The greatest show on earth is back. The late-night football action worth every headache or struggle to wake up for office in the morning. Champions League knockout stages mark the start of the most crucial and busy schedule for a top-flight European club. The biggest teams and players strive for this opportunity. If we can pick the best matches played throughout the season or even history of the game, Champions League matches would be right there on the top. This season promises to be no different. 16 teams have come through from the group stages amidst a hectic and challenging season. We have our usual suspects with a couple of newcomers. Looking at how the previous season unfolded, we can expect a fair share of drama, emotions and excitement.
Let’s look at the individual matches now, shall we:
Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain
What a way to start with the proceedings, a clash of the heavyweights. Messi, Griezmann, Dembélé vs Neymar, Mbappé, Di María. This is the biggest fixture on paper amongst the lot. And it’s definitely going to be another heartbreak for the fans and supporters of either club. Barcelona and PSG start out as the favourites every season but have failed to live up to the expectations in recent past. These clubs have shelled out a ton of cash yet none of it has translated to any European silverware. To add to the concerns, this season has been very similar so far for both the teams. They find themselves, to everyone’s surprise, 3rd in the points table in the league and have been very streaky with their performances with unexpected defeats and draws.
Their track record isn’t much of a help either. These teams have found a way to lose the momentum going into the second leg of the knockout stages. Barcelona has been on the wrong side of many historic comebacks just in the last decade itself. Except for last season, PSG has had a very similar story. With new managers at the helm, these teams would wish to change the fortunes and maintain consistency for both the legs. Their biggest stars haven’t had the greatest season so far by their standards and hence all eyes turn towards them to take their team to the next stage. Regardless, one team will have to bow irrespective of the efforts. Neymar is expected to miss the 1st leg and with Griezmann discovering his old touch in this new year, Barcelona can grab the 1st leg at home. My bet’s still on PSG as Barcelona looks weaker of the two teams coming into this match. Let’s just hope that this encounter turns out to be as exciting as their previous one.
My Pick: PSG
Leipzig vs Liverpool
This is another exciting match to look forward to. Any other day, you would have picked Liverpool to make it easily past this Leipzig team but the current situation is much different. Liverpool’s purple patch seems to have hit an abrupt end, winning just 3 of their last 11 matches and 2 straight home losses. Something new for the team previously unbeaten at home in the last 3 seasons combined. On the other hand, Leipzig has managed to raise a few eyebrows with their run last season in the knockout stages and this season’s group stage. Just think about it, in a single year, they have managed to secure a win against Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, PSG and Manchester United.
Liverpool comes into this match extremely shorthanded compared to their winning squad in 2019. Their defensive woes have continued with the marquee players injured. Facing Leicester on weekend doesn’t help them either. Too many tired legs on the pitch. Leipzig needs to strike the iron when it’s hot. Leipzig reminds everyone of a young hungry team without any star power capable to make a difference. The match promises a lot of attacking and free-flowing football with a ton of entertainment from a neutral perspective. I still believe Liverpool can make it through owing to their experience but it’s going to be one hell of a contest.
My Pick: Liverpool
Porto vs Juventus
This is an easy one. The Old Lady wins over Dragões. It’s tough to bet against Juventus for this matchup. Juventus trumps Porto in every aspect from defence to attack. More so, Juventus has got the biggest star in this competition in their lineup. Cristiano Ronaldo at age 36 is still a formidable threat and one which cannot be undermined. Many have done the mistake and many have suffered because he always wills his way. Juventus has also got slightly better than the previous few seasons in terms of team chemistry. The season has been a testing one yet they are now able to find their stride. It seems Pirlo has found the recipe to make them click. In the past few seasons, Juventus has fallen short at the attacking front leaving too much to do for the defenders. With Ronaldo, Dybala, Morata and Mckinnie, Juventus can surely go deeper into the competition this year. Despite a tough challenge in the form of Napoli this weekend, it is Juventus’ game to lose coming weekday.
My Pick: Juventus
Sevilla vs Dortmund
This is a true battle of underdogs. Dortmund and Sevilla have had little to no success in knockout stages of Champions League in quite some time. Both the teams have the ability to show their true mettle on their best day but also surprisingly falter at the finish line on most occasions. Dortmund had a great run in the group stages, credit to the duo of Haaland and Sancho at front. Sevilla too comes into this match in a much better position including a recent victory against Barcelona in cup competition. Sevilla boasts as the most successful club in Europa League’s history. That experience should help them do better in the bigger competition but it somehow never happens. It is a tougher prediction but Dortmund’s explosion at the front has better odds than Sevilla’s crafty midfield.
My Pick: Borussia Dortmund
Atlético Madrid vs Chelsea
Two tough defensive teams who like to stretch out the game as much as possible and play from the back. Both the teams have had an unexpected season so far. Atletico has been a different animal when it comes to the Spanish league but the same animal looked tamed in the group stages. If only Barcelona would have retained Suarez and not let go for free to the bitter rivals. He is reliving his old prime days. Everyone had high expectations from Chelsea but it seems their topsy turvy season is finally gaining some momentum. The star signings have been underwhelming. The new boss Tuchel has a tough task in the honeymoon period of his job. Considering the way Chelsea goes about their managers, his team would need to perform their absolute best. Atletico’s impenetrable defence leaves the opposition frustrated. Suárez, João Félix, Correa makes them an all-round threat. Chelsea’s young squad has its work cut out.
My Pick: Atlético Madrid
Lazio vs Bayern Munich
No discussion or argument needed here. It’s Bayern. Bayern may have got 99 problems but Lazio ain’t going to be one. As the defending champions and the sextuple winners, they are still the favourites to win it all. All the other teams are thinking of the ways to either improve their squad or do better with what they got. Bayern need not worry about anything. This Bayern is constructed and coached very similar to the 2015–18 Real Madrid. A legendary goalkeeper, “The Best” player in the world in the lineup and the usual mix of great defence and midfield. Bayern has the desired combination of pace and finesse to help them defend their title. It’s not that Lazio is bad, it’s the fact that Bayern is just that much better. Bayern has this match in their bag, no need to look elsewhere.
My Pick: Bayern Munich
Atalanta vs Real Madrid
13-times winner against a team making their 2nd appearance in the competition. Should be another easy pick, right? Not so fast. Real Madrid has been poor, to say the least, this season. The same Real Madrid which was invincible a few years back finds themselves digging deep to score goals and prevent some at the other end. Atalanta on the other hand almost knocked out PSG last season and will look to build upon it this time around. Zidane’s squad lacks the depth and looks weary in all departments. The new signings including Hazard have been disastrous and the veterans seem to be running out of tricks. Ever since Ronaldo’s departure, Real Madrid has lost its mojo in the Champions League. Yet they have enough gas in the tank to reach the next milestone, for now.
My Pick: Real Madrid
Borussia Mönchengladbach vs Manchester City
Another easy one. Manchester City is in a red hot form which has taken them to the top of the league table with impressive performances and the best record for top-flight English club with most successive wins across all competitions. It could not have happened for Guardiola and his men at a much better time. Guardiola has a lot to prove by winning this competition with a different team and not just rest on the laurels. Manchester City looks like the most promising squad to make it all the way to the final and finally scratch the itch to hold this trophy for the first time. Manchester City has been criticized heavily in the past for the odd tactics handing over the match to the opposition, but they look prepared this time. City is firing on all cylinders and there’s little hope for Mönchengladbach.
My Pick: Manchester City
Champions League Round of 16 starts this Tuesday. These are some mouth-watering fixtures. I am surely hopeful it promises to be an intense and competitive footballing action for the next few weeks which will just get better and better in the next rounds.