A quick preview for this week’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg matches…
RB Leipzig vs. Tottenham
None of this is really ideal for Spurs, is it?
But first, let’s talk about the Germans. Things are not entirely going great for them. Some dropped points in the league has probably handed Bayern the title, but Leipzig are still in a race to guarantee a spot in the Champions League for next season. They gave some rest to some key players, including Timo Werner, in their previous match against Wolfsburg, so they should come into the second leg with a near-full strength team. Werner is obviously the danger man in this team, with his goal in North London being the only difference between the two sides, but Christopher Nkunku will also be seen as a difference-making player in this Leipzig team. Nominated for the Bundesliga’s Rookie of the Month award this month, the Frenchman has dazzled this season with his turn of pace, ability on the ball, and knack to find a key pass. The Spurs defense, which has improved but is still not great under Mourinho, will have to work to limit his ability to pick a pass and find the forwards. Leipzig do not feel pressured to score, as Spurs need to score twice to overhaul the Germans’ away goals advantage, but come on, this is Leipzig we are talking about. The Red Bulls always play an attacking style, so they could be fancied to score in this match. Nagelsmann will just have to find a balance between looking for a second goal and preserving a lead, as he does not want control of this tie to run away from him.
Oh no, Spurs. Oh no, indeed. One point from their last nine available, as well as a bad FA Cup defeat to Norwich on penalties, is one thing entirely, but on top of all of that, January signing Steven Bergwijn is likely out for the season with a serious ankle injury. For those keeping score at home, that is now five of Spurs’ seven leading scorers either injured or, in Christian Eriksen’s case, no longer with the team. Not an ideal situation to be in when you are going into a Champions League second leg where you must score at least two goals to move on. Well, Dele Alli and Lucas Moura, the pressure is on you. Spurs have found some form of defensive solidity with the move to use Eric Dier as a center back, but they are still far from a defensively solid team. Burnley’s near dominance, especially in the first half, highlighted the many issues with this Spurs team outside of their injured goalscorers. Not even mentioned among their issues at the beginning of this paragraph, but Jose Mourinho’s very public dispute with midfielder Tanguy Ndombele is not going to help out his team in this situation. Spurs will travel to the former East Germany as strong underdogs. Mourinho will have to tap into whatever European magic Mauricio Pochettino found in this team in order to have any hope of moving on. Their likely strategy will be a defensive and counter attacking set up, deploying the five-at-the-back formation they used against Burnley and relying on the pace of Lucas on the counter. Spurs have a mountain to climb here, and it is possible, given the relatively poor form of their opposition, that they can overcome this trial, but it is not likely.
Prediction: I think it is safe to say that neither of these teams will be favorites to lift the trophy come May, but Leipzig are definitely the better team on paper of the two. While I do admit that football is definitely not played on paper, and Spurs do have a chance here, I think this will not be a massive challenge for Nagelsmann’s team. Leipzig move on, Spurs’ season is over.
RB Leipzig 2-0 Tottenham
Valencia vs. Atalanta
Speaking of longshots, hola Valencia…
I mean, they lost the first leg 4-1. Yes, they got the away goal, but this is quite the mountain for los Ches to climb. Overall, their recent league form has been inconsistent following a strong 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid. A thumping at the hands of Real Sociedad was paired with a too-close-for-comfort win over a struggling Betis team and a draw to also struggling Alaves. Injuries have ravaged Albert Celades’ team, with them now being without forward Maxi Gomez until April. He joins center back Ezequiel Garay on the injury list, but, in good news for Celades, he will have Cristiano Piccini and Manu Vallejo both fit and available for selection. This still does not solve the biggest issue at the heart of the Valencia team, which is that they give up too many good chances to their opposition. While it is entirely possible that Valencia score one, maybe even two, goals in this match, it is hard to imagine them being able to keep Atalanta from scoring. They can take some comfort knowing they have a strong record at home in European competition, but this will not be a normal home match. Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Spanish and UEFA authorities have ordered this match to be played behind closed doors. Valencia will not be able to be boosted by what was likely to be a red-hot, hostile atmosphere at the Estadio Mestalla. Seemingly everything has been working against Valencia going into this game. If they are to move on, they will have to put out a historic performance. In a pretty famous previous Champions League tie between an Italian and Spanish team, it was the Italian team, Roma, who overcame a 4-1 first leg defeat to move on to the next round on away goals against the Spanish team, Barcelona. The roles will have to be reversed here.
Atalanta are also being affected by the Coronavirus outbreak, as the Bergamasque side has not played since the beginning of the month. In that game, however, they scored seven goals, so it is fair to say that, on the field at least, they are in tip-top shape. It might be safe to assume that the virus has taken a toll on the team, however. Being located in Lombardy, the center of the virus epidemic in Italy, the government restrictions have probably affected the day-to-day activities of the club, players, and staff. It is not business as usual for Atalanta. Obviously, there are more important things than football, and this virus has had a massive impact on Italy and on the lives of millions around the world, but, for this specific blog, it is a fair assumption to make. Going into this game, Gian Piero Gasperini knows he has some breathing room, knowing Valencia must score three times and keep a clean sheet in order to move on, but, with the suspension of Serie A, he has no reason to not name a first-choice team. Rafael Toloi is the only injury concern in the team, but the Brazilian will probably be able to feature for la Dea in some manner. Star forward Duvan Zapata, who was on the bench for the first leg, should start the second leg after scoring a hat trick in the aforementioned seven-goal demolition of Lecce. Like Nagelsmann in the Leipzig-Spurs game, there is some sense of Gasperini needing to balance going for more goals with defending his lead, but with the sheer potency of this Atalanta team, it is very hard to believe that they will not score at least one more goal.
Prediction: It would be an incredible story for Valencia to move on, but I just do not see it. There have been several very famous Remontadas in previous Champions League history, but there is too much going against Valencia for this game to add another famous comeback. Valencia should score, but so should Atalanta. The Italians will move on easily.
Valencia 1-3 Atalanta
Liverpool vs. Atletico Madrid
*Insert cheesy tagline about European nights at Anfield here*
Yes, Liverpool have lost a few games. I do not think anyone saw their loss to Watford coming, and, while we all know the disdain Jürgen Klopp holds for England’s cup competitions, it was still surprising the degree with which they lost to Chelsea in the FA Cup. Their win against Bournemouth, paired with the knowledge that their league title quest is almost complete, will do much to restore the Reds’ confidence, as will the reassurance of knowing that they will be playing at Anfield, where they have been comfortable regardless of the challenge they face, but this is not a guarantee. Atleti got under their skin in the first leg, and they will have to devise a way to get around the proverbial parked Colchonero bus that will be in front of them. Klopp will likely be relieved by the return of captain Jordan Henderson, who missed the last four games with an injury he picked up in the first leg of this tie. The Englishman has quietly become one of the best midfielders in the Premier League this season, and he is crucial for how that Liverpool midfield operates. With goalkeeper Alisson Becker still sidelined due to injury, they will have to rely on Adrian once again between the posts. The Spaniard has had some issues in previous games, and he may not face that many attacks from Atleti this game, but Liverpool need him to be secure when he faces challenge. Another Atleti goal could make this lead almost insurmountable, given the Spaniards’ defensive reputation.
I do not think Atleti anticipated being in this situation going into the second leg. Their win against Liverpool in the first leg was fairly improbable, and outside observers would think that big victory would help Atleti kick on in the league, right? Well…that is not quite the case. Following that win, they did add another big win in the league, a 3-1 triumph over top four rival Villarreal, but followed that up with two disappointing draws to Espanyol and Sevilla. Those two matches were microcosms of Atleti’s season, with their defense not always being good enough when the attack finds the goals, as their attack is not always good enough when the defense gives them the chance to win the game. The Liverpool game is different, though, and their league struggles may not be fully reflective of their ability to leave Anfield with a result. The basis of Atletico’s style, the very essence of what makes Cholismo what it is, is the idea that Atleti are the underdogs that must resist the attacks of a larger force. Atleti’s struggles under Diego Simeone, historically, have come from times when they were forced to play a more expansive style against a “smaller” team, while their best performances came when they embraced Cholismo playing against a “bigger” team. On top of this, Atleti, especially when they embrace that underdog mentality, become the anti-Liverpool. Liverpool were unable to create many clear cut chances in Madrid because Atleti robbed them of their most threatening aspect, the ability to press and win the ball high up the pitch, leading to uneven attacks where the pace and dynamism of their front three causes mayhem. Atleti scored a very early goal and demanded the Liverpool team get around a deep lying block. Knowing they have this early lead, Atleti will likely see what they can get early on in the game, but spend most of the game playing on the defensive and aiming to frustrate Liverpool. It has worked previously, and it can work again. If they concede, however, then they run the risk of losing control quickly.
Prediction: There is no guarantee here for Liverpool. This will be a very tough match for them. While Atleti have their own issues, they have shown their ability to formulate and execute the perfect gameplan to shut down a team like Liverpool. They have also gotten healthier since the first leg. This is a very intriguing match up in many ways, but weird things tend to happen at Anfield. The bounces tend to go Liverpool’s way. Call it witchcraft, luck, or “European nights at Anfield”, I think this is going to go Liverpool’s way.
Liverpool 2-0 Atletico Madrid
PSG vs. Borussia Dortmund
The battle of the European wunderkinds. Will PSG be able to cast aside their European skeletons in the closet, or will they suffer another humiliation on the continental stage?
PSG have safely won the league, there is no real reason to doubt that. Their goal was always the Champions League, however, and they are in a very difficult situation. The Parisians were incredibly disappointing in the first leg, with Neymar being the only player who really covered himself in any glory. They will not be benefitted by the amount of goals they have conceded recently. A total of 11 goals conceded in five matches against Lyon (twice), Nantes, Amiens, and Bordeaux is not exactly the form your defense needs to be in going into an important European match against a team with a very good attack. The availability of Thiago Silva is also a massive doubt. While it is possible he is fit enough to feature, they could likely have to rely on Abdou Diallo or youngster Tanguy Kouassi for this match. They will also be without Marco Verratti and Thomas Meunier, who miss out due to suspension. With off-pitch disputes between Thomas Tuchel and Kylian Mbappe, as well as questions about Tuchel’s future in Paris, also circulating through the media, this seems to have the makings of another Parisian European meltdown. Where this situation is different, however, is the form of their attack. Unlike their loss to Manchester United last season, their entire attack, including Neymar, is fit and able to take part. They are beginning to iron out some issues in their 4-2-4, and they are beginning to get the most out of both Mbappe and Neymar in the formation. The introduction of Pablo Sarabia into the team has also made a massive impact and provided more balance to a team that was often too attacking and exposed at the back. Dortmund’s defense, while improved, is not exactly stacked with talent, so PSG should fancy their chances to score, given the amount of firepower they have going forward. Disappointingly, as Valencia are not able to lean on the support from their home crowd, PSG will also be without the backing of a home crowd at the Parc des Princes, as the match has been ordered to be played behind closed doors due to the Coronavirus outbreak. While PSG have had some notable disappointments in Europe, they have also had some major successes, and the basis of some of those successful European nights was a hostile atmosphere at home. Atmosphere does make a difference, and playing this match behind closed doors, while probably necessary, is a disadvantage for PSG. They will have to hope for a worse performance from the Dortmund defense, especially from ex-PSG center back Dan-Axel Zagadou, and to outscore the Dortmund team.
The beginning of this paragraph will be the only mention I give to Erling Haland in the Dortmund section of this preview. Yes, he has been incredible, but that has been covered and has not been the driving story of BVB’s last few matches. Jadon Sancho, however, has been the omnipresent force that has driven Dortmund forward in the last month or so. He has probably been involved in a goal in every game in the last month, and the Englishman is undoubtedly enjoying his best season as a professional footballer, going into a summer where he will be the most wanted man in Europe. But that is for later, and right now, Sancho will be the key man for Dortmund if they want to move on to the quarterfinals. The story that Sancho is now covering up, having been the story covered up by Haland, is that now, the Dortmund defense may not be completely terrible. Having been a mess of errors earlier in the season, Dortmund have kept clean sheets in three of their last five matches. Their defense did enough in the first leg to keep out a potent Parisian attack, with ex-PSG man Zagadou being the star in that match and ever since. The towering center back has hardly put a foot wrong in Dortmund’s last few matches, and he could be playing himself into a Euros or Olympics appearance in the summer. He will be looked upon again to lead a defense in what is probably Dortmund’s most important match of the season. It is safe to assume that both teams will score, but Dortmund have to limit the damage that PSG can cause if they hope to move on.
Prediction: It is very hard to tell how this match will go. Going into this tie, I think we all had flashbacks of the Manchester City-Monaco tie a few years ago, and while the first leg was not the goalfest we all expected, it is clear both of these teams are still potent. There will be goals in this match, but it will come down to which defense I trust more. While Kouassi has been very impressive for PSG this season, I am blown away by Zagadou and the Dortmund defense as of late. They will not be perfect, but they will be enough to send the Germans into the quarterfinals and break Parisian hearts once again.
PSG 2-2 Borussia Dortmund