UEFA Champions League 2018/2019 – Round of 16
After a two month hiatus, the UEFA Champions League begins the Round of 16 next week with the first match to be played at iconic Old Trafford in Manchester, England. After three grueling months of Group Play the field of 32 was whittled down to 16 for the first set of knockout phase matches. There were no real surprises resulting from the Group Stage although two sides that moved on, Tottenhem and Liverpool, had to go to tie breaker scenarios.
The Round of 16 draw was held in Nyon, Switzerland last December and as per usual resulted in some very interesting ties (not as in scoring results but two teams being paired together). And there were some clear winners and losers in the draw. While no team that has made it this far make for an easy road to move on clearly there are some weaker sides and Manchester City and Barcelona were on the positive end of the draw. They drew Schalke 04 and Lyon, respectively. On the flip side fans of Liverpool and Bayern Munich are less than thrilled with the draw pitting two of the top teams in Europe against each other. Likewise, two of the top defensive clubs in Europe drew each other in Juventus and Atletico Madrid.
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Since the winter transfer window (which took place in January) falls during the UCL break between the Group Stage and the Round of 16 it is always interesting to see if any key player changes occur with a potential to alter play. Although there were a lot of transfers last month a first look doesn’t seem to indicate that they will have much impact on the next stage. But then some players always rise in form under a new manager and when surrounded by new teammates so we shall see. Of interest to those in the States, of course the biggest, and expected move was that of Christian Pulisic from Borrussia Dortmund to Chelsea. However, Chelsea, as part of the transfer, agreed to loan Pulisc back to Dortmund for the remainder of the UCL and Bundesliga. For those interested in a list of all the transfers take a look here.
So lets take a look at the eight Round of 16 ties and what we might see over the next month of action. Note that for each tie they are listed with the home team of the first leg shown.
Manchester United – Paris Saint Germain
When first drawn this matchup was a picture of two teams headed in opposite directions. Manchester United with manager Jose Mourinho was in disarray. The team seemed to have lost its identity and numerous players were questioning their roles. Well how things have changed. On Sunday December 16, Man U lost in embarrassing fashion to Liverpool and two days later Mourinho was fired. Replacing him was long time Red Devil forward Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Since taking over the helm, Man U has won 9 of 10 matches.
Unfortunately for Man U, though, they drew an offensive juggernaut in PSG. One of if not the most potent front three in Europe are leading PSG to a runaway in the French Lique 1. Having scored jsut over three goals/match its going to be difficult for Man U to find a way to slow down Neymar, Mbappe, and Cavani. But unfortunately for PSG, Man U got some unexpected relief. Neymar suffered a foot injury and is expected to miss 10 weeks, including both matches in this stage. Still a defense facing Mbappe and Cavani is a scary proposition. And PSG comes in having won 8 of 10 matches.
Prediction – While my heart will be screaming for Man U better thinking says PSG moves on.
Roma – Porto
This is probably the weakest tie of the Round of 16. In fact if a side could have picked who they were to get drawn against, these two would have been many side’s choice. But they drew each other which is good news for one of them as they will make the Quarterfinals!
Roma comes in having gone 5-3-2 in their last 10 matches. Not terrific but not terrible either. Of note of late has been the goal scoring of 19-year old Zaniolo. He’s scored three times in their last five Seria A league matches. But its also hard to look past the recent 7-1 drubbing they took at the hands of Fiorentina in their Copa Italia match.
Porto on the other hand comes in having gone 7-3-0 or unbeaten in their last 10. In fact in their last 26 matches they have only lost once. And that was in their League Cup final where they lost to Sporting in a penalty shootout.
Prediction – Porto
Tottenham Hotspur – Borussia Dortmund
This one is setup to be a classic. Both sides have been playing very entertaining, attacking soccer. And they both are good at it. Very good. Dortmund is atop the Bundesliga (recent form 7-2-1) and is a very deep side and that can be critical at this stage of a grueling season. It bodes well for a team when they have talent like Christian Pulisic and Jadon Sancho of which one most always starts on the bench. Then there is Mario Goetze who also is usually starting on the bench. Yes, that same “Super Mario’ who scored the winning goal for Germany in the 2014 World Cup.
On the other side of the pitch will be a Tottenham side currently sitting at third in the English Premier League coming in having won 6 and lost 4 in their last 10 matches. However its important to note that those 4 losses have been to Chelsea, Manchester United, Wolverhampton, and Newcastle. They don’t say that the EPL is the toughest league in the world for no reason. Tottenham will run at any team with the likes of Harry Kane, Deli Alli, and Son Heung-min.
This pairing may come down to which of the goalkeepers has the better series. Both Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris and Dortmund’s Roman Burki are wold class shot stoppers. This matchup is must watch soccer.
Predicition – This one is truly a toss up. I think it might come down the the benches and that gives a slight nod to Dortmund to move on.
Ajax – Real Madrid
What an interesting tie featuring two of the most historic clubs in all of Europe. These two sides have a combined 15 European Cup titles between them. Ajax has been tearing up the Dutch Eredivisie with a league leading 72 goals. In their last match against VVV Venlo six different players found the back of the net. When a side can get goal production from literally all over the pitch they are a dangerous group to contend with. And coming in having gone 6-3-1 of late thew will prove a tough out. And a big plus they have is their age. Its a mixed bag of course. They may not have the breadth of experience of other sides but they have some young studs like Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt.
The flip side of this tie is the experience of Real Madrid. While they certainly are not the same Real side that has won three straight UCL titles they are still a force in Europe and are coming in going 6-2-2. In their last match, they tied Barcelona on the road in the Copa del Rey setting themselves up nicely for a trip to the final if they can hold serve at home on February 27. The big question facing Real coming into this season was going to be how they fared with the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo? You just don’t replace a generational player like Ronaldo. Real is loaded with talent and experience. With the likes of Gareth Bale and Kareem Benzema up top and world class keepers Keylor Navas and Thibaut Courtois in the back that is a formidable lineup. Good thing for their opponents that they an only play on keeper at a time. Oh, then there’s the little Croatian guy in the midfield. You know, Luka Modric, the Ballon d’Or winner (the first winner not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo since 2007).
Prediction – Youthful energy versus battle hardened experience? In this one I think experience wins out and Real Madrid moves on.
Liverpool – Bayern Munich
Liverpool began the 2019 year with a seven point lead in the EPL. But a couple of stumbles (as in draws) has allowed Manchester City to overtake them (however, Liverpool does have a game in hand). Liverpool comes in 6-2-2 of late but it doesn’t look as good over their last five having gone a paltry 2-2-1. While they have only lost one EPL match all season they are facing a mental challenge as they seem to have lost their edge. The biggest issue for them has been the injuries to their back line. The rock solid defense has been leaking a bit of late. They only conceded 8 goals in 20 matches to end 2018 but to start 2019 they have allowed 7 goals in 5 matches. But they still have a trio of scoring threats up top in Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino. The same trio that set a UCL record last year to be the time a team had three double digit scorers. And most teams would happily take a series of tumbles having been draws!
Bayern Munich comes in a tale of two sides. They did not start the Bundesliga well at all, at least by their standards but they come in having gone 8-1-1 and have moved their way up to third in the German league. Led by goal scoring machine Robert Lewandowski (UCL leading scorer this season) they are just a difficult side to defend. Put a man marker on Lewandowski and its likely to open up holes in the defense that will be exploited. But the problem for Bayern is just who could exploit those potential holes with strikers Thomas Muller (suspension) and Arjen Robben (injury) likely to be lost. And then there is the question of goalkeeper. Manual Neuer, one of the best in the world is still nursing an injury to ligaments in his thumb and indications are that he will miss at least the first match.
But as mentioned in the preseason review much of a teams success in UCL is built upon a deep and talented bench. Soccer is a physically demanding sport and when you couple league play, country cups, AND Champions League its just a ton of matches to navigate.
Prediction – Liverpool. Coaching may make a difference here with injury and suspension issues and that has to give the nod to Jurgen Klopp over Nico Kovac.
Lyon – Barcelona
Lyon comes in at 6-3-1 with a huge win over PSG on Sunday, PSG’s first loss in league play this season. They have been playing excellent soccer and have the talent to beat any team at any time. They have some solid talent with the likes of Memphis Depay, Nabil Fekir, and Tanguy Ndombele they can put a scare into a Barcelona side that isn’t the strongest defensively.
But Barcelona is still Barcelona. They lead the La Liga by six points and have scored 23 goals. That is 23 goals more than the next highest scoring team and Lionel Messi is still doing his thing. Messi is second in UCL scoring with 6 goals and leads La Liga having scored 21 times. And for the record the second place scored in La Liga has 15 goals. Any guesses who that is? How about Luis Suarez the other Barcelona striker. Lyon is going to have to pull out all stops to win this one. Not happening. It just never gets old watching Messi do his thing.
Prediction – Messi
Atletico Madrid – Juventus
A quite interesting matchup featuring two of the top defenses. This could turn out to be a very physical slugfest.. Atletico lost Sunday for just the second time this season in La Liga play and have gone 5-4-1 in their last 10. and currently sit second in the league. For this side expect them to go how star striker Antoine Griezmann goes. If he can find room to roam he will pose all kinds of problems for the Juventus defense. But its also a defense proven to be able to handle anybody.
Juventus made one of the biggest, if not the biggest, offseason moves in all of soccer last year by signing Cristiano Ronaldo. There isn’t much question that he brings an incredible attacking prowess to a terrific defensive side. Juventus have only lost once in their last 10 matches and Ronaldo scored twice in their last match on Saturday. That gives him a Serie A leading 17 on the season. But Atletico has a defense that has also proven it can handle anybody.
So we have a match with two defensive brick walls and opposing attacking stars. Both can’t be successful. Don’t look for much scoring in the two set match. Scores like 0-0 or 1-0 are likely. If Juventus scores an away goal in the first match next week it would be really tough for Atletico to come back.
Prediction – Ronaldo is just a bit better than Greizmann. Juve moves on…barely.
Schalke 04 – Manchester City
When the draw was announced Man City fans rejoiced. As stated upfront, no team at this point is a dog. But Schalke 04 is a mid table side in the Bundesliga and Man City should handle them with ease. The best news for us fans is that Schalke does have two young American kids on their team. Midfielder Weston McKennie is a starter and forward Haji Wright has recently started making the game day 18 roster. Any time those two get at this level is great for the US Men’s National Team. They come in at 4-3-3 or about as middling as you can get at this point. However, they are not without talent and defender Salif Sane is a towering back at 6’5″. However, he can be shouldered around a bit as he only weighs 172 pounds.
Man City comes in on a terror. They have gone 9-0-1 of late and have taken over first in the EPL albeit based on goal differential. But right now there aren’t any teams you’d rather not play than the Citizens. They are just loaded with talent. They have seven players who have scored 5 or more goals lead by Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling with 14 and 10 goals, respectively.
Predcition – If you are a gambler this is the one to put your money on. Man City.
So the best soccer returns to action next Tuesday. Be sure to watch some superb soccer and perhaps get to see some of the young American up and comers get some minutes.