Interesting matchups in Champions League Round of 16
The Champions League is back with the first knock-out round.
With a day to go before the action returns, let’s look at who plays who. While at it, I will make my prediction for each tie. Without further ado, here is what to look forward to.
Team listed first will host the first leg.
Paris St. Germain vs Real Madrid (1st leg Feb. 15, 2nd leg March 9)
In what many are calling the biggest match of the round, the Ligue 1 and La Liga leaders square off in the Round of 16 for the second time in five seasons. In fact, the two have become rather familiar with each other. They’ve seen each other in two other seasons, most recently in the 2019/20 group phase.
Overall, the Spanish side has a slight edge in head-to-heads, having won four of the 10 matches to PSG’s three victories. The last laugh has gone to the Parisians, however. With a plethora of new names in both squads heading into the first tie at the Parc des Princes, these two could very well play a pair of highly entertaining matches.
So, who do I favour in this one? It is really hard to call. Both have had solid campaigns thus far, both lead their domestic leagues, though PSG are miles ahead in Ligue 1. I think it will come down to fitness and form. Although Mauricio Pocchetino’s side can put all their focus on the Champions League, I am still not convinced they will be able to outgun the competition’s most successful team. I will go with Real in this one.
Sporting CP vs Manchester City (1st leg Feb. 15, 2nd leg March 9)
Most look at this pairing and see it as the most lopsided tie in this round. They very well may have a point. A City side that has run through everyone standing in their way so far meet a rather inconsistent Sporting. Pep Guardiola’s side are the overwhelming favourites and for good reason.
Last season’s finalists have looked untroubled in recent matches. Their 2-1 reverse to Leipzig in their most recent Champions League fixture is the last time that have tasted defeat. Since then, it has been 11 wins in 12 for the Cityzens.
Meanwhile, the defending Portuguese champions have not been as solid as last season. While they are unbeaten in five, the Lisbon outfit have failed to show the consistency on display when they went 32 games unbeaten in the league in 2020/21. Coupling that with their potential UEFA club competition ban, things are not going well for Ruben Amorim’s men.
While I personally would love to see an upset here, it is highly unlikely. City have the favourite role for a reason, so I will stick with them as the expected winner.
Internazionale vs Liverpool (1st leg Feb. 16, 2nd leg leg March 8)
Another top tie features the Italian giants making a return to knockout round football in this tournament for the first time in over a decade. The task for the Nerazzurri will not be a simple one, as they face a Liverpool side that won all six group matches.
Having broken Juventus’ stranglehold on the Serie A eight months ago, Inter’s form has seldom dropped off. While they are in a three-horse race for the title, many still see them as favourites to retain the Scudetto in three months’ time, and understandably so.
Liverpool meanwhile have been very solid for most of their campaign. They might be behind City in the Prem, but it is hard to overlook them in the Champions League. Jurgen Klopp’s side will have their sights set on another trip to the final, in what would be their third in five years.
This is another tight one to call. Simone Inzaghi has done a solid job in taking Antonio Conte’s side and building on his success. However, Liverpool have continued to show in Europe that they are a force to be reckoned with. For that reason, I will go with the Merseysiders.
RB Salzburg vs Bayern Munich (1st leg Feb. 16, 2nd leg March 8)
The second tie with a clear favourite. The German giants have a second title in three seasons in mind. Their first two-legged tie in this year’s knockout round comes against a side making its debut at this point in the competition.
Since the takeover by Red Bull, Salzburg have completely dominated the Austrian Bundesliga. They have lifted the trophy in eight seasons on the spin. They are also domestic double winners in the last three campaigns. Yet for all their domestic successes, they have not seen the same level of joy in Europe. A Europa League semifinal three seasons back is the most joy they have had.
Like their opponents, Bayern continue to enjoy winning their own Bundesliga with nine consecutive Meisterschallen for Die Roten. One of three teams to win all six group games, the only German side left look set for a deep run. A shock setback in Bochum on the weekend is a slight blip, but it will likely make them even stronger heading to Austria.
While I can see Salzburg posing some problems against the Bavarians, I doubt it will be enough to stop the six-time European champions. This one will go Bayern’s way.
Chelsea vs Lille (1st leg Feb. 22, 2nd leg March 16)
Defending champions Chelsea will return from their maiden FIFA Club World Cup success where they will meet the reigning Ligue 1 top dogs Lille.
Les Dogues have not seen anywhere near the same solidity as they showed in putting a halt on PSG’s grip in France. Topping a section including Salzburg, Wolfsburg and Sevilla, that has been the most fun they have had so far. They will have to bring their absolute best in both ties should they have any hope of progression.
Thomas Tuchel’s Blues have shown signs of inconsistency throughout the year as well. Losing top spot in their group on Matchday 6 is a great example. A 90th minute equalizer in Russia saw them surrender the group to Juventus. With an EFL Cup final showdown on the horizon, a win at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy would give them confidence heading into another chance at a trophy.
This is the first tie where I foresee the group runner-up as the team I expect to win. Lille have been horrible for the most part in their league defense. Sure, they may have won their group, but this is a very different challenge ahead of them, one that feels a bit too much.
Villarreal vs Juventus (1st leg Feb. 22, 2nd leg March 16)
What a tasty matchup this could be. The Europa League winners from last May will take on the recently dethroned Serie A side. Some expect this to be one-sided, but I would say this could be much more interesting than expected.
The Yellow Submarines have shown resiliency in recent times after a disastrous start to their Liga season. Earning their spot in this round on Matchday 6, Unai Emery’s troops will once again have their hands full. They have kept clean sheets in their last three, winning two of them. Should they keep up this form, they will not be a pushover.
The Bianconeri have also been unconvincing at times despite the return of Max Allegri to the Juve bench. Major signings Denis Zakaria and Dusan Vlahovic have already shown their added value to La Vecchia Signora, both finding the back of the net within their first three outings. They have been finding form of late, so they should head into this tie with more belief.
As for who will move on, I give the slight edge to Juve. Both sides are seemingly finding their form at the right time, however I think the Bianconeri will have a bigger point to prove after being eliminated at this stage for three years in a row. Add that to Allegri’s return, and I think that should be enough to do the damage.
Benfica vs Ajax (1st leg Feb. 23, 2nd leg March 15)
Two former winners of the Champions League will meet in what many may perceive to be an uninteresting affair. Make no mistake, however, these two are more than capable of providing an entertaining pair of matches.
One of two teams left from the qualifying stages, Benfica is another side who have seen several moments of inconsistency. Third in Portugal after 22 matches, the Eagles’ biggest result of the season was their 3-0 drubbing of Barcelona on Matchday 2. Outside of that, they have little to talk about.
The same cannot be said for Ajax. Through 32 competitive games at the time of writing, the Amsterdam side have found the net 107 times, conceding just 14 goals. They are the third team to win all six of their group matches in the Champions League.
Ajax are comfortable favourites for me in this one. They have been in scintillating form, and should be good value for a win. I think Benfica would have to do too much to get the better of the Dutch giants.
Atletico Madrid vs Manchester United (1st leg Feb. 23, 2nd leg March 15)
The last match of this preview features another high-quality pairing, as Cristiano Ronaldo will once again take on the Colchoneros. Two sides who have had their struggles over the season will meet with a quarterfinal spot on the line.
Diego Simeone’s La Liga champs from 2021 will have their hands full over the two legs. That being said, their games have been exciting throughout the campaign. In fact, their last three games have seen 18 goals scored. In a battle for the final Champions League spot in La Liga, there is quite a bit of top level football left for the Spanish team to partake in.
The same can be said for the Red Devils. Winless in three, the preseason excitement has turned to disappointment over the last few months. A recent elimination in the FA Cup to Middlesbrough has made things even worse for Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. Like their opponents, they are in a hot battle for the final Champions League spot in their league. An improvement on form will be crucial in order to make a deep run.
Choosing a favourite for this one is not the easiest I must say. I think it comes down to form again. Although Ronaldo has a (recent) history in spoiling the fun for Atleti, his recent comments to his closest friends that he is starting to feel his age could be a deterring factor. That along with the recent situations involving some United players might also be problematic. I am going for Simeone’s Atleti as they seem to have fewer problems at this point.
The next month will provide high drama and several fascinating ties in football’s premier continental club competition. Even with several clear-cut favourites, recent years have reminded us just how difficult it is to win a match at this level. Sit back, enjoy the ride. We have a wild month ahead of us.