Poor Schalke are on the wrong end of the most imbalanced last-16 match-up. Their two legs against Manchester City will likely be their last in the Champions League for a while, since they’re not going to climb out of the hole they find themselves in domestically.
There’s some consolation for Schalke fans in picking up talented 18-year-old winger Rabbi Matondo from City in the winter transfer window, and signing Jeffrey Bruma on loan until the end of the season to help them out.
The Veltins-Arena should provide a tremendous atmosphere in the first leg, and who knows – maybe the Germans can squeak a narrow victory before going to Manchester and bunkering up to protect an unlikely lead. But probably not.
Roma have capitulated more than once this season. An out-of-sorts Real Madrid have arguably only looked like world champions only twice this season – both against the Giallorossi. Eusebio Di Francesco has danced with high defensive lines against great offensive teams – often with disastrous consequences. Only at the end of January, Roma folded in a 7-1 capitulation against Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia.
Still – they have some promise. Daniele De Rossi is back and led Roma to a good performance against Milan, in which the team retained some of their defensive shape of old in a 4-1-4-1. They’ve missed his leadership.
Roma have yet to field De Rossi and Bryan Cristante together in midfield, but both are now available. It’s an intriguing option that Di Francesco may look to against Porto.
Porto are a hair above Benfica in the league title race, and have a slight edge over Roma in this year’s last-16 tie – but that’s probably their ceiling.
It’s hard to see them making it past the quarter-finals once the easier opponents are filtered out of the competition.
This team deserves more recognition – they took four points from a possible six against Manchester City, and gave PSG all kinds of problems en route to inflicting the Parisians’ first loss of the season (albeit without Neymar).
Nabil Fekir has been incisive this season, and could cause Barcelona the same problems as Manchester City encountered – a team not too dissimilar in style and identity.
But although Lyon have been impressive, there are surely 12 stronger teams ahead of them.
This season’s young Ajax team has enraptured European football fans. They went toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich in the group stage, and have two of the continent’s most exciting youngsters in Barça-bound Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. Both help drive their team forward while balancing the team tactically.
De Jong is one of the most press-resistant midfielders in Europe – and this is the perfect time to be tested by Santi Solari’s newly implemented pressing scheme at Real Madrid.
Unfortunately for Ajax, Los Blancos have decided to wake up and it will be tough to leapfrog them in this round. A 6-2 tonking at Feyenoord in late-January doesn’t bode well.
Drawing Dortmund is a tough break for Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs, who came so close to slaying Juventus last season at this same hurdle, but fell asleep defensively for five minutes at home when everything came undone.
Tottenham can’t afford to be as loose with their pressing as they were against Barça, where their defensive shape fell apart easily and they ceded control. Dortmund are scary in transition and will pick you apart in those situations when you switch off.
10. Bayern Munich
Bayern, who haven’t been themselves defensively, are walking wounded this season and the last thing they needed was to be drawn against one of the favourites for the competition in Liverpool.
But maybe they’re lucky that the Reds are preoccupied with matters at home, and the environment within the Bayern camp has improved – they’ve closed the gap behind Dortmund to five points, and the relationship between Niko Kovac and James Rodriguez has taken a brighter turn.
Suddenly, momentum has arguably shifted in favour of Manchester United. While PSG are sauntering along in Ligue 1 as per, they’ll be without Neymar for this tie and their Premier League rivals are enjoying an unexpected resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
PSG were defeated by Lyon in the first big test since losing their star player. Their counter-attacks laboured without the Brazilian, and the team struggled to consistently find their passing targets as a collective.
Just as concerning for PSG is their sparse midfield. Not having Marco Verratti around has hit Thomas Tuchel’s side hard when it comes to controlling games. They’ll need him healthy. If Tuchel gets his wish, he’ll call on Adrien Rabiot to bolster the middle – but that’s a tough arm-wrestle to win against PSG’s head honchos.
8. Atletico Madrid
Atletico have survived a huge chunk of the season with their entire backline – Lucas Hernandez, Diego Godin, Jose Jimenez, Stefan Savic – missing, and still managed to boast the best defensive record in La Liga. That’s a testament to their DNA under Diego Simeone and impeccable organisation behind the ball.
Their struggles come at the other end of the field, where they haven’t achieved consistent attacking returns from anyone not named Antoine Griezmann. Diego Costa has faded.
And which version of Alvaro Morata will show up – the brilliant one who played against Bayern in 2016, or the one devoid of confidence from the last few months?
7. Manchester United
We have enough of a sample size with Solskjaer now to know that his tenure is not a fluke. His United team is winning games consistently – 10 in his 11 matches in charge – and key players are genuinely happy; Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford in particular have linked up in deadly fashion.
One huge bonus is that PSG’s weakness (central midfield) is United’s strength. Pogba, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic are all in strong form. This is comfortably Solskjaer’s toughest test yet, but it’s testament to his work so far that the mood has shifted so wildly. United have a genuine chance of progression now.
6. Borussia Dortmund
This is the best that Dortmund have looked in years. Lucien Favre has his team playing at a fun, high-octane level – albeit the kind that can mean they throw away a three-goal lead, as they did against Hoffenheim on Saturday.
They deploy a frantic counter-press, constant overloads (Achraf Hakimi, on loan from Real Madrid, has enjoyed a breakout year playing as a left-back), and the whole team has bought into Favre’s ethos.
Dortmund annihilated Atletico’s famed defensive line earlier this season, hitting four goals past them in Simeone’s heaviest defeat as manager in Madrid. This will be a fun test for Pochettino to navigate.
5. Real Madrid
Four in a row? Bloody hell – surely not.
Real Madrid may have woken up – most notably, Luka Modric is finally himself after a World Cup hangover (ditto Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Toni Kroos), and Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr are in terrific form further forward.
But this season feels different. Cristiano Ronaldo was not only a goalscoring unicorn, but also a leader on the pitch who picked the team up when their backs were against the wall.
If Benzema doesn’t sustain his scoring run, it’s hard to see the goals pouring through from elsewhere. This run has to come to an end. Real Madrid are in the top five here because their European DNA, current resurgence and eight Ballon d’Or nominees will always give them a chance – but they aren’t this year’s favourites.
Barcelona have had a peculiar season. They sit top of La Liga, cruised through their Champions League group, and yet clearly have had holes and vulnerabilities – mainly defending in transition.
Most recently, they looked unnerved against Real Madrid’s high press in the Copa del Rey, uncharacteristically giving the ball away in dangerous areas. Lyon could be an unexpected banana peel.
But Lionel Messi is having yet another unbelievable year, Arthur has really grown into his role as an elite distributor who dictates tempo, and Ousmane Dembele has been dangerous in attack, among other good things brewing at the Camp Nou. They can’t break down mentally and let the Roma fiasco from last season repeat itself.
3. Manchester City
Spoiler, in case you haven’t pieced it together yet: Pep Guardiola’s kryptonite lies ahead.
Manchester City may not have to get through Liverpool to win the trophy, though, and have the easiest draw to help Guardiola buy time. With that, he can regain a healthy Benjamin Mendy while reintegrating a fully match-fit Kevin De Bruyne into his best XI.
City have clawed their way back into the Premier League title race, Aymeric Laporte has been a stalwart at the back, and Guardiola has enough depth in his bag to keep the team going deep in both competitions.
Odd timing to rank Liverpool so high, perhaps. Jurgen Klopp’s men are recovering after losing their lead at the top of the Premier League – if only temporarily – and their best defender, Virgil van Dijk, will be missing against Bayern due to injury.
If Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac takes notes from the way that both Napoli and PSG expertly played their way out of Liverpool’s press and took the Reds’ front three out of the game, then this match could get interesting very quickly.
But this is Liverpool, and even amid the recent blip they are last year’s Champions League finalists who are returning with an improved squad. They’re going to be hard to stop.
This is Juve’s window, right here. They’ve been knocking at the door for a Champions League title for too long, having reached the final twice in the last four seasons. But now they have the trump card in their possession: Cristiano Ronaldo.
Massimiliano Allegri is a versatile tactician and it will be interesting to see how his team holds the ball and tries to break down a team that won’t budge defensively in Atletico Madrid.
Expect a lot of forward runs and overloads from Sandro and Joao Cancelo, crosses into Ronaldo, and cross-field switching from Miralem Pjanic. If they get past Atleti, look out.
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