for Lyon, and the Old Lady will march on, a step closer to May’s final in Istanbul.

VERDICT: Juventus go through.

Cristiano Ronaldo battles with Saúl Ñíguez for possession during his Juventus side’s 1-0 victory over Atlético in November. The two teams have differing levels of opponents in the last 16. (Image courtesy of Getty Images).

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City:

Inevitably, last week’s ruling is bound to have an impact on how this heavyweight clash plays out, but it could go one of two ways. City are insisting their innocence and will fight their case off the pitch, but on it this provides another test of their Champions League credentials, the like of which they have failed in recent years. Guardiola and his team will be desperate to strike back at UEFA and what better way would there be than (potentially) entering their European ban as reigning champions, having beaten the most prestigious club in the competition’s history along the way.

For City, there already existed an undeniable pressure to translate domestic dominance into success on the continent. Given the heavy investment which has powered them to becoming a genuine force in modern-day football, anything other than winning the trophy in May would constitute failure. Further, Liverpool’s performances and the doubt over the future of City’s higher-profile players and manager add another dimension to this game – they surprisingly remain favourites to win the competition and must come out fighting. In terms of a tactical approach, Guardiola needs to return to what was City’s main attacking strength of recent years and has deserted them recently: overlapping players and creating overloads in wide areas to drill crosses across the face of the goal for onrushing forwards.

As for their opposition, Real will host the first leg having qualified in second-place from group A behind PSG, and are building a team for the future. Zidane has assembled a squad full of stars approaching their peak of their powers in years to come, such as Federico Valverde and Vinícius Júnior. Both have cemented themselves in the side and become key parts of Real’s recent success, as they are unbeaten in 14 La Liga games having conceded just five goals. This defensive solidity is a marked change from Zidane’s first spell, and may give them an edge over City who have had defensive problems this season while not being as free-flowing at the other end.

However, Real always have a sense of entitlement regarding the Champions League, perhaps rightfully so, and will feel they have unfinished business after their embarrassing exit at the hands of Ajax last season. Zidane has pedigree, and there is still a strong core of players who remain from the golden era of four UCL titles in five seasons to accompany the next crop.

Both of these sides will hope to build up momentum with what would be a statement victory, with pressure sure to mount on either of the losing mangers, particularly on Guardiola in what could be his last season in Manchester. Anything could happen in this game, but it is sure to be more exciting than the drab two-legged semi-final affair from 2016, which Real won 1-0. The 13-times winners will prevail once again.

VERDICT: Real go through

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