- Tino Preldakaj
UEFA Champions League
When February comes, nothing excites soccer fans more than the return of the Champions League. After a two-month break, sixteen of the best teams in the world will face each other in the knockout stages to see who will make it to the final eight.
Paris Saint-Germain vs Real Madrid
One of the most exciting matches of the knockout stages will undoubtedly be between PSG and Real Madrid. Despite a very active transfer window, (signing Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi, and last but not least, Lionel Messi) PSG has struggled. Even with a double-digit lead at the top of Ligue 1, the star-studded front three of Neymar, Mbappe, and Messi haven’t lived up to expectations so far.
Lionel Messi, in particular, has struggled since leaving his life-long club Barcelona, managing just a single goal in the league this season. However, this front three still poses a dangerous threat. They could be the best trio in world soccer if they could get their chemistry to click. With manager Mauricio Pochettino’s future uncertain, PSG could struggle against a strong Madrid side.
This season, Real Madrid, led by Karim Benzema, has been solid in La Liga. The club firmly believes it can reach the Champions League title again, as they did in 2014 under current boss Carlo Ancelotti. Real Madrid has experience in winning this trophy. Ancelotti is one of the few coaches to have won it with multiple teams, and he’s won it three times. The current squad resembles the one that famously won the Champions League three times straight between 2016 and 2018, and a four-year drought at the top of Europe just seems like too long for Madrid to handle. Despite PSG’s stronger individual talent, Real Madrid has looked stronger as a team this season, and while this is a toss-up, the consensus leans towards Madrid ever so slightly.
Sporting Lisbon vs Manchester City
Sporting Lisbon stormed to their first league title in 19 years last season. They’ve still been strong this year, even if they don’t look likely to retain their title. They shocked Borussia Dortmund, sending them home in the group stages this year and would like to send shockwaves throughout Europe by disposing of City. However, the odds are firmly stacked against them.
Manchester City is arguably the best team in the world right now, and it looks as though they will retain their Premier League title comfortably. The one trophy that has eluded Pep Guardiola during his largely successful reign in charge has been the Champions League. After making the finals last season only to lose to Chelsea, they will not be in any mood to let a readily winnable game slip away from them. There isn’t a team in soccer that can dominate games quite like City. The club’s distinctive possession-based style makes it nearly impossible to stop. On top of that they have one of the best defenses in the world, conceding only 14 goals in 23 league games. This game is City’s to win.
RB Salzburg vs FC Bayern Munich
The best way to describe Salzburg is “youthful and energetic”. The Austrian team is firmly in charge of the Austrian Bundesliga and performed strongly to get to this round, beating the likes of Lille, Sevilla, and Wolfsburg. Led by 33-year-old manager Matthias Jaissle, they will be determined to cause an upset, and it would be a massive one.
FC Bayern is arguably the best team in the world. Young head coach Julian Nagelsmann settled into his role at Bayern very well, and the club cruised to the top of its UCL group, winning every single match with ease. They also have Robert Lewandowski, recently named “Best Player” on the team by FIFA. He’s scored 33 goals in 27 games this season and isn’t slowing down at all. Despite Salzburg’s strength, pulling off the upset is unlikely. FC Bayern will most likely win this one.
Inter Milan vs Liverpool
Inter and Liverpool will provide another blockbuster tie in the Round of 16. After Antonio Conte’s resignation at the end of last season, and the trading of stars like Lukaku and Hakimi, many wondered whether Inter would have the strength to retain their Serie A title. Under new coach Inzaghi, they lead the Serie A and finally made the UEFA Champions League knockouts after many years of failure.
They couldn’t face a much stronger side than Liverpool. 2019’s Champions of Europe can go all the way this season, even if they might not do the same in England. The past can tell us a lot in a very close match like this. Inter’s struggles in Europe in recent years contrasted with Klopp’s leading his side to two UCL finals and one finals win render Liverpool the favorite. It remains possible that Salah and company should have it in them to see this one out, though it will be hard to do so.
Chelsea vs Lille
Last year, Thomas Tuchel took over at Chelsea during the season and surprisingly led them to win this competition after a rocky first half of the 2020-21 season. They started this season in the same form they ended the last, spending an extended period atop the Premier League table. Although the team has struggled in their recent games, it seems to have reversed course and recovered its winning ways. Tuchel’s tactical flexibility makes him better suited to knockout ties, explaining why Chelsea has performed far better in Europe than domestically during his reign. In the EFL Cup last month, against Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea shifted from its usual three at the back to a 4-2-2-2 formation to great effect, as the team managed to defend solidly while outnumbering the Spurs on offense. Chelsea won last year due to Tuchel’s minor tactical tinkering between matches.
Lille has the odds firmly stacked against it. Last season they shocked the world by beating PSG to win Ligue 1. But with the resignation of manager Christophe Galtier, that magic seemed to disappear, and they sit in 11th place in the league. Their title defense was dead before it began. However, they did well to get themselves to the knockouts, and young stars like Canadian Jonathan David have the potential to change ties. However, this one is probably Chelsea’s.
Villarreal vs Juventus
This match is, unfortunately, probably not a headliner. Both sides are struggling in their domestic leagues, Villarreal in seventh in Spain, and Juventus in fifth in Italy. Villarreal finished seventh last year in Spain as well, but are featured in this competition due to the team’s remarkable Europa League win, which goes to show that league form determines nothing in the UCL.
And things could be looking up for Juve as well, who notably signed star striker Dusan Vlahovic from Fiorentina. If he can bring his goal-scoring skills to Juventus, I would favor the club in this match. Manager Allegri has led his players to the final of this competition twice, and even with a much worse team than he had then, they should probably beat Villarreal.
Benfica vs Ajax
Benfica shocked FC Barcelona by demolishing them 3-0 earlier this season and sending them out in the group stages of the Champions League. They now face off against a very impressive Ajax team. Everyone remembers the club’s astonishing run to the semi-finals in 2019, which ended in heartbreak via a Lucas Moura goal. Head coach Erik Ten Haag will try to rekindle that same spirit this year. Ajax has incredibly scored 61 goals and conceded just five this season in the Eredivisie, in which the players continue to vie for a hotly contested title. They should send Benfica home this year, helped by Sebastian Haller, who is currently the joint top scorer in the UCL this season.
Atlético Madrid vs Manchester United
What would normally be a heavyweight match is going to be perhaps a bit less interesting this year. United and Atleti are struggling a lot this season. Atlético has been uncharacteristically poor defensively this season, conceding 26 goals in 21 league games. The team seems to be out of La Liga’s title race, but it does not seem strong enough to really compete in Europe either.
Manchester United’s fortunes are not much better. Interim head coach Ralf Rangnick has struggled to implement his philosophy at United since arriving in December. United’s major advantage in the match is that they employ Cristiano Ronaldo. The greatest scorer in UCL history will probably lead them past the challenge of Atlético. He has scored an astonishing 25 goals against them in his career, including two hat tricks in this competition alone. This tie will probably be decided by Atleti’s bogeyman, as so many Champions League ties have been in the past. With the help of some guidance from Rangnick, Ronaldo should fire them past a weak Atlético.