Changes, firings alter Champions League last 16 outlook
The Champions League is back! After a 10-week winter break, Europe’s foremost club competition returns this week with some fascinating matchups. When the original round-of-16 draw was conducted, there were some clear favorites and defined storylines, but since then, players have gotten injured, coaches have been sacked–including Rudi Garcia, Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho–and form has been overturned.
Here is what we can expect from this week’s four first-leg clashes (all games start 2:45 p.m. ET):
Paris Saint–Germain vs. Chelsea (Tuesday)
The storylines that abounded before the draw was made have changed totally now. For starters, Jose Mourinho and Eden Hazard were tipped to end up in Paris soon. Last week Laurent Blanc extended his contract by two years (ending Mourinho’s chances, temporarily, of a return to the bench in France), while Hazard has of late been a Chelsea substitute (PSG’s main summer target is now reported to be Sergio Busquets).
Chelsea wants to avenge last season’s European elimination by the same team, but that time it was the favorite to progress; now it’s not. Caretaker coach Guus Hiddink may still be unbeaten, but four wins in 10 league games is hardly Champions League-winning form.
Injuries to Kurt Zouma (long term) and John Terry do not help the English side, which will be weakened in central defense.
The debate in France is whether PSG’s total dominance of Ligue 1–it is 25 points clear at the top and unbeaten in 34 domestic games–makes it harder to succeed against the tougher European opponents. It has enough players who can make the difference in these big games, among them Angel di Maria, whose form in the French capital in recent months has been stunning (he scored two goal-of-the-season contenders in one game last month against Angers).
PSG will miss the energy and precision of Marco Verratti in midfield, and there is a doubt over the left-wing spot, with Lucas Moura and Edinson Cavani fighting it out in the absence of injured Javier Pastore. If this was a close one to call back in December, PSG has the clear edge now, even if it will now be without Serge Aurier, the right back suspended for abusing his coach and teammates in an ill-fated Persicope interview on Saturday night. Aurier may never play for PSG again. Marquinhos is likely to deputize in his place.
Benfica vs. Zenit St Petersburg (Tuesday)
When the draw was made, Benfica was in third place and eight points off the top in the Primeira Liga. Now, it is in second place after a run of 11 straight wins, which ended Friday night with a home loss to rival FC Porto. Coach Rui Vitoria was under pressure after losing three times to Sporting in the autumn, but he has seen out the storm and won over the fans by promoting young players like Renato Sanches, one of the breakout stars of this season who is reportedly now on Real Madrid’s wish list for the summer.
Jonas is in the goalscoring form of his life, with 23 goals in 21 league starts, but he needs to prove himself in the big games; he has only scored once in seven games against Benfica’s biggest rivals. The Portuguese champion will be without captain Luisao, who fractured his recently broken arm last week. But there is some good news on the injury side with the return of winger Eduardo Salvio, who has missed eight months with a knee injury. He could start on the bench.
It’s been a strange campaign for Zenit Saint-Petersburg, whose coach Andre Villas-Boas only kept his job because the club won its first five Champions League group games. Zenit is sixth in the Russian league, seven points off the top, and has not played a competitive match since the Matchday 6 loss at Gent in early-December. The long winter break for Russian teams in Europe is an issue, even though Zenit has won three friendlies in Qatar, Portugal and Spain. Villas-Boas has announced he will leave the club at the end of this season, but he wants Zenit to reach the least eight for the first time in its history before goes.
Roma vs. Real Madrid (Wednesday)
New coaches will be in each dugout for this clash, which represents the first real test of Zinedine Zidane as coach of Real Madrid. The Frenchman has overseen a glut of goals in home matches–the latest a 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao–and been credited with allowing Ronaldo and James Rodriguez to play with more freedom. Given that Malaga and Atletico Madrid are the two opponents in between the first and second leg vs. Roma, the next month is huge for Zidane. It’s also worth remembering that Keylor Navas was once again one of Madrid’s best, and busiest, players against Athletic; the team is good in front of goal but still far from solid at the other end.
And what of Roma? Things appear to clicking into shape nicely for Luciano Spalletti, who has overseen four straight wins to push Roma within two points of the top three. Even Edin Dezko scored at the weekend, his first goal in almost 12 hours of game time.
Spalletti has made a few changes to the lineup since his arrival (before which Roma won just once in 10 games). He has moved Miralem Pjanic to the "regista," deep-lying playmaker in midfield, while encouraging Radja Nainggolan to be more box-to-box. New signings Stephan El Shaarawy and Diego Perotti have also impressed, with the latter playing as a false nine against Sassuolo.
Zidane may have the stardust, but Spalletti has a canny tactical approach. As Fabio Capello, who has coached both teams, warned: “Roma will be dangerous with Spalletti in charge. Madrid must not think it’s an easy game.”
Gent vs. Wolfsburg (Wednesday)
Surprise qualifier Gent won all four of its league games in January–and held onto main striker Laurent Depoitre in the window as well–but has suffered its first wobble of the season, losing back-to-back games to Club Brugge in the Belgian Cup semifinal (eliminated on away goals) and in the league. This is a big test for coach Hans Vanhaezebrouck, who won Belgian Coach of the Year for Gent’s European exploits. In the same ceremony last month, Sven Kums won Belgian Player of the Year, Matz Sels won Goalkeeper of the Year and Nicklas Pedersen (sold to Oostende) Goal of the Year. January signing Mbark Boussafa scored a late goal on his debut in a 2-0 win over Mouscron over the weekend to keep Gent tied for first. Whatever happens, this season has been a success.
Wolfsburg, meanwhile, has hit a horrible run of form, with the Matchday 6 win over Manchester United its only victory in eight competitive fixtures until Saturday’s 2-0 triumph over Ingolstadt. It will be without center back Naldo (suspended) while striker Bas Dost is out injured. Andre Schurrle and Max Arnold made brief substitute cameos vs. Ingolstadt and could feature this week.