The business end of the Champions League resumes on the 18th February with some mouth-watering ties to choose from that pit the best of Europe against each other over two legs. This year’s competition is surely one of the closest to call in recent years with most teams feeling that they are in with a chance to lift “big ears”. Last year’s finalist Spurs will give hope to the lower seeded teams that they can overturn the odds and achieve their dreams. So let’s take a deeper look at the best of the ties on offer and try to predict a result.
Athletico Madrid v Liverpool:
What a dangerous tie the current Champions of Europe have in store as they take on a club with a manager in Diego Simeone, someone that will surely see this as a massive chance to enhance his already growing reputation. Athletico have lost pace this season with both Barcelona and Madrid pulling away from them at the top of the table and will see this is their best chance for success. Napoli have produced a good blue print of how to deal with Liverpool in recent ties, showing that a well setup unit can stifle the Liverpool attack while an aggressive midfield can cause them problems. I’d expect Simeone to rough up the feathers of the Liverpool front 3 in particular at their home venue. Athletico are not a side the shy away from a battle and this will be a test for the mentality of this Liverpool side. Athletico have been averaging only a goal a game this season so if they are to win they must stop the current champs from scoring not just a vital away goal in the Metropolitano Stadium but the unenviable task of stopping them scoring at Anfield as well.
Prediction: Liverpool to go all out in the first leg and try to get a decisive away goal to take back to Anfield. Athletico to make life difficult over 2 legs but not enough firepower to cause an upset here. Winners – Liverpool.
Borussia Dortmund v PSG:
If Dortmund can get off to a good start at home in this tie they will fancy themselves to overthrow a PSG side that seem to always find a way to exit the Champions League earlier than fancied. You always feel that PSG have a great chance when they have the luxury to rest their best players before crucial games but this is also their undoing. The lack of proper competition in the French league is the reason that they struggle to concentrate and produce 90 good mins of football at times. That said, they looked really good in their group qualifying stages and handed out a thrashing to Madrid in their top of the table encounter. PSG possess so many attacking options and threats that they cannot be dismissed with Neymar and Mbappe the crown jewels. Dortmund however possess some serious firepower of their own with Sancho and Reus both in a rich vein of form playing from midfield alongside new signing Erling Halland who has hit the ground running. On their day they are a serious contender.
Prediction: So much hinges on the first leg of this tie. If Dortmund can avoid defeat at home I expect them to go away with confidence and score in Paris. This seems to be the method to beat the galacticos of PSG by testing their metal when it matters most. Upset of the round with Dortmund winning on away goals.
Chelsea v Bayern Munich:
There is an expectation that Bayern will run away with this tie after the way they handled Spurs in the Group stages and that would appear to be the safe bet – but Chelsea have a lot more to offer in their armoury than Spurs did at that time in their season. Frank Lampard has his side working hard and they are the perfect side to cause an upset against the giants of Munich. Chelsea boast some superb talent across the middle of their team with Kante and Jorginho supplying the experience and Kovacic supplying the creativity but it is further forward that they will hope to bear fruit with a choice of players to support Abraham up front. Recent spells of brilliance from Mount, Pulisic and Willian will give Lampard the perfect headache as he tries to find a good balance between attack and defence. I expect them to score at home and away if they are adventurous enough. For Bayern it is a case of showing up when it matters. They had the luxury for resting Gnabry, Boateng and Goretzka on the weekend against their title rivals Leipsig by subbing them off early, but off a 9 game winning streak they’ll feel form is arriving at the right time. Their main threat is that of Gnabry who almost single handedly dismantled Spurs with some breath-taking attacking display. Kingsley Coman was back last week but it might be a case of too soon for the winger, for the first leg at least.
Prediction: This will be a bridge too far for this young Chelsea side with experience lacking across the backline in particular they’ll not be able to handle the Gnabry/Lewandowski combination. Bayern for the win but Chelsea to make it difficult.
Real Madrid v Manchester City:
This for me is the tie of the round. I’ve wanted to see these 2 go at each other since Pep arrived at City and Madrid were winning 3 in a row! Strangely enough both these teams are meeting at a time when they are both struggling to hit top form. City are so desperate to win this title that they have basically given up in the league to concentrate on getting to this game. Guardiola v Zidane in itself is a mouth-watering prospect before we even get to the teams. With both sides so used to controlling the majority of the games they are in from a possession perspective this tie lies in the balance of who can dominate their opposition in the middle of the park. Both teams setup similarly with 1 defencive midfielder each (Rodri and Casemiro) followed by 2 attacking players that are excellent on the ball. For Madrid they have Kroos and Valverde who are given a free license to attack with the former excellent on the press into midfield. Then with City we will see if Pep chooses David Silva or Gundogan to partner the excellent Kevin De Bruyne. The last El Classico gave us a glimpse of what this battle could be with Madrid matching the Catalans away from home with almost equal possession but it was their aggression off the ball that impressed the most as they looked most likely to score in that game. Both teams have a striker in superb form with Aguero breaking records this season with his scoring prowess and the ever present Benzima already on 19 goals this season.
Prediction: This game promises goals all round with both sides going for the jugular. The City defence will be tested to the limit but if they can get the balance right in midfield then I can also see them cut this Madrid team open. City to go through with high aggregate score.
As for the lesser glamorous ties of the round – I’m expecting Juventus to make short work of Lyon, Valencia to overpower Atalanta, Tottenham to squeeze past Leipsig and Barcelona to have too much quality for Napoli.