Champions League knockout stage commences with intriguing first legs
The Champions League returns this week, and the staggered format of the round of 16 ensures we have drama for the next two weeks as some of Europe’s elite clubs go head-to-head for the continent’s showpiece title. If the draw produced raised eyebrows because of repeat fixtures–three of the eight matchups also took place last season–the change in fortunes for many teams since that day in December has heightened anticipation.
Here is a breakdown of this week’s four fixtures:
Tuesday, February 17
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Chelsea
Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho claimed that he wanted PSG in the draw, even though the French champion was among the best second-placed finishers in the group stage (finishing just behind Barcelona).
Last season, Chelsea only edged past PSG on away goals after Demba Ba scored a late second at Stamford Bridge.
PSG needs to channel the success of its 3-1 home leg win from that quarterfinal, but there is one problem: PSG has not improved since then, while Chelsea has added Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, who will back from his domestic suspension, for the game.
On top of that, Chelsea sold David Luiz for €50 million to PSG, whose boss Laurent Blanc has yet to work out how to get the best from Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the same side. Cavani missed several chances in PSG’s recent top-of-the-table clash against Lyon, and Blanc admitted the Uruguayan was in “a bad patch… but we need to help him.”
After a contract stand-off over winter, Thiago Motta has returned to form, but once again PSG will be need to rely on the talismanic Ibrahimovic to get anything out of the game. Expect to hear more Mourinho platitudes on how he loves Paris: with Blanc on his way out at the end of the season, PSG has twice tried to hire the Portuguese before.
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Bayern Munich
Can two teams ever have had such different preparations before a big game? Bayern spent its winter in Dubai, returned to Bundesliga action with a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Wolfsburg and 1-1 draw to Schalke, but then resumed normal service with wins over Stuttgart and Hamburg, the latter of which was an 8-0 thrashing.
For Shakhtar, it was not quite the same: it hasn't played a competitive match since December 10, and their players were last in Donetsk on May 15 last year. Civil war in Ukraine has forced them to Kiev, though they play home games in Lviv.
As The Times (UK) put it: “The players are homeless, the club adrift, the stadium damaged, and their fans waging war to try to take their city back.”
It’s hardly ideal circumstances for facing one of Europe’s most fearsome sides. And yet the unknown factor could work in its favor: for many years the extended winter break in Russia and Ukraine has been blamed for their teams’ struggles in the later stages of European competition. This time around, every other excuse can trump that. There is no expectation on Shakhtar. It has nothing to lose. The conditions are perfect to pull off a shock. Whether it will do so is a totally different matter, of course.
Wednesday, February 18
FC Basel vs. FC Porto
This is the battle of the dark horses, and the winning team may well be the one that everyone wants to face in the quarterfinal. But beware: in the last two seasons, a dark horse–Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid–has reached the final, and both of these teams have up-and-coming coaches, Paulo Sousa (Basel) and Julen Lopetegui (Porto).
Lopetegui has overseen a change in strategy at Porto, which now has the youngest team in its history and is playing a fast-pressing Guardiola-style–complete with seven Spaniards–far removed from the pragmatic Mourinho side that won the 2004 Champions League.
Porto’s front three of Yacine Brahimi, Jackson Martinez and Ricardo Quaresma could hurt any team when on form.
Martinez, the Colombian center forward, recently admitted he would be leaving the club this summer. His price might just increase with a couple of well-timed goals this week.
Schalke vs. Real Madrid
A blip rather than a crisis is how Real Madrid insiders described the recent 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Atletico Madrid, though concern is growing over the form and fitness of the BBC (Bale-Benzema-Cristiano) front line: particularly Ronaldo, whose goals-per-game in 2015 is down to 0.57 per game (four in seven), as opposed to his Madrid average of 1.03 goals per game (288 in 278).
Other experts have put its form since winning the Club World Cup in December down to complacency, physical problems (with injuries to Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez), lack of rotation and Carlo Ancelotti’s refusal to play 4-4-2. Yes, 4-4-2!
How this will affect things against Schalke, whom Real Madrid beat 9-2 on aggregate 12 months ago, remains unclear.
The German side will not be so generous at the back though: under Roberto di Matteo, Schalke has tightened up in defense, and earlier this month held Bayern Munich to a 1-1 draw. Schalke has moved from 11th to third place under the former Champions-League-winning Chelsea coach. His risk-averse tactics are hardly in keeping with a roller-coaster club like Schalke but might just help avoid a repeat of last year’s nightmare.