The Ultimate Champions League Knockout Preview: 15 things we can't wait to see

Champions League
(Image credit: Future)

The Champions League knockout round kicks off this week – and it promises to be just as Hollywood as it ever is. 

So what are you looking forward to most? Here's our list of the moments, magic and madness to expect…

This feature first appeared in Issue 336 of FourFourTwo – buy it today!

1. Sebastian Haller's unlikely Champions League top scorer bid

In January 2021, forward Haller was ignominiously flogged by West Ham for just shy of £19m – under half of what they’d paid Eintracht Frankfurt for him only 18 months previously. With it, the Ivory Coast international became the latest centre-forward flop in east London, joining a depressingly long line of predecessors. 

Social media tittered further when Ajax then forgot to register their new record signing for the 2020/21 Europa League knockout stages, citing an “administrative error”. But Haller soon silenced the trolls this term. He bagged four in a 5-1 battering of Sporting as Erik ten Hag’s men kicked off their Champions League campaign in style, then proved it was no fluke by adding another six across his next five European appearances. 

In doing so, the 27-year-old became the first player to score 10 goals in his first six Champions League fixtures, and only the second – after Cristiano Ronaldo in 2017/18 – to net in every group game. Not content with matching CR7, Haller is now after Robert Lewandowski. The Polish goal machine sits one goal behind Haller going into the knockout stage, as Bayern’s talisman seeks to reclaim the Golden Boot he won in 2019/20. 

Just imagine the scenes when Savio Nsereko fulfils his potential – 13 years after his iconic Irons spell – and fires some lucky side to Euro glory next term...

2. Liverpool to get their Inzaghi revenge

Champions League

(Image credit: Getty)

An Inzaghi has already shattered Liverpool hearts in the Champions League once. In 2007, Pippo scored twice to sink Rafa Benitez’s Reds, who couldn’t produce a second dramatic rise from the ashes as Milan chalked up another podium trip for Ol’ Big Ears. 

This year, though, it’s Liverpool who are looking to match Milan’s magnificent seven: and though Superpippo is bossing Brescia in Serie B now, it’s his little bro Simone at Inter who stands between Jurgen Klopp’s men and European glory. Picking up from where his predecessor Antonio Conte left off, the former Lazio striker had guided his Nerazzurri side to top spot by mid-December, inspired by the goals of deadly double act Lautaro Martinez and Edin Dzeko. These days, this is the Inzaghi to fear. 

Liverpool breezed through their so-called Group of Death with six wins out of six, becoming the first English club to do so – now they’re targeting European glory with a 100 per cent record. Only Bayern Munich have done that in the modern era, albeit with single-leg fixtures in the quarters and semi-finals of 2020. 

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Likewise, Mohamed Salah is looking to make individual history. Anfield’s Egyptian King has enjoyed a storming season so far, and after finishing seventh in the Ballon d’Or for 2021, the 29-year-old will be hunting a second Champions League medal that would go a long way to him becoming the first African player to scoop the gong since Liberia’s George Weah in 1995. 

The Kop’s back roaring and Salah is free-scoring: Inter know they’ve got their work cut out this time around, but the Nerazzurri are putting in an impressive defence of their title with the pragmatic principles that Conte laid down. Martinez is their star, freed from being Romelu Lukaku’s sidekick, and Hakan Calhanoglu has been a revelation at No.10 since making his sordid switch across the city. Liverpool have fallen twice in a row to defensively resilient outfits when they were clear favourites – they’d do well not to underestimate another.

3. Cristiano Ronaldo to face Atletico by himself 

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“Cristiano! I see pride. I see power. I see a bad-ass studmuffin who don’t take no crap from nobody!” 

All the talk of CR7’s unhappiness at Old Trafford hardly matters: with his incredible record against Atletico Madrid, the Portuguese preener could give his own team talk, line up on his own and still get Manchester United through. In 2016/17, Ronaldo’s semi-final first-leg treble got Real Madrid through to a winning final at their city rivals’ expense; two seasons later, his last 16 hat-trick helped Juventus overturn a 2-0 first-leg defeat. 

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With 25 goals in 35 matches against Diego Simeone’s side, Ronny has only struck more against Sevilla. He’s got it, guys.

4. Unai Emery to exit the tournament on purpose

What’s the downside of winning the Europa League for Villarreal? Getting into the Champions League makes it harder for Emery to retain his trophy. 

The Yellow Submarine tried their hardest to finish third in the group last autumn, losing twice against Manchester United after beating them in last season’s Europa showpiece; the Spaniards were even pitted against them in the last 16 too, before UEFA declared their hapless draw null and void. 

Villarreal’s form has improved after a slow start to the season, which means they’re back on track to qualify for next season’s competition. Nothing will stop the former Gunner’s quest for Europa domination – so why risk doing well in the Champions League? Their inevitable last 16 defeat to Juventus is just one more element of the master plan.

5. Ralf Rangnick shocking everyone (again)

Ralf Rangnick

(Image credit: PA)

It’s been 11 years since Ralf Rangnick last managed a team in the Champions League – and it went better than anyone expected. 

Hopes aren’t massively high for Manchester United in the knockout stage this term, but it was the same at Schalke in March 2011. Felix Magath had guided the Bundesliga side to second place in 2009/10, only to completely lose the dressing room in his next campaign. With Schalke 10th in the table, a squad revolt led to Magath’s exit – it’s unknown whether cheese was involved – and in came Rangnick for a second spell as manager. He was tasked with stabilising a club in chaos. 

In only Rangnick’s second game, Schalke faced holders Inter in the Champions League quarter-finals. Few gave Die Knappen much hope, but their incredible 5-2 San Siro victory, aided by goals from the legendary Raul and a 19-year-old Joel Matip, was among their greatest in history. Raul netted again in the second leg as Schalke won 7-3 on aggregate. Rangnick won his first four matches at the helm, although things went south after: they lost six in a row, finishing the Bundesliga in 14th and succumbing to Manchester United 6-1 on aggregate in the Champions League semis – their only last-four appearance. Rangnick also guided Schalke to a 5-0 win over Duisburg in the DFB-Pokal final, before resigning after a mixed start to 2011/12. 

Since Schalke, Rangnick’s only continental experience as a manager has been in the Europa League group stage with RB Leipzig, and Manchester United’s dead-rubber draw with Young Boys in December. His team will be much changed against Atletico in the last 16, and with a legendary veteran upfront, Rangnick has form for the unexpected. 

A German manager taking over a listing Premier League giant in the middle of the season, with everyone dismissing their chances of Champions League progress – we’ve heard this one before, haven’t we?

6. Nagelsmann's first shot at a trophy

Julian Nagelsmann Bayern Munich

(Image credit: PA)

“Our aim is to be the favourites,” stated baby-faced Bayern Munich gaffer Julian Nagelsmann after watching his side demolish Barcelona 3-0 in December. 

That victory meant a clean sweep for the German juggernauts: six wins from six, 22 goals scored and just three conceded. So he wasn’t just saying it for the cameras. The 34-year-old coach (come on…) inherited a dominant side last summer; Bayern have won the last nine consecutive Meisterschalen and claimed a league, cup and Champions League treble in 2019/20. 

Yet there’s still a feeling that Nagelsmann, somehow, has taken things up a notch. His tinkering has been minor, though; the Bavarian ditched the back three deployed at previous clubs, Hoffenheim and Leipzig, to build on Hansi Flick’s success at Bayern. The team’s possession obsession hasn’t changed, yet Nagelsmann’s insistence on hard graft has resulted in his charges averaging more distance run, more sprints and more intense shuttles than under his predecessor. 

“You can see his signature,” said ex-CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of the new man’s all-conquering team in October, before praising the “very, very good football” he’d seen under Nagelsmann so far. 

The early results make for worrying reading where Bayern’s Champions League rivals are concerned. Under Nagelsmann, Die Roten averaged 2.53 points per game in the first half of the Bundesliga season – a club record – and scored more goals (56) than any team has previously managed in the first half of a campaign. Thomas Muller contributed 13 assists, another league record, while Robert Lewandowski hit 30 goals in all competitions – including nine in six Champions League games. Everything is clicking. 

While domestic dominance is a given at Bayern, it’s Europe where their young coach will truly be judged. He welcomes that kind of responsibility, though, and relishes managing – for the first time in his career – a team that have genuine designs on the biggest club trophy in European football. Nagelsmann has gone far before, having taken Leipzig to their first semi-final in 2019/20; on that occasion, his underdogs were callously dismantled 3-0 by PSG in a one-legged, mid-pandemic affair. He knows that won’t happen again. 

Whether it’s Salzburg in the last 16, or Manchester City, Madrid or Liverpool later on, Nagelsmann’s team will cross that white line as favourites. Just the way he likes it.

7. Red Bull Salzburg to produce a prodigy mid-match

Karim Adeyemi, best young players in the world

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the last 16 for the first time, Salzburg are an unknown quantity at this stage of the competition. Their inexperience is compounded by the fact that they have the youngest average age in the tournament (just over 23), more than six years younger than the oldest (Inter, 29). 

Manager Matthias Jaissle is merely 33, meanwhile, in charge of only his second senior team. Yet Salzburg’s brilliance has often been the alarming ease with which they unleash the next big thing. Erling Haaland laid siege to European defences in the first half of 2019/20, scoring eight goals in his first five matches. Sadio Mané, Naby Keita, Dominik Szoboszlai and Dayot Upamecano also cut their teeth at the club, while Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu were flogged to English sides for a combined €53m last summer. 

Most recently off the production line is Karim Adeyemi, the speedy teenager who’s been capped three times by Germany and is coveted by the continent’s elite. Who’s next?

8. UEFA switching a tie to the moon

Last year, amid travel pandemonium and booming COVID cases, Budapest’s Puskas Arena acted as a safe haven from the pandemic. 

But with the virus still sweeping Europe, UEFA could be set to roll out their Plan Z, to avoid clubs pulling out last-minute and protect the competition’s precious integrity: Salzburg vs Bayern will be switched to the moon. 

The controversial stunt, bankrolled by Red Bull, will see the matchball delivered by that mad bloke who once skydived from space. Elon Musk will then try to buy UEFA, before being politely informed it’s FIFA who are into that sort of thing.

9. Kylian Mbappe to brandish his new Real Madrid tattoo

Kylian Mbappe

(Image credit: Getty)

Paris Saint-Germain just aren’t accepting that Mbappe looks destined to join Real Madrid in the summer for free – despite the fact he’s turned down contract extensions, grew up with posters of Galacticos on his wall and has even plastered Madrid pictures in his bathroom. 

King Kylian is so besotted with Los Blancos that he’s now just odds-on to slot home a classy own goal at the Bernabeu and celebrate by unveiling the words ‘Hala Madrid’ on his forearm. Either way (perhaps just a T-shirt with Zinedine Zidane’s face on it?), expect the tension to hurtle into overdrive when the French sensation sets foot in what seems certain to be his future home. 

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The World Cup winner won’t be the only star under increased scrutiny when the former home of Europe’s biggest names hosts les Nouveaux Galactiques. Angel Di Maria and Sergio Ramos are both facing their former club, with the latter in particular perhaps wanting to remind his former team of 16 years what they’re missing in quintessential Ramos fashion. It’s most likely to come through a ridiculous red card or cameras panning to the bearded anarchist injured in the crowd, glaring on ominously and kicking every ball (and Madrid attacker, ideally) with his team-mates. 

At least PSG have an ace card this time around – assuming he turns up for this one. Lionel Messi may have struggled to get in among the goals domestically, but with a full house of boos at the Bernabeu, the Argentine ace can close his eyes and imagine he’s back in the heat of El Clasico. His Champions League record (five goals in the group) this season has been far more impressive than his Ligue 1 exploits: expect hat-tricks against Madrid either side of trickier tests against Nantes and Saint-Etienne. 

While the world waits for Mauricio Pochettino’s men to put on a show against Carlo Ancelotti – another facing former employers – it would be peak Madrid to poop the party. With Vinicius Jr in the form of his life and Karim Benzema seemingly ageless, they might just find a way to embarrass PSG on the biggest stage.

10. Chelsea facing George Weah's son

Following a father can be tough for any son. It’s all the trickier if your old man is 1995 Ballon d’Or winner George Weah, widely considered the greatest African player of all time – oh, and the 25th President of Liberia. Cheers, dad. 

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It’s just as well that Timothy Weah is a pretty handy footballer himself. The 21-year-old played a significant role in Lille’s shock Ligue 1 triumph last term, and was a Champions League regular before injury struck. The New York-born, 18-cap USA star should get a warm welcome: Weah Snr played 15 games – and scored five goals – for the Blues on loan from Milan in 1999/2000.

11. Florentino Perez to demand a replay until Real Madrid win

Big Flo was rather peeved with the Champions League knockout draw. When Andrey Arshavin pulled out Real Madrid from the hat first to play Benfica, the Blancos president was rubbing his hands with glee… only for the entire draw to be scrubbed after a technical failure, and Madrid were scheduled to face PSG instead. 

Such incompetence would never have been tolerated in the European Super League – not least because draws would be a thing of the past. Shouldn’t a club of Madrid’s stature be able to claim away goals at least? Or better: a brand new tournament where only clubs with more than seven Champions League wins can enter. That should do it. 

We’re on tenterhooks – it’s nearly as exciting as the inevitable Eden Hazard lap of honour in a clown wig after Los Blancos exit. Pick the bones out of that, El Chiringuito

12. Pep to play John Stones as a false nine – and this time it works

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The eternal innovator has to triumph once more. 

Omitting a defensive midfielder against Chelsea in last year’s final was one overthink too far for Pep Guardiola, but this year’s reimagining of Stones as a drifting forward – think a reborn Roberto Firmino in the body of a Barnsley Baresi – is sure to be the tactical revolution that lands Manchester City Europe’s biggest prize. 

Seriously, though: Pep’s running out of time to fulfil his destiny at the Etihad. While the Citizens have swept all before them domestically since 2016, Europe has involved more tinkering than trophies. The Catalan’s contract will expire in 2023, with just one frontier left for him to cross in Manchester. Fail, and the nagging sense of unfulfilment will be tough to shrug. 

So, now is as good a time as any – the Premier League has looked like a one-horse race for some time, Jack Grealish’s bedding-in period is over, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden are fresh, while Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo have purred throughout 2021/22. This might not be the flashiest City, but it’s one of the most balanced. 

And yet, there are those who will never put their chips on Manchester City, simply because they lack a striker. If the Eastlands outfit bomb out, you’ll hear myriad pundits bemoaning their failure to replace Sergio Aguero and how the total absence of anything regarding a big man up top has come back to haunt them. 

But with Sporting on the horizon, who knows what that free-thinking genius has lined up? Cole Palmer to become his side’s fulcrum? Ederson on penalties and Kyle Walker as a rush keeper? The invention of inverted central midfielders? Get in the box, Big John. Our madcap plan is best.

13. Sporting to show off the new Mourinho

It’s been a long road to recovery for Sporting, who won their first Primeira Liga crown for 19 years last season. 

The Portuguese giants hit their lowest ebb under previous president Bruno de Carvalho, whose chaotic five-year reign between 2013 and 2018 began with him rescuing them from bankruptcy, but ended in absolute farce. The outspoken ex-chief regularly criticised player performances (labelling first-team members “spoilt brats” on his Facebook page), and was linked with a training ground attack on players and staff by 50 masked ultras which led to nine first-team stars – including Bruno Fernandes – initially cancelling their contracts with the club. De Carvalho was later charged with terrorism, kidnap and violent assault, but later cleared amid insufficient evidence. 

With that baffling era consigned to history, Sporting are back to their best under a new presidency and an exciting new boss in 37-year-old Ruben Amorim, who became the third-most expensive manager of all time when the Lions paid Braga €10m for his services in 2020. The ex-Portugal international has already been linked with the Manchester United job, having suffered defeat in only one league game last term. 

Dashing, intelligent and a Scrooge-like figure when it comes to the dark arts of defending, Amorim might just have the minerals to be the next Special One.

14. Juventus to show their true colours

Max Allegri

(Image credit: Getty)

The Old Lady have endured a bumpy few years since Massimiliano Allegri stepped down as manager in 2019, following five straight Scudetti – yet still the Bianconeri find themselves rather lost in the rugged Piemonte wilderness, even after Max’s return last May. 

Sacking Allegri’s replacement – former Chelsea gaffer Maurizio Sarri, who claimed a record 10th-straight Serie A title during his one season in charge – and replacing him with the inexperienced Andrea Pirlo ahead of last season proved rash, even if the wine-loving pin-up did lead Juventus to Coppa Italia glory. Pirlo was supposed to augment the Turin club’s dominance in Serie A while boosting their record in Europe. After all, Sarri had been sacked largely due to Juve getting dumped in the Champions League last 16, his side having been outrun, out-thought and knocked out on away goals by Lyon, a year after Allegri’s charges were bested by Ajax in the last eight. 

Yet Pirlo’s failure was even greater than Sarri’s: not only did his side also fail to hurdle the last 16, they were eliminated by unfancied Porto. The truth is hard to take: since finishing as runners-up to Real Madrid in 2017 – their second losing final in three seasons – Juventus have been thoroughly rubbish in Europe, despite three successive coaches having Cristiano Ronaldo at their disposal. But with Pirlo since relieved of his duties and CR7 put out to pasture at Old Trafford, Allegri is back – not that things have been ideal. Despite a mid-season resurgence, Juve’s dreadful start almost immediately put them out of contention to challenge seriously for the Serie A title. 

Europe has been different, at least. They topped their group that contained holders Chelsea, winning five of their six matches, but curiously suffered a 4-0 hammering at Stamford Bridge. Paulo Dybala has been in bright form out of Ronaldo’s considerable shadow, having netted three times en route to qualification. But ultimately, this is far from a vintage squad at Allegri’s disposal. His team have proved they can dig in when it matters this term – not least against Roma in January, when three late goals in seven minutes made for a remarkable come-from-behind 4-3 win and infuriated Jose Mourinho – but they have a lot left to prove. 

For Allegri, then, this is the perfect time to banish Juve’s ghosts of years gone by. Which version of this unstable Bianconeri side actually shows up, however, remains to be seen. Whoever liked predictability anyway?

15. Barcelona turning up for a last-16 match out of habit

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The cacophony of the Camp Nou. Xavi bellowing to his superstars. Memories of Messi, the spirit of La Remontada and a reminder that five-time European conquerors Barça always find a way. Only this springtime, it’s all happening on a Thursday night, as the bloke in charge of the stadium tunes ejects that well-used ‘Champions League Hits’ CD and replaces it with one of the Europa League theme.

Still, given how Barcelona merrily sign stars before they can actually register them, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Xavi & Co will still try their luck and simply assume that they made it through. Carrying on like nothing’s happened seems to have suited Joan Laporta just fine up to now, after all. 

Elsewhere, Erling Haaland’s hopes of becoming the Champions League top scorer for a second successive season have also taken a dent, with Dortmund going out in the group stage. But given that the Norwegian and his piercing stare are capable of almost anything – not to mention that every major club wants him – we fully expect a belter in the Champions League knockouts anyway, before VAR rules that he’s not actually in the competition remember? Soz, Erling.

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Joe Brewin

Joe was the Deputy Editor at FourFourTwo until 2022, having risen through the FFT academy and been on the brand since 2013 in various capacities. 

By weekend and frustrating midweek night he is a Leicester City fan, and in 2020 co-wrote the autobiography of former Foxes winger Matt Piper – subsequently listed for both the Telegraph and William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards.

With contributions from