UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Preview – Part Two
After four thrilling Champions League ties entertained us last week, it’s time for eight more clubs to start their journey to the Quarter-Finals. Cameron Wanstall analyses the clubs vying for continental success this week.
Kylian Mbappé hit the headlines last Tuesday, Erling Haaland took them over on Wednesday. Their performances a compelling clash of grace and intensity; pace and power; beauty and beast. This week however, there are new stories to be written and fresh tales to be told. Four more battles between European royalty, league champions and spirited outsiders will entertain viewers for another week.
Part two of this preview will cover these four exciting ties. Let us start with a Tuesday night clash in Bucharest…
Atlético Madrid vs Chelsea
Atlético Madrid have been expelled from the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium for this first leg due to Coronavirus travel restrictions. Their fortress was captured at the weekend by lowly Levante. They had been unconquerable at home this season, not losing once until the Valencians rode into town on Saturday. The good news for the colchoneros cheering on their team in Romania is that Atlético’s record on the road is impressive, with only three losses away from the Metropolitano.
Diego Simeone may finally be ready to win the Champions League. The 50-year-old dubbed ‘El Cholo‘- which according to the man himself has no real meaning, disappointing everyone who assumed it meant ‘shithouse’ – has lifted five separate trophies with Atlético, but Europe’s most esteemed honour still eludes the Argentine. The disastrous collapse in the 2014 final to city rivals Real Madrid is the closest Simeone has got the European Cup. Seven years on, an underwhelming start to this campaign was kickstarted by a surprising tactical reform. A Bayern Munich thrashing, dropping points to Lokomotiv Moscow twice and dreary draws in the league forced Simeone’s hand. His iconic 4-4-2 had lost its edge and so, he implemented a new 3-5-2 system. The daring formation has been revelation. In 2021, Atlético have lost just one league game – the aforementioned Levante loss. Simeone also has a squad brimming with excellent talents.
Kieran Trippier remains out through a long-term suspension, but Simeone’s swiss army knife Marcos Llorente, midfielder Saúl Ñíguez and full-back Šime Vrsaljko have all filled in at right wing-back flawlessly. Attacking pair João Félix and Ángel Correa have an exceptional thirteen goals and thirteen assists combined, while Slovenian Jan Oblak is one of the best goalkeepers in world football. Then there is Luis Suárez, who is possibly the greatest free transfer in history. Since Atléti snapped up the fiery 34-year-old from division rivals Barcelona, the Uruguayan has a sensational sixteen goals in twenty league games – eight in nine since the turn of the year – and is currently leading the La Liga goalscoring chart. While Suárez provides at the top end of the pitch, Simeone’s immediate concern is his team’s sudden leaking of goals. A typically impenetrable defence has now conceded in eight of their last nine games. Simeone may be tempted to put his tactical experiment on ice but if there is ever a team to risk a defensively insecure tactic against, that team is Chelsea.
Thomas Tuchel was ninety minutes away from securing Paris Saint-Germain’s first ever European Cup in August. A trophy the club’s Qatari owners had been haplessly chasing for almost a decade. By Christmas Day, Tuchel was sacked. He quickly traded Paris for West London, taking the hot seat at Chelsea in January. The Blues are unbeaten in seven matches since his arrival, impressively conceding just twice in those fixtures. The German was fortunate to take over with a favourable run of games to play – with a stumbling Tottenham Hotspur the only top-half team he has faced. Tuchel deviated from former manager Frank Lampard’s 4-3-3 with a 3-4-2-1 formation, allowing those discarded by Lampard a chance to break into the squad. Blundering ‘keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga was given his first league start since matchday five and Marcos Alonso has displaced Ben Chilwell on the left flank after a prolonged banishment.
Tuchel’s favoured front line of Mason Mount and Timo Werner playing behind Tammy Abraham started Saturday’s frustrating draw against Southampton. The Blues boss was exasperated with his misfiring forwards, saying post-match: “We were not decisive enough, we were not aggressive enough, we were not clinical enough to be ahead.” Before admitting with a wry smile, “It will not be easy to score against Atlético.” Perhaps he has been too busy in his new job to catch up with recent Atléti highlights. While pleased with his side’s defensive effort, he slammed Callum Hudson-Odoi who was substituted off after being substituted on at half-time. Tuchel did not rule out Hudson-Odoi’s chances of playing in Bucharest but was incensed by his poor attitude and counter-pressing. While the forwards played their way out the team, tireless midfielder N’Golo Kante firmly put himself back in it. The French ball-winner was superb in his first start under the new regime and, if fit, should be the first name on the team sheet when Chelsea travel to Bucharest.
Lazio vs Bayern Munich
You would be forgiven for thinking this Lazio squad was an MLS side of the early 2010s. I Biancocelesti are the oldest team in the Champions League, as well as Europe’s top five leagues, this season. 19-year-old Szymon Czyz is the only player under 23 who has made an appearance (for the record, he has played 20 minutes) for Lazio this season. Manager Simone Inzaghi will not care one iota what the critics make of his ancient side. His plucky outsiders are one point off third-place in Serie A and are playing in the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time since the turn of the millennium. 38-year-old Pepe Reina has been solid in goal, while at the opposite end of Inzaghi’s innovative 3-5-1-1 is free-scoring forward Ciro Immobile. The European Golden Shoe holder is still scoring at a remarkable rate and, with nineteen goals this campaign, still carries a huge amount of the goalscoring burden in the team. Immobile and his deep-lying partner Jaoquín Correa should continue together here, as should Luis Alberto and Sergei Milinković-Savić as energetic box-to-box playmakers who start quick attacks. Both midfielders are safe in the knowledge that veteran anchor-man Lucas Leiva will shuttle between them and the back three as cover.
While Inzaghi’s direct offensive plan from domestic clashes remains, their defensive strategy may not. In Serie A, Lazio are in the top four teams for tackles attempted in the defensive, middle and attacking third, a clear example of the pressing this side does all over the pitch. However, in the Champions League group stage, Lazio’s pressing rate dropped off a cliff. They rank 29th and 31st (out of 32 teams) for tackles attempted in the middle and attacking third, respectively. Group F was a struggle for Lazio. The Romans finished second behind Borussia Dortmund and only two points ahead of Club Brugge, despite finishing the phase unbeaten. Four draws is not inspiring when you are pitted against the competition holders in the next round. Inzaghi’s plan to drop deeper and stop pressing is a risk, but perhaps against a lightning quick Bayern Munich this is the way to go. Lazio have little pace in their back line so starting aging centre-backs Francesco Acerbi and Stefan Radu is unlikely. Inzaghi will more likely go with the former alongside Patric and Wesley Hoedt.
Bayern would have been feeling confident heading into this one at the beginning of last week. After defeating CONCACAF Champions League winner Tigres to lift the Club World Cup, the Bavarians have returned from Qatar to draw 3-3 with newly promoted Arminia Bielefeld in the snow before losing 2-1 to a zippy Eintracht Frankfurt. Being knocked out German Cup by second tier Holstein Kiel has only worsened matters. As Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, SFL-Supercup, Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup holders, talk of Bayern’s demise is cheap, especially considering they still lead the Bundesliga table despite recent slip-ups. Die Roten were also sensational in the Champions League group stage, pummeling Atlético, Lokomotiv Moscow and Red Bull Salzburg en route to taking 16 points from 18 available. Hansi Flick still trusts his simplistic 4-2-3-1 that conquered Group A, and last season’s Champions League, and shows no signs of changing the system.
Bayern will have to watch Immobile’s penetrating runs in behind their very-high defensive line, as well as keeping track of Lazio’s adventurous wing-backs as Bielefeld and Frankfurt both found success from wide areas. To counter the Romans’ direct play, Flick will instruct his team to dominate possession and patiently tear down their opponent’s unexceptional back three. An injury build-up could hurt the visitors, however. Thomas Müller may, and Benjamin Pavard will, miss the first leg after contracting COVID-19. Joshua Kimmich has been sublime in midfield this season but could be forced into right-back with Pavard out. Furthermore, injuries to Corentin Tolisso, Douglas Costa and Serge Gnabry will rule the trio out of both legs. Still available is the extraordinary Robert Lewandowski, who has netted 28 times already this season. With the Polish talisman and Immobile both on the pitch, we can get prepared for a flurry of goals from this one.
Atalanta vs Real Madrid
Atalanta saw off Spanish opposition at this stage last season – defeating Valencia in a thrilling 8-4 aggregate victory. The Bergamo underdogs had their fairy tale run ended in gut-wrenching fashion, losing to eventual finalists PSG after a stoppage-time implosion. Though their run ended because of a catastrophic collapse, Atalanta have remained the media’s golden child since their emergence on the continental football scene. And why not? The newcomers, under the stewardship of Gian Piero Gasperini, play attractive football on a modest budget and still manage to go toe-to-toe with the European greats. La Dea will have been disappointed to lose promising winger Amad Diallo to Manchester United and devastated to lose club captain Papu Gómez to Sevilla last month. The relationship between Gasperini and Gómez was reportedly irreparable after a dressing room fall out against Midtjylland. Despite the loss of their beloved leader and with recent form faltering, reaching the Coppa Italia final gives the entertainers a chance to win just their second ever major honour in the club’s 113-year history – the first coming in 1963.
La Dea defeated Ajax, Liverpool and Midtjylland once each as they finished second in Group D to qualify for the last 16. A solid showing, neither brilliant nor poor, makes it difficult to predict how the Bergamasque side will perform against Real Madrid. Colombian forwards Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel have been in scintillating form. Zapata ordinarily starts and currently has 13 goals and nine assists in all competitions, while supersub Muriel has 14 Serie A goals with only eight league starts to his name – giving him an incredible division-best 1.74 goals per 90 minutes. The defenders and midfielders in Atalanta’s extremely fluid 4-3-3 set-up are hard to contain as they confuse opponents with their constant positional rotations. In Sunday’s gripping 4-2 victory over Napoli, Gasperini deployed Matteo Pessina in Gómez’s former position behind Muriel and Zapata. Starting both Colombians is unusual but perhaps an indication that Atalanta sense weakness in a Real Madrid side that cannot catch a break.
If Atalanta are unpredictable, what are Real Madrid? Zinedine Zidane’s men scored 11 and conceded nine in their six group stage games. Los Blancos defeated Inter Milan twice but also lost home and away to Shakhtar Donetsk (who were defeated six- and four-nil by Borussia Mönchengladbach). Surprise results have also plagued Real’s domestic cup campaigns, with third tier Alcoyano upsetting Goliath in the Copa del Rey round of 32 just six days after Athletic Club dumped them out the Supercoppa de España semi-finals. Three losses in their opening ten league matches caused serious concern but just one loss in the following 14 has Madrid second in the standings. However, with Atlético winning the title race and both domestic cups over in an instant, the 13-time European champions must make it past the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since winning the competition in 2018 or Zidane will be under great pressure.
Los Merengues are enduring an injury crisis that could derail the rest of their season. Currently unavailable are Dani Carvajal, Álvaro Odriozola, Sergio Ramos, Éder Militão, Marcelo, Federico Valverde, Rodrygo, Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema. The Madrid squad on Saturday night only included eleven senior outfielders. A narrow 1-0 win over Real Valladolid was still secured. Lucas Vasquez was shoehorned into right-back, while Zidane was into handing Mariano his third start of the league campaign. The unfancied striker had two goals frustratingly disallowed for offside. Belgian ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois was the star man, making multiple impressive saves to keep a clean sheet as the untested Real defence continually gifted their opponents numerous clear-cut chances. Scraping past Valladolid is far from inspiring and the entertainers from Bergamo will see an opportunity to scalp one of Europe’s greats here.
Borussia Mönchengladbach vs Manchester City
The second tie to be played at a neutral venue. Borussia Mönchengladbach will face Manchester City at the Puskás Aréna in Budapest, Hungary. As they are set to come up against the most in-form team in Europe, Gladbach have collapsed. A horrific run of results which has seen just two points collected from a possible 12 against Köln, Mainz, Union Berlin and Wolfsburg has been overshadowed by manager Marco Rose’s announcement that he will leave the club for league rivals Borussia Dortmund at the end of the season. If results continue in this manner, he may not make it to June. German football expert Kevin Hatchard doubled down on reports that Gladbach players feel “hurt and quite betrayed” by Rose’s premature yet lengthy exit from Borussia-Park. With the dressing room lost and results not improving; how do Die Fohlen stand a chance against the Manchester City juggernaut?
Rose needs to settle on a single formation. He has tinkered with his tactical set-up too often this season and his insistence on rotation has let him down – most notably in the defeat to Köln recently. The group stage does not offer much insight as Mönchengladbach were in the ridiculous group that featured Inter, Real and Shakhtar. Gladbach won two games (a 10-0 aggregate thumping of Donetsk) and snatched two draws to gain enough points to see off their competitors. 4-2-3-1 is Gladbach’s go-to and is certainly stronger than the 3-5-2 that failed against Mainz on Saturday, so we can expect Rose to go with the former. Die Borussen are dangerous from set pieces and will rely on whichever underperforming forward gets the nod, whether that is Alassane Pléa, Breel Embolo, Lars Stindl or Marcus Thuram, to fire them into the next round. Ultimately, this should be a routine double-legged victory for Man City.
Manchester City are the bookmakers’ favourites for a reason. They are unbeaten in 25 matches in all competitions, including a run of 18 wins in a row since before Christmas Day. Their last defeat was a smash and grab special in November at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham. Even in Europe they have been magnificent. They crushed their unchallenging Champions League group of Marseille, Olympiacos and Porto, with only the latter lucky enough to snatch a point from the Citizens. As his title rivals flounder and yield, Pep Guardiola has formed a City side that inexorably crushes every team they face en route to a potential quadruple. The only confirmed absentee for the trip to Budapest is Nathan Aké. Should injuries not disrupt the squad, it is difficult to see past City winning their first ever European Cup. The team is simply incredible: Ederson starts in goal. Joao Cancelo has been a revelation in a wing-back-cross-holding-midfield role. John Stones has redeemed himself this year while partnering summer signing Rúben Dias at the back, while the fantastic Aymeric Laporte is back too.
Moving into midfield, Rodri continues to shield the back four, as Ilkay Gundogan has put himself in contention for end of season awards. The German international has bounced back from career-threatening injuries and, more recently, COVID-19 to become the Sky Blues’ talisman – grabbing 11 goals in 18 Premier League games. His efforts have made up for the lack of goals from Gabriel Jesus and injury plagued Sergio Agüero. Rounding out the rest of the squad is a who’s who of exceptional attackers. First there is Kevin de Bruyne, the Belgian playmaker is returning to full fitness after struggling with a hamstring injury. Last season’s Champions League Midfielder of the Season could be welcomed back into the starting lineup for this game. There is Phil Foden, who has improved on a weekly basis as Guardiola gives him more responsibility in City’s attack. Lastly there is Raheem Sterling, the speedy forward has 21 goal contributions – the most in the team – so far this season. If Guardiola fancies resting any of them, he can feel free to bring in Bernardo Silva, Ferrán Torres or Riyad Mahrez. Best of luck to Borussia Mönchengladbach. They’re going to need it.