UEFA Champions League Round Of 16
First Knockout Round Is Upon Us
After its winter hiatus, Europe’s premier footballing tournament, the Champions League is back! A curious group stage preceded these fixtures with some strange results, the likes of which we have rarely seen before.
The two big clubs from Spain had a tricky time. Real Madrid suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Moldovan champions, Sheriff Tiraspol. After taking an unlikely lead in the first half at the Santiago Bernabeu, few eyebrows were raised when French veteran striker Karim Benzema equalized for Madrid just after the hour mark. Eyes damn near popped out of heads, however, when Luxembourg international Sébastien Thill buried a worldie in the 89th minute to give the Moldovan side a shock victory. Los Blancos would eventually recover to finish atop their group, whilst Sherrif would finish third and enter the knockout draw for the Europa League.
Their Catalan rivals had a group stage to forget under Dutch manager Ronald Koeman. It started with a 3-0 hiding from German side Bayern Munich on matchday 1. Things got little better on matchday 2 as they suffered defeat at the hands of Benfica at the Estadio da Luz 3-0 again. Their only victories in this year’s Champions League came against Ukrainian side Dynamo Kyiv. That wasn’t enough to secure a place in the knockout stages of this year’s Champions League and the Blaugrana dropped to the Europa League after a humiliating 3rd place finish. A 3rd place finish that would ultimately cost Ronald Koeman his job.
As we head into the business end of the competition, let’s take a brief look at the knockout stage fixtures to be played this week.
SPORTING LISBON vs MANCHESTER CITY
Sporting Lisbon has qualified for the knockout phase o the Champions League for only a second time. The last time they made it this far in the top tier of European football was way back in 2008/09. On that occasion, they faced Bayern Munich. It’s safe to say it didn’t end well as they lost 12-1 on aggregate, the biggest aggregate defeat in the competition's history. It doesn’t get easier this time around as they face last year’s beaten finalist and one of the best teams on the planet, Manchester City.
Manchester City is having a terrific season in their domestic league, leading the Premier League by 9 points at the time of writing.
In the Champions League, they topped Group A, but it wasn’t a stroll in the park for Pep Guardiola’s men. They suffered two defeats, 2-0 to PSG at the Parc des Princes on matchday two and a surprise 2-1 defeat to German side RB Leipzig on the final matchday at the Red Bull Arena.
As far as this tie goes, it is interesting to note that Manchester City has only won 1 of their six matches in Portugal in competitive UEFA fixtures. That includes last season’s final defeat at the hands of Chelsea and a loss in the 2011/12 Europa League round of 16 against the same opposition they face here.
As far as a prediction goes, I think I will go with the safe bet that is Manchester City. Verde e Brancos will make things difficult for the Citizens, but I expect the Sky Blues overall class to shine through. I would be surprised if they didn’t take a healthy lead back to the Etihad. Manchester City 3-1.
PARIS ST. GERMAIN vs REAL MADRID
In one of the blockbuster ties of the round of 16, French side PSG takes on Spanish behemoths Real Madrid. The main character of this match is Kylian Mbappe. The French phenomena contract expires in the French capital at the end of the season, and all signs point to him making a move to Madrid as their newest Galactico.
After adding a slew of stars to their roster in the off-season, including none other than Lionel Messi along with Sergio Ramos, and Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, expectations are high. The French side holds a 16 point lead atop Ligue 1, but the Champions League is the trophy they covet the most. After trading victories with Manchester City in the group stage, draws against RB Leipzig and Club Brugge prevented them from finishing top of group A. Le Parisiens will hope to snap a horrible home streak in knockout fixtures in the Champions League. In the last six knockout fixtures where they have had home ground advantage, they have chalked up just one win.
Real Madrid has fully bounced back from their surprise home defeat to Sherrif Tiraspol in the group stage. They won the rest of their group stage fixtures. Los Merengues also have steadied their form in the league. They hold a four-point lead at the summit of La Liga over Sevilla and are heavy favorites to lift yet another La Liga title. The emergence of Vinicius Junior as a consistent, world-class player this season has been the catalyst to Madrid’s return to form. Their award for their incredible form is a date with a PSG side they eliminated in the 2017/18 version of the same competition.
I am predicting the French side to take a lead in the first league to take with them to Madrid. I am not predicting them to keep a clean sheet. 2-1 to PSG.
RED BULL SALZBURG vs BAYERN MUNICH
It’s an all-Bavarian clash in the next matchup as Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg take on German powerhouses in Bayern Munich. Die Roten Bulleen has a woeful record against Bayern Munich. Last season they failed to win in both matches against Bayern, losing both 3-1. This is the only time the two clubs have clashed in a UEFA competition.
It is the Austrian side’s first-ever appearance in the knockout phase of the Champions League. They secured second place in Group G behind Lille with a 1-0 victory over Sevilla on matchday six. In their domestic league, they have once again dominated, losing just once on their way to a 14 point lead at the top of the standings at the time of writing. Despite this, their chances of securing a result in this Champions League fixture are slim to none.
Bayern Munich qualified for this fixture on the back of a 100% record in the group stages. Die Roten finished top of Group E, scoring 22 goals. Polish striker Robert Lewandowski scored nine of those goals on his way to being named runner-up, somewhat controversially, in the prestigious Ballon d’Or voting.
Domestically, it hasn’t been all plain sailing for Bayern. Despite this, they still are top of the German Bundesliga with a healthy six-point lead over their nearest rivals.
Simply put, Bayern is one of the best teams on the planet. It would surprise me if they aren’t a part of the quarter-final draw. Expect this tie to over as a contest when the final whistle blows in the first leg in Austria. 5-0 victory to Bayern Munich.
INTER MILAN vs LIVERPOOL
A resurgent Inter Milan take on English footballing royalty Liverpool in the last match we will preview this week. The first leg takes place in Italy at the Giuseppe Meazza.
Inter and Liverpool have previous in knockout UEFA matches. Inter won their first matchup all the way back in the 1964/65 semi-finals on their way to lifting the trophy. Liverpool gained revenge in the round of 16, some forty years later in 2007/08. Unfortunately for the Reds, they would be eliminated by Chelsea in the semi-finals that year.
Inter Milan qualified for this fixture after a second-place finish in Group D. Il Biscione won three and drew one in the group stage, all sandwiched by defeats to Real Madrid on matchday one and matchday six. After a slow start that saw them on just one point after matchday two, three straight wins essentially secured them a spot in the knockout draw.
In Serie A, Inter along with their Milan rivals AC Milan has turned back the clock. Inter are the current holders of the Serie A title and they are locked in a fierce three-way battle with AC Milan and Napoli hoping to keep the Scudetto.
Liverpool is one of only three sides to qualify for the knockout stages with a 100% record. In a tough group that contained FC Porto, AC Milan, and Atletico Madrid, the rampaging Reds scored 17 goals. This was easily the Merseyside club’s best group stage showing under Jurgen Klopp.
In the Premier League, Liverpool holds faint hope of catching runaway leaders in Manchester City. Liverpool is the only side considered to be a chance of reigning in the incumbent champions, but it is an outside chance.
This will be a hell of a clash between two brilliant sides. Inter striker Edin Dzeko loves playing Liverpool and has scored in his last three matches against them. I think Liverpool will go through to the quarter-finals, but I think Inter Milan will give them an almighty scare and hand them their first loss of the 2021/22 Champions League. 2-1 Inter Milan.
NEXT WEEKS FIXTURES
Chelsea vs LOSC Lille
Villareal vs Juventus
Benfica vs Ajax
Atletico Madrid vs Manchester United.
How do you see these fixtures playing out? Let us know in the comments.
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Stuart Kavanagh is an emerging sports journalist from Melbourne, Australia, and Editor In Chief of ThePyrrhic.com. Along with being the co-host of the After Extra Time podcast you can also find him at thesportsbank.net
Football mad, he is always down for debate and discussion at@stueyissickofit on Twitter.