Champions League's Last 16 Will Be Quite Telling

Barcelona-PSG headlines the draw for the start of the knockout stage, with some intriguing matchups beginning in mid-February—including some that will provide the answers to pressing questions regarding some of Europe's giants.
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By the time the UEFA Champions League's knockout stage begins, much could change. A winter transfer window will have come and gone, though with COVID-19 impacting club finances across Europe and some already having spent big in the summer, it remains to be seen how substantial the forthcoming moves will be. Barcelona will have held its club presidential elections, a pivotal moment for a giant in turmoil and one that could have plenty of say in how the club operates moving forward. Influential players currently out injured should return, and the form, fitness and focus levels of clubs will certainly vary to what they currently are.

All of that being said, Monday's draw provided the first step in the roadmap for the knockout rounds. The last 16 will feature another Barcelona-PSG showdown, a battle of strengths between Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, and a tough test for Liverpool in RB Leipzig. It won't, however, feature the potential for any American vs. American matchups, despite eight U.S. internationals spread among the remaining clubs.

Here's how the eight matchups stack up and who, as of now, looks primed to go through to the quarterfinals:

Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi lead their clubs in the Champions League

Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Manchester City 

Manchester City has been nowhere near its best this season, having already dropped as many points in the Premier League as it did in the entirety of the 2017–18 season. It is not pressing as hard and is struggling to find the sort of attacking fluency that characterized the club in Pep Guardiola’s first three seasons at the club. 

Its European form, though, has remained good. It dropped only two points in the group stage and, perhaps more significantly, conceded only one goal in its six games. Guardiola hasn’t won a Champions League title since 2011, repeatedly undone by his teams’ susceptibility to the counterattack. The signs are that he is working on that weakness and, while that may make the football less spectacular, it may also make City more likely to win knockout ties. 

Qualification from a tough group was a fine achievement for Borussia Mönchengladbach, but it could have been even better. It conceded late goals that cost itself wins against Inter and Real Madrid—and very nearly conceded an equalizer late in the home win over Inter. Alassane Pléa and Marcus Thuram offer attacking threat, but game management and the rearguard are issues. The sides met in the group stage in 2016–17, with a draw in Germany followed by a 4–0 win at home for City. 

Prediction: Man City goes through

Lazio vs. Bayern Munich 

Bayern, the defending champion, swept unruffled through its group, scoring three goals a game as it did so. Its only dropped points came in the penultimate game with a draw at Atletico Madrid when it was already through and fielded a heavily changed squad. There has been the odd wobble domestically, with a record of 17 goals conceded in 11 league games suggesting that its high line can be exploited—even though Manuel Neuer has been back to the sort of form he last showed before the ankle injury that so inhibited him at the last World Cup. Joshua Kimmich’s knee injury has been partly responsible for that susceptibility given the vital link he offers between the front and back of the team, but after surgery last month, he should be back by February. 

Robert Lewandowski is probably the best center forward in the world at the moment, and there is ferocious pace throughout the team. None of this sounds especially hopeful for Lazio, which has struggled to regain its pre-lockdown form and squeaked through its Champions League group with four draws—though it was one of four clubs to not lose a game in the group stage. Bayern, naturally, was another. 

Prediction: Bayern Munich goes through, comfortably 

Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea 

After a £250 million spending spree in the summer, Chelsea has arguably the best squad in Europe on paper, although as Frank Lampard has repeatedly pointed out, it is inexperienced. The big doubt about him last season was whether he could organize a team to counter the counter. The last two months seem to have shown that he can. With a more reliable goalkeeper in Edouard Mendy, with Thiago Silva’s authority at the heart of the defense, with Ben Chilwell adapting well at left back and N’Golo Kanté restored at the back of the midfield, Chelsea looks like a well-balanced, cohesive side. The doubt is that it hasn’t really been tested yet this season in Europe, nor has it beaten a high-class side yet in the Premier League. 

This will be a real test against battle-hardened opponents. Atletico Madrid is level at the top of La Liga and seems to have recovered its defensive resilience—just four goals conceded in 11 games so far domestically—while João Félix is beginning to live up to expectations. The problem seems to come in games against the biggest sides. It lost to Real Madrid over the weekend, lost convincingly at Bayern Munich in the group stage, and then stuttered to draw at home against a heavily rotated Bayern side despite having much the better of the game. 

Prediction: Atletico Madrid goes through, narrowly 

RB Leipzig vs. Liverpool 

It’s been a strange season so far for Liverpool. While it’s been nowhere near the sort of form it showed a year ago, it has produced highly impressive victories over Leicester and Wolves domestically and has only lost one league game all season. As injuries have mounted up and Jurgen Klopp has become increasingly agitated by the schedule, the Champions League has clearly not been a priority—which, in part, led to the defeat at home to Atalanta—yet Liverpool has still progressed comfortably enough. 

It has coped admirably without the injured Virgil van Dijk, but his continued absence will still be felt. How far Liverpool can go will to a large extent depend on how many players it gets back from injury. RB Leipzig sits third in the Bundesliga, beat Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United at home and could easily have beaten PSG away. The danger it poses with its press and its counterattacking is clear, but equally the 5–0 defeat at Old Trafford and the way it allowed United back into the game last week, conceding two late goals, suggested major defensive deficiencies. 

Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann have met twice before, with Klopp coming out a 6–3 winner on aggregate when Liverpool beat Hoffenheim in a Champions League qualifying playoff in 2017–18. 

Prediction: Liverpool goes through 

Porto vs. Juventus 

For Juventus, appointing Andrea Pirlo was a huge gamble, and it’s one that, so far, hasn’t really worked. It clanked its way through a relatively straightforward group without impressing until a dead-rubber win at Barcelona, which has enormous problems of its own, and dropped 10 points in its first 11 Serie A games. Given the enormous financial advantages Juventus enjoys in Serie A, there needs to be significant improvement soon. The question of whether Cristiano Ronaldo’s guarantee of goals outweighs the structural problems brought by his lack of movement, meanwhile, looms ever larger. 

Porto is an awkward opponent. Juve would expect to win, but this Porto is dogged and solid, conceding just three goals in the group stage and more than capable of posing a threat on the break, even if it does sit third in the Portuguese league. 

Prediction: Possible surprise and narrow Porto win 

Barcelona vs. PSG

The headline is Messi vs. Neymar and a repeat of La Remontada, the last-16 tie in 2017 in which Barcelona came back from 4–0 down after the first leg to win 6–5 on aggregate. The oddity is that the flaws that beset both sides then haven’t really been ironed out, even if Neymar has changed sides. 

PSG topped its group, but there was little else to commend about its performances in the group stage. The suspicion last season was that it reached the final more because of a straightforward draw than because of any major lessons being learned, and nothing much has changed. Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, of course, represent a brilliant forward line. But even a deep-lying midfield three, with Ángel Di María linking, doesn’t necessarily compensate for a lack of defensive work. PSG is third in Ligue 1, having lost four games already this season, and only good fortune at home vs. RB Leipzig and Manchester United’s fallibility carried it through and kept Thomas Tuchel in his job. 

The best that can be said of Barcelona is that at least it’s unlikely to be as bad in February as it is now. No big club is as dysfunctional as Barcelona at the moment, with a patchy squad reliant on the aging legs of Lionel Messi and a hugely unpopular coach. The assumption had been that Ronald Koeman would hang on until presidential elections (set for Jan. 24), but with Barcelona eighth in the league, he may not even last that long. 

Prediction: PSG goes through, comfortably 

Sevilla vs. Borussia Dortmund

Dortmund seems to exist in a perpetual fog of crisis. It’s true that Bayern enjoys huge structural advantages in the Bundesliga, but there’s still a lingering sense of under-performance about Dortmund in the five years since Jurgen Klopp left. The quality of its young forwards, Erling Haaland in particular, cannot be doubted, but the problem has been marrying that with a functional defense. A 5–1 defeat at home to Stuttgart on Saturday proved the end for manager Lucien Favre; how competitive Dortmund is come February depends a lot on how well caretaker Edin Terzić can settle the club. 

Sevilla struggled to lay a glove on Chelsea in either group stage meeting. While it is a master of the knockout tie—at least in the Europa League—there must be doubts about whether it has the firepower to really trouble a top side. Then again, if Dortmund defends as badly as it did against Stuttgart, that’s almost irrelevant. 

Prediction: Dortmund goes through 

Atalanta vs. Real Madrid 

Real Madrid went into its final game facing the realistic possibility of finishing last and failing to make it out of a Champions League group for the first time. As it was, though, it beat Borussia Mönchengladbach extremely impressively and so completed what has been a familiar pattern under Zinedine Zidane: start the group stage badly and then do just enough to make it through. Three times before, that has culminated in winning the trophy itself, but it will need a major improvement if it is to do so this time. 

A putative first XI, with the old and aging midfield of Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos in place, with Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane behind them and Karim Benzema at center forward, is impressive enough, but this is an inconsistent side that lacks strength in depth. More troubling is the susceptibility of Spanish sides in recent years to the hard press—and that’s what makes this tie fascinating, because no side in Europe presses with quite the abandon of Atalanta. It very nearly eliminated PSG last season and has beaten Liverpool this season. Madrid clearly has the better squad on paper, but Atalanta is as well-equipped as anybody to match up tactically. 

Prediction: Real Madrid goes through, narrowly