Champions League Round of 16 Preview Part 1 (2/18-2/19)

A quick match preview for this week’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg matches.

Tuesday 2/18

Borussia Dortmund vs. PSG

Going into this match, many viewed it as the tie of the round, and based on current form it is very difficult to dispute that claim. Two incredibly potent attacking teams meet in what should be a goal-fest of a tie.

You cannot discuss Borussia Dortmund at the moment without talking about two topics: their attack and their defense. The tone and energy around both of those topics is remarkably different. In attack, they are spearheaded by new signing Erling Braut Håland, the Norwegian wunderkind who is scoring goals for fun at the moment. With nine goals in his last six games, including a debut hat trick, Håland became the first player to ever win the Bundesliga’s Player of the Month and Rookie of the Month awards. Shining in the Norwegian’s shadow, seemingly overlooked by many, is Jadon Sancho, who is possibly in the best form of his career at the moment. He recently became the first teenager to score 25 league goals in the history of the Bundesliga, which is no small achievement, and he would most definitely had been the league’s Player of the Month had it not been for the form of his teammate. These two prodigal talents, along with the resurgent form of Julian Brandt and relative consistency of club captain Marco Reus, form an absolutely terrifying attack that has scored 24 goals in their last six matches. The other side of this coin is the Dortmund defense, which has been nearly catastrophically awful at times recently. While they did score plenty of goals recently, they also conceded 11 goals in their last six matches, which include losses to Bayer Leverkusen and struggling Werder Bremen, as well as a miraculous victory against Augsburg after being 3-1 down. This is a microcosm of a general trend this season, with Dortmund being the only team in the top five in the Bundesliga to have conceded more than 30 goals in the league this season. Going against a similarly terrifying attacking trident, the Dortmund defense will have to either right their wrongs or hope a “bend not break” mentality will be enough to limit the havoc the Parisians could wreak.

PSG are dealing with some off-the-pitch issues, but on the pitch they are basically coasting. After a much-discussed formation change to a 4-2-4, which got dissected further after the formation debuted in a 3-3 draw against Monaco, Thomas Tuchel’s men are seemingly working out the kinks and coming close to perfecting their new system. Tuchel’s goal was to find a system that could get his best attacking talent on the pitch while not compromising the rest of the team. The end result created the front four of Neymar, Mauro Icardi, Kylian Mbappe, and Angel Di Maria, dubbed “les Quatre Fantastiques“, or the Fantastic Four, by the French press. After the Monaco draw, everyone in France seemingly had their opinion on the new system, but Tuchel has spent time working out the issues and balance problems, creating a system that is now more refined and able to plug the gaps defensively. It is not perfect by any means, as shown by their 4-4 draw against Amiens in their last match, but they are much improved from that Monaco draw. Key to this improvement is the incredible form of Neymar, who has seemingly picked up the slack for the out-of-form Mbappe and Icardi, as well as the confident supporting performances from Di Maria and Pablo Sarabia, who has shone in his limited appearances. Di Maria and Sarabia are able to track back and pick up more of the defensive duties, allowing Mbappe and Neymar to stay forward. The rotational midfield pairings among Idrissa Gueye, Marco Verratti, and Leandro Paredes have supplied enough security for the defense behind them. Now it is all well and good for this system to work against Montpellier and Nantes, but this will be the Parisians’ toughest test yet. If any of the issues of balance that plagued their performance against Monaco and Amiens rear their ugly head here, Dortmund have the attacking talent to swiftly punish Tuchel’s team.

Prediction: There are going to be an obnoxious amount of goals in this tie. Like a lot. Remember Man City vs. Monaco a few years ago? Yeah, on that level. The atmosphere at the Westfalenstadion should pump up the Dortmund team, I expect their biggest fight in this tie will come in this game. I also believe PSG are easily the better, and especially the more balanced, team on paper, so they should rightly be favorites going into this match. But, especially with PSG’s recent wild match against Amiens, I am leaning toward a score draw. All will be left to play for going back to Paris in the second leg.

Borussia Dortmund 3-3 PSG

Atletico Madrid vs. Liverpool

The reigning champions travel to Madrid in a match of reversing trajectories.

Oh no, Atletico. Oh no. Things have not been going your way recently, huh? Yeah, they really have not. Since returning from the Winter Break, Atleti have only won twice in the league, which were two unconvincing performances against Levante and Granada. They were also humiliatingly eliminated from the Copa del Rey by third division side Cultural Leonesa. Things were possibly on the up following the Madrid Derby, where, despite the 1-0 defeat, Atleti were the better side for most of the match and still created several good chances despite the lack of healthy forwards in the team. However, that was followed by the unconvincing win against a mediocre Granada team and a bad draw away against Valencia. Diego Simeone now finds himself firmly on the hot seat, with his team clinging onto a Champions League place for dear life and with the fans beginning to turn on him. To make matters worse, they now have to welcome in probably the best team in the world at the moment. It is difficult to find positive news for los Colchoneros at the moment, but the return of Alvaro Morata, who featured against Valencia, as well as the possible return of Jose Gimenez and Santiago Arias, are the silver linings in a dreary, torrid run of form. They remain without Diego Costa, Joao Felix, and Kieran Trippier, showing how significant the injury issues have been for Atleti this season. Keeping out the terrifying Liverpool attack is a tall order for Simeone’s side, but stranger things have happened in football. Despite the uneasiness among the supporters toward the team, I would be shocked if the Wanda was not up for this match, which could be key in inspiring Atleti to a result, but if Liverpool score early, things could go sour quickly.

I mean, there is not really much to say about Liverpool is there? They are still unbeaten in the league, having only lost twice in all competitions all season. Their key players are all performing well, the system is running smoothly, and they have basically already secured their first league title in thirty years. The massive margin for error in the league allows Klopp to focus on the Champions League if he so chooses, knowing he has a team that can definitely retain their European crown. He has no fitness concerns for this match, with Sadio Mane and James Milner having made their returns to the team against Norwich in their last match. There should be no surprises with this team, it will be the same Liverpool team that has conquered all opposition so far this season.

Prediction: This match is the only slight road bump in what should be a routine fixture set for Liverpool. The Wanda should be up for this match, and this will be the most difficult of the two matches for Liverpool to break down Atleti. I do not doubt that there is room for a shock in this match, but I truly do not see it happening. This will not be a match where Liverpool can coast for 90 minutes, but it should not be too difficult for Klopp’s side.

Atletico Madrid 0-2 Liverpool

Wednesday 2/19

Atalanta vs. Valencia

Man, I really do not know what is going to happen here. But this is a prediction so I will hazard a guess.

Atalanta have found themselves seemingly sandwiched between two races in the Serie A table. They are not a good enough side to truly be in the title race, but they have still opened up a fairly safe cushion between them and Roma in fourth, as well as the chasing pack behind the Giallorossi. Atalanta have the benefit of being a very potent attacking team, with the front three of Duvan Zapata, Josip Ilicic, and Alejandro “Papu” Gomez making up a large percentage of the team’s goals and assists, while being able to find goals from other positions. Over a dozen players have scored a goal for the Bergamasque side, and they have gotten significant contribution from wingback Robin Gosens and midfielders Mario Pasalic and Ruslan Malinovskiy. They are an incredibly good side who are able to beat teams convincingly as well as win close games against good teams, demonstrated by their 7-0 demolition of Torino and close 2-1 win over Roma, respectively. Gian Piero Gasperini is truly one of, if not the most underrated manager in Europe at the moment, and he has built a side this capable with a limited budget available to him. While they are a very strong and potent attacking team, they are very inexperienced in European competition, which could come back to haunt them in this tie.

Not to be ignored, Valencia are still a good, if a bit inconsistent, team that deserves to be in the position they are now. They are only two points off the final Champions League place in Spain, and while bad losses to Mallorca and Getafe do not inspire confidence, their deserved 2-0 win over Barcelona and inspiring comeback draw against Atletico Madrid highlight the strengths of this team, as well as their resiliency. Issues come in team selection, however, as Valencia will be without Gabriel Paulista, out through suspension, and Ezequiel Garay, out due to injury. They could also be without Francis Coquelin and Rodrigo Moreno, putting significant responsibility on Geoffrey Kondogbia to protect the midfield and on Goncalo Guedes to make things happen and create chances for Maxi Gomez going forward. The Champions League offers a big stage for young Spanish winger Ferran Torres, who has been one of the stars for Valencia this season. If they want to progress through this tie, Torres will have to continue to shine in the European spotlight. They will also need strong performances from their midfield pairing, most likely going to be Kondogbia along with Carlos Soler and captain Dani Parejo for this match, to counteract the three in midfield and attacking wingbacks that Atalanta deploy. This could be a match where Valencia will be required to absorb pressure and counter using the pace of Guedes and Torres to attack the spaces that the wingbacks vacate when they go forward. Despite inconsistent form, Valencia have the European experience that their opponents lack, having made the semifinal of the Europa League last season. If they are able to combine that experience and a strong counter attack to keep the tie manageable going back to the Estadio Mestalla, then they have every chance to advance to the quarterfinals.

Prediction: When the draw was made, many in Spain assumed this was the best possible outcome for Valencia, with many assuming they would easily advance from this tie. This was never the case, but especially with their recent struggles, Atalanta come into this as clear favorites. I do believe Atalanta will win this match, but Valencia will score. It will not be an ideal result, but it may be enough for the Spaniards to return home with a glimmer of hope.

Atalanta 3-1 Valencia

Tottenham vs. RB Leipzig

Gary Lineker had a famous quote about football being a simple game where a bunch of guys chase a ball around and the Germans always end up winning. Fitting that now, one of his former clubs is facing a German side in an important knockout tie in the Champions League.

It has not been pretty, it probably has not been too enjoyable for Spurs fans, but Mourinho is seemingly turning around this team’s fortunes. It was not pretty by any means, but their 3-2 win at Villa Park this past weekend was their third win on the bounce, capping off a seven match unbeaten run in all competitions and leaving Jose’s side within a point of the top four. In the absence of Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son has taken the reins of the attack, scoring important goals seemingly every week. But now with Son injured and possibly out for the season, the burden is passed to the next member of that attack. New signing Steven Bergwijn has been impressive since arriving in North London, and he offers another pacy, strong, and technically gifted attacking option similar to Son and Lucas Moura going forward. Without Son, Lucas and Bergwijn will have to step up, and they will need added production from Dele Alli and Giovanni Lo Celso in midfield. There is still talent in the Spurs attack, but losing your two best attacking players to injury is still a massive deal. There are still issues in defense, as highlighted by their near-disastrous performance against Villa, but they have done enough to get Spurs by. The Leipzig attack is a completely different beast, and they could cause significant problems for the Spurs defense if they do not fix their issues quickly. Outside of the Kane injury, Jose should be relieved by the lack of other significant new injury news. While Erik Lamela and Juan Foyth sat out against Villa, they may be ready to feature here. Giovanni Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele were both on the bench, meaning they could be in line for a start in this match. Ben Davies return from a multi-month injury layoff in the Villa win is also very good news for Jose, allowing him more options in defense.

Leipzig had been in a worrying skid recently, but a strong performance in a draw away to Bayern and a convincing 3-0 win against Werder Bremen should relieve some of the pressure on Julian Nagelsmann and his team. Despite their struggles, they are still firmly in the title race in Germany, only needing one slip up from Bayern to reclaim top spot. They have also been presented a, at least on paper, very winnable tie in the Champions League knockout stages. The weak Spurs defense offers a vulnerable target for the dynamic pace of Leipzig’s counterattack, led by the budding superstar Timo Werner and joined by an in-form Patrik Schick and settling-in signing Dani Olmo. This is probably the match in this tie that would most worry Nagelsmann, however, as their already somewhat patchwork defense will be without Dayot Upamecano, who is suspended. Tyler Adams and Kevin Kampl will also be absent from the Red Bulls’ midfield, putting more responsibility on Olmo and, possibly, youngster Amadou Haidara to fill the void. Despite the absences, Leipzig are still a capable team going forward, so there is not much of a reason for Nagelsmann to want to play it safe and keep it close for their return to Germany in the second leg, but it may be something that is on the young manager’s mind. As with the Atalanta-Valencia tie, this one can also be characterized by European experience. Some of this Leipzig team were there when they reached the quarterfinals of the Europa League a few years ago, but many, including their young manager, have not seen the knockout stages of the Champions League. Conversely, the core of the Spurs team that got to the Final last season are still there, led by a multi-time Champions League winning manager. Inexperience and naïveté can doom the Red Bulls’ European dreams, and all of this will be on Nagelsmann’s mind going into this match.

Prediction: This is another one where it is difficult to separate. This match up can be seen completely differently when comparing the teams on paper versus comparing them on form. The one sticking point for me is the Spurs defense, which, despite their uptick in form as a team, has still had its issues. Even with Leipzig’s struggles, they have still, for the most part, been able to score goals and create chances. With Dani Olmo slowly but surely learning the system and his role, Leipzig could be able to take advantage of any frailties that Spurs have at the back. Leipzig will leave North London with the advantage, but this tie will not be over.

Tottenham 1-2 RB Leipzig

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