A pair of marquee matchups–Arsenal vs. Barcelona and Juventus vs. Bayern Munich–headline this week's Champions League round-of-16 first legs.
If UEFA established a Super Tuesday in the Champions League, this would be it: four of Europe’s biggest and best teams face each other in the pick of the round-of-16 ties this week. Barcelona’s quest to become the first team in the Champions League era to retain its title takes it to London, while last year’s runner-up, Juventus, takes on Bayern Munich.
On Wednesday, two dark horses are in action; Manchester City hopes to reach the last eight for the first time–playing in an empty stadium vs. Dynamo Kyiv–while 2014 finalist Atletico Madrid is a favorite to get past PSV Eindhoven.
Here is what to look out for this week (all games start 2:45 p.m. ET):
Arsenal vs. Barcelona (Tuesday)
History is not on Arsenal’s side in this tie; it lost to Barcelona in Champions League in 2010 and 2011 (Messi scored four goals in that first game) while the English side also lost the first leg at home in each of their last three round-of-16 ties; against Bayern Munich (2013 and 2014) and Monaco (2015). Barcelona’s recent record in England is as good as it can be: after the Arsenal wins, it also beat Manchester City at this stage of the competition in the last two seasons.
On current form, Barcelona is the best team in Europe: Celta Vigo was blitzed 5-1 in an astonishing 15-minute period of play late on, while last Saturday’s display at Las Palmas may have been scrappy in comparison, but Barça still won 2-1. The Messi-Suarez-Neymar strike partnership seems unstoppable; and while Messi and Neymar have continued to star this season, right now it is Luis Suarez who is in the zone, with 15 goals in his last nine appearances.
There is reason for some optimism for Arsenal. Goalkeeper Petr Cech, who has been outstanding this season, has never been beaten by Messi in six meetings. Will that run continue? Gabriel Paulista believes so: he told the Brazilian press that he has the secret formula for keeping MSN quiet. Let’s see that before we believe it.
Juventus vs. Bayern Munich (Tuesday)
When the draw was made, Bayern was the clear favorite for this tie. Since then, everything has gone right for Juventus, and not quite so right for the German leader. Juventus ended its run of 15 straight Serie A wins Friday night with a goalless draw at Bologna, but there is no doubt that Massimiliano Allegri has found the right formula, with Gigi Buffon and Paulo Dybala in superb form.
Bayern’s status is not quite so secure; Holger Badstuber has joined Medhi Benatia, Jerome Boateng and Javi Martinez on the injured center backs list, while January signing Serdar Tasci only made his debut at the weekend. Midfielder Arturo Vidal, up against his former club, has come in for criticism on and off the field. It’s better news further upfield, where Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski have scored 13 of the team’s last 14 goals.
Even though Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa have not been as dangerous as earlier in the season, Arjen Robben is back from injury and so is Franck Ribery, who made his first home appearance for nearly 12 months Saturday (he will likely start on the bench Tuesday).
No European game featuring Bayern is complete without the usual Guardiola debate; since he has announced his departure, and his destination, the narrative continues that Bayern’s Champions League campaign is all-or-nothing. This is unfair on Guardiola, who has already fulfilled his brief as Bayern boss by taking its football to new levels; the Juventus game has taken on an undue importance with the sense that a defeat will tarnish his legacy. It’s certainly not as clear-cut as it appeared three months ago.
Dynamo Kyiv vs. Manchester City (Wednesday)
City has lost its last thee games and its slump could not have come at a worse time. Coach Manuel Pellegrini fielded a second-string team for Sunday’s FA Cup defeat at Chelsea because he is clearly prioritizing this chance to reach the last eight for the first time in the club’s history, and Sunday’s League Cup final against Liverpool.
While City is strong favorite to progress past a team that has not played since early-December, there are always caveats to the side which remains reliant on Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero and, when fit, Kevin de Bruyne. Which Yaya Toure will turn up? Will the defense stay solid? Does Raheem Sterling’s form deserve more scrutiny? And of course, ever since the club announced that Pep Guardiola will take charge next season, which players will still be in the side then?
It’s surprising to note that from when Dynamo beat City 2-1 on aggregate in the 2011 Europa League, City still has six players who could start this week. After five years and millions spent on new players, that’s hardly an overhaul.
Before the draw was made, Dynamo coach Sergei Rebrov was slated to spend a week at City watching training sessions; but the team had so many matches (therefore not as much training) that his trip was canceled. Rebrov was part of the Dynamo side that reached the 1999 Champions League semifinal and claims he knows how to prepare a team after a three-month hiatus. If he’s right, then Pellegrini might have another headache. The added twist of the game being played in front of no supporters, as a result of UEFA sanctioning for fan racism, is a variable that both teams will need to take into account.
PSV Eindhoven vs. Atletico Madrid (Wednesday)
Poor old Nicolas Isimat-Mirin. The PSV defender was interviewed at the club canteen, and declared that he would "eat Atletico like this soup" that he had just been given. Only problem: the soup was boiling hot and it burned his tongue.
PSV beat Manchester United to reach this stage and has maintained its position at the top of the Dutch table. Coach Phillip Cocu is not afraid to deviate from the usual 4-3-3 system, playing a 4-4-2 to boost the midfield against Wolfsburg. Mexican midfielder Andres Guardado is back from injury for the game.
Even though Atletico dropped points at home to Villarreal Sunday, for once Diego Simeone takes his team in Europe as a strong favorite. It is unsurprising that his defense is the club's backbone, one that has conceded 11 goals in 25 La Liga games this season, the best in Europe’s top five leagues. At the other end, Antoine Griezmann has only scored once in his last seven games, while Luciano Vietto and Angel Correa have bags of potential; this is their chance to show it on the big stage.