Champions League: Deluxe storylines abound as knockout stage continues
Last week’s Champions League Round of 16 matches produced three draws and an away win for the reigning champion Real Madrid. Will this week’s encounters be as close? The matchups include a repeat of the 1997 final, an emotional reunion for Arsene Wenger and two of Europe’s biggest clubs locking horns for a second season running.
Tuesday, February 24
Manchester City vs. Barcelona
Never mind politics, a week is a long time in football. Just a few days ago, Barcelona was on a run of 11 straight league wins, had scored 23 goals in five games and was one home game away from leap-frogging Real Madrid (if only for 24 hours) at the top of La Liga. Then came Saturday’s deserved 1-0 loss to Malaga at Camp Nou, and the concern starts again.
The pressure is back on coach Luis Enrique while Luis Suarez’s lack of goals is back on the agenda–never mind that his assists and all-around movement to create space for Neymar and Messi has been fantastic–while Spanish media noted the Barca defeat came with “a lack of defiance… All defeats are bad but this one felt worse.”
City has long struggled with a Champions League inferiority complex, but winning at Roma on the final day of the group stage might have ended that; it is certainly stronger than the City side that lost to Barcelona 12 months ago.
Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero are fit (unlike last year), Samir Nasri and David Silva are clicking again, and there are fewer defensive errors than in the fall.
Does this mean City can finally fulfill its primary target for this season and reach at least the quarterfinals this season? It will certainly give Barcelona a tougher test than last year.
Juventus vs. Borussia Dortmund
When the draw was made back in December, Juventus would have wished to play the tie, a repeat of the 1997 European Cup final, straightaway. Back then, the German side was a downward spiral that would see the club slip to the bottom of the Bundesliga.
Since the winter break, though, Dortmund has won three games in a row, moved into the top half of the table, and scored 10 goals - a tally it took the club 14 games to reach at the start of the season. What’s changed?
Coach Jurgen Klopp has settled on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as his first-choice center forward, meaning ex-Juventus forward Ciro Immobile is unlikely to start against his old side.
Winter signing Kevin Kampl has started well and concerns over Marco Reus’ future have disappeared since he signed his new contract earlier this month. Ilkay Gundogan and Shinji Kagawa both impressed in Friday’s 3-2 win over Stuttgart.
Runaway Italian leader Juventus, gunning for its fourth straight Serie A title, has one of the strongest midfields in the competition–Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal–and this season has scored more goals from outside the area than any other side in Europe.
Juventus would have been clear favourite even a few weeks ago, but now this one is too close to call.
Wednesday, February 25
Arsenal vs. Monaco
Is Monaco the most boring team in Ligue 1 history? That was the question posed by last week’s L’Equipe poll and while 79 per cent of the voters disagreed, the mere fact it was up for discussion suggests that this might not be a feast of goals. Monaco has conceded three goals in its last 17 games - the best record of any team still in this competition - while 10 of its 19 wins this season have been by 1-0.
One problem it faces is the injury to highly rated left back Layvin Kuzawa, rated a doubt for the opening leg at the Emriates.
Monaco's creativity will come from Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, a former youth competition Gambardella Cup winner with Monaco from 2011, and Bernardo Silva, a €15.7 million January signing from Benfica who has been compared to Rui Costa.
This is normally the time of year when Arsenal’s season starts to wobble, but the opposite looks true this time around. The Gunners have eight wins in their last nine games, with French trio Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin, and Olivier Giroud adding quality and strength in each area of the field. The subplot to this is Arsene Wenger’s spell at Monaco, but expect the French boss to play down the emotions of the occasion: this is a chance for Arsenal to reach the last eight for the first time since 2010.
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid
The German side has only won once in five since the winter break resumed, and has developed an alarming recent habit of shipping late goals: both Wolfsburg’s winner (5-4) and Augsburg’s equalizer (2-2) were scored after 90 minutes in its last two games. That Augsburg’s scorer was goalkeeper Marvin Hitz, with the first Bundesliga goal from open play since 2002, made it even harder to take.
Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt, admired by Pep Guardiola, will want to take a lead in this tie, as Atletico has the best home record in La Liga, with 11 wins out of 13 games. Its new signings are also in great form at the moment: Antoine Griezmann, playing as second striker, has scored 14 goals in the last 14 league games (he didn't score any in his first 10), while Mario Mandzukic has 20 goals and the best goals per game average in his career, 0.63.
Between them they have scored over half of Atletico’s league goals this season, and more goals than over half of La Liga teams in total. Only Messi/Neymar (43 goals), Ronaldo/Benzema (42) and Lyon’s Lacazette/Fekir (30) have scored more than Mandzukic/Griezmann’s 26 goals. If Leverkusen stops them, it goes a long way to stopping Atletico.