A quick preview for this week’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg matches…
Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich
A rematch of the 2012 Champions League Final is on the cards, and while quite a bit has changed for both teams since that famous night in Munich, this is still quite an interesting match up and will certainly be one that fans of both clubs have had circled on the fixture list for a while.
Chelsea were victors on that night eight years ago, but certainly look to be the team worse for wear going into this match. Despite a moral-boosting 2-1 victory over Tottenham in their last league match, they have won only four of their last 12 in the league, still suffering from key injuries that may make this tie quite difficult. In more positive news, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham both made the bench in the victory over Spurs, but neither will probably feature in this match, given Loftus-Cheek’s lack of game time and the current form of Olivier Giroud, respectively. Defensive issues have characterized Lampard’s team recently, but with Andreas Christensen returning to the fold, there are more options available to choose from. Lampard will likely stick with his 3-4-3 system, hoping a back three can provide more defensive security against a scary Bayern attack led by a perpetually in-form Robert Lewandowski. Chelsea will need a strong home performance to go through this tie, with the ideal scenario being holding a lead and stopping away goals for their return to Bavaria.
Bayern have, conversely, been in incredible league form, having only failed to win once in their last 11 in all competitions. Hansi Flick has found a formula that works, with Bayern scoring goals for fun and playing incredible football, coinciding with the ending of their injury crises. Robert Lewandowski has gotten all of the attention, and deservedly so, for his incredible goalscoring form this season, but coasting a bit under the radar is the renaissance of Thomas Müller during Flick’s tenure. Müller has returned to the best form of himself, roaming across midfield and the final third to find the spaces where he can cause the most damage. In a Chelsea midfield without N’Golo Kante, there could be quite a bit of space between the back three and the rest of the team, and Müller could be quite influential in this match if he is able to find those spaces. Also hoping to continue his brilliant form is Canadian left back Alphonso Davies, who has been a revelation for Bayern this season and has forced long-time left back David Alaba out of his preferred position. Alaba will continue at center back, where he has done an admirable job filling the void left by the injured Niklas Süle, and he will likely be joined by the now fully-fit Lucas Hernandez. Hernandez returning to the team will likely be the only change Flick will consider, because, as the old saying goes, why fix what is not broke?
Prediction: This is going to be quite difficult for Chelsea. Bayern are on fire at the moment, and Chelsea are sputtering following their strong start to the season. If Chelsea score first, they could possibly hold on to a slender lead to bring with them to Germany, but I do not believe they will score first. Bayern should control this match, and add in a few away goals to make the second leg an easier task.
Chelsea 1-3 Bayern Munich
Napoli vs. Barcelona
In a match filled with Messi-Maradona symbolism, a resurgent Napoli team hosts a Barcelona team still trying to figure things out under a new manager. Messi travels to the kingdom of the man he has been perpetually chasing, Diego Maradona. Oh, and Barca have the slight issue of a Clasico in a few days time. Poor timing, huh?
Gennaro Gattuso’s start to his life in Campania was nothing short of miserable. Having lost four of his first six matches in charge and watched his team plummet to mid-table mediocrity, many had begun to write their eulogies of this Napoli team, calling it an end of an era. However, they would turn it around, going on to win six of their next seven in all competitions, including a league win over Juventus and Coppa Italia wins over Lazio and Inter, turning around their fate completely and beginning a surge back toward the European places. They have largely been buoyed by match-winning moments from Fabian Ruiz, Lorenzo Insigne, and Dries Mertens, but have also had contributions from the likes of Elif Elmas in midfield and Kostas Manolas in defense. While they have struggled to score in the first half, they have largely become a second half team, seeming to create big moments in the dying minutes of matches. Gattuso will demand a resoluteness from his team, hoping to limit the damage Messi and his teammates can inflict, and despite the continued absence of influential center back Kalidou Koulibaly, Gattuso will like his chances with the team he will send out, likely being unchanged from their win against Brescia.
Quique Setien’s start to his life in Catalonia was equally as troublesome as his counterpart’s start at his new job. Trying to implement a new style and new 3-5-2 system, Setien’s team suffered growing pains. Their “control possession to protect the defense” style ran into issues when opponents high pressed, leading to turnovers and counterattacks against an exposed back three. Following a loss away to Valencia, Barca won their next four league matches, with the only road bump being a loss away to Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey. While they have not looked completely convincing in this new system, they were able to find goals from different areas of their team and allow the influence of Lionel Messi to carry them to victories. They are not short on injury issues, however. They remain without Luis Suarez, while Ousmane Dembele was recently announced to be missing the rest of the season. Their controversial “emergency signing” Martin Braithwaite is not eligible to feature for them in the Champions League, so Arturo Vidal will likely have to continue featuring as the team’s unorthodox “false nine” in attack. They will need a strong performance from their midfield and a usual strong performance from Messi to leave Naples with the advantage.
Prediction: An interesting match up between two good but flawed teams. I see this as a draw. Napoli are confident now and, despite the absence of Koulibaly, have the right players performing well at the moment. However, Barca has Messi, and that is always going to be a game-changing fact. If there is a winner, it is possibly a moment of magic from Messi, but I think it is a draw.
Napoli 1-1 Barcelona
Lyon vs. Juventus
Possibly the least fascinating of the match ups this week, Lyon match up against Juventus, a team they have never beaten, and enter the knockout stages as massive underdogs. But hey, sometimes underdogs pull it off, so you never know.
To say it has not been the best season for OL would be a dramatic understatement. Despite a surge in form at the turn of the year, they returned to their rut and find themselves stuck in mid-table, with the podium places lurching further and further out of sight. Many of their summer signings, including Thiago Mendes and Joachim Andersen, have flopped. Their Rudi Garcia experiment has unequivocally failed, and their positive results have only come from the individual quality of Houssem Aouar, Moussa Dembele, Jason Denayer, and some of the younger players. To make matters worse, the week began with renewed tensions between the club’s outspoken president Jean-Michel Aulas and Lyon ultras groups, escalating to the point where the club placed a net between the pitch and the Virage Nord and Virage Sud of the Parc OL, the primary home of the ultras groups, to prevent provocation. It is safe to say that Lyon enter this tie as massive underdogs, but them moving on is not completely out of the question. New signing Bruno Guimaraes put together a strong debut against Metz, and if a midfield three of him, Aouar, and Maxence Caqueret performs at a high level against Juve’s weakened midfield, it is possible that they could cause some serious problems for Maurizio Sarri’s team. Despite recent struggles, Moussa Dembele remains a budding superstar and winter signing Karl Toko-Ekambi has started fairly well in his return to France. Jason Denayer is having another strong season, and him and goalkeeper Anthony Lopes could realistically hold the defense together. It could also be the world-premiere moment for academy prodigy Rayan Cherki, who has already earned the plaudits of many in France. I recognize this is asking quite a bit, and it really requires everything to go in favor of les Gones for them to stand a chance at moving on. As Lloyd Christmas said, “so you’re telling me there’s a chance?”
Juventus have not been as invincible as many thought they would be when Cristiano Ronaldo completed his transfer to the Turin giants. While Ronaldo has been near-unstoppable this season, equalling Gabriel Batistuta’s record for most consecutive Serie A games with a goal, the rest of the team has had its issues. They have lost twice in their last five games, which is normally quite good, but they were two bad losses to Napoli and Hellas Verona, and they have not looked entirely convincing in some of their wins. The midfield has been a massive issue all season, and the continued struggles of Aaron Ramsey, Blaise Matuidi, and Adrien Rabiot have not made things easy for manager Maurizio Sarri. Their defense has also had issues, but was strengthened with the recent return of Giorgio Chiellini. Paulo Dybala has continued to have a strong season, and the return of Gonzalo Higuain should help ease the burden off of Ronaldo, but it is clear that this is a vulnerable team. Lyon may not be good enough to take advantage of the Bianconeri‘s issues, but it is clear that this team cannot win the Champions League unless they shape up.
Prediction: Despite the issues between Lyon supporters and the club, I expect Juventus will be walking into a hostile Parc OL. Lyon will be up for this, similar to Barcelona’s trip to the Rhône last season, and this should be the closest of the two legs in this tie. Juve will probably go through quite easily overall, but they will have to work for this game. They should win, but it will be close and it will be tough.
Lyon 0-1 Juventus
Real Madrid vs. Manchester City
I will be honest again. I have no clue how this one is going to go. But hey, I am here to predict and predict I will.
Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe described Real Madrid earlier in the season as not a team that was incredible but a team “that feels invincible”, and, to be fair, that was very accurate at the time. They had just won the Spanish Super Cup, were the best defense in La Liga, and had leap-frogged over Barcelona to establish a solid lead at the top of the table. They looked to be the best team in Spain and, because of that defensive solidity and the impending return of Eden Hazard, a dark horse for the Champions League. Fast forward a bit, and that invincibility has seemingly worn off. They tumbled out of the Copa del Rey after a 4-3 loss to Real Sociedad and lost their lead at the top of the league to Barcelona following a 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo and a 1-0 loss to Levante in their previous two games. Eden Hazard’s return lasted only 67 minutes, as he limped off against Levante having suffered another ankle injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the season. Their strong defensive form has waned, and they are not getting the goals from Karim Benzema that he was providing earlier in the season. Zidane’s team still has an issue of finding a reliable goalscorer outside of Benzema, and with Hazard out for the remainder of the season, their most likely option in that area is now gone. Zidane will now have to seriously weigh up a recall for outcast winger Gareth Bale, who could complete a redemption arc if he returns to the team and is influential in them winning a trophy. Much of Real Madrid’s success this season was built on the back of their defense and midfield, with the trio of Federico Valverde, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos having very good seasons in the middle of the park, while the pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane has normally been very good at the back. Zidane has to consider the possibility of including Luka Modric or Isco in that midfield, as well as returning Ferland Mendy to the defensive line, in order to resist a Manchester City team driven by their midfield. While normally characterized by a 4-3-3, I would not be surprised to see Zidane, who has been quite open about changing systems this season and in previous seasons, move to a four man midfield for this match, with Benzema and likely Bale or Vinicius as the two forwards. Oh yeah, and they play Barcelona on Sunday in quite possibly the biggest Clasico in recent years and a match that could define the title race. Poor timing, huh? I doubt Zidane would consider using a purposely-weakened team for either of those games, so this is going to be a serious test of Real Madrid’s resolve and endurance.
Manchester City, conversely, have very little to focus on outside of this match up. It is nearly impossible for them to win the league, with Liverpool well out of sight at the top of the table. With the recent UEFA ruling, they will be banned from all European competitions for the next two seasons so, unless their appeal is quickly heard and decided by the Court for Arbitration for Sport, finishing in the top four really does not make a difference. Yes they are in an EFL Cup final and FA Cup Round of 16, but really those trophies do not matter to City at this point. All of Pep Guardiola’s eggs are in the Champions League basket. It is truly a now or never moment. If CAS does not rule in their favor, then their Champions League ban could lead to the departure of several key players and even Guardiola himself. City may never have another chance to win the Champions League. Their form was stuttering, with an unconvincing win over Sheffield United paired with a draw against Crystal Palace and a loss to Tottenham, but strong wins over West Ham and Leicester have gotten them back on track. They will be boosted by good injury news involving Aymeric Laporte, who should be good to go despite limping off against Leicester. Raheem Sterling could also make his return after missing City’s last two matches in a game that could be a Real Madrid audition for the Englishman. His return to the team, paired with the incredible form of Kevin De Bruyne, could ease some concerns about the City attack, who have struggled for goals in recent games. To win at the Bernabeu, they will need a return to form from Sergio Aguero as well as a strong performance from their midfield to help break down a normally resilient Madrid defense.
Prediction: It really feels this tie could help save the season of the victor and fully destroy the season of the loser. There is quite a bit on the line between both teams. Despite their recent struggles, Real Madrid are usually still a strong team at home, and the struggles of Sergio Aguero has me concerned about City going forward. Pep’s team will definitely still create chances, but I think it will be a strong game from the Madrid defense, with Ferland Mendy starring in a return to the team. Zidane’s team will return to Manchester for the second leg with the advantage.
Real Madrid 1-0 Manchester City