PSG may have got it right at last, Frank Lampard returns to Munich – and it’s now or never for Cristiano Ronaldo and Juve.
Borussia Dortmund v Paris Saint-Germain
Could this, finally, be Paris Saint-Germain’s year? Although their domestic form has been indifferent (they lead Ligue 1 by just seven points), the 3-0 evisceration of Real Madrid in their opening group match suggested the balance of the midfield – with Idrissa Gana Gueye joining Marquinhos and Marco Verratti – may at last be right. The big question is whether that cohesiveness can be maintained as Neymar returns. The PSG manager, Thomas Tuchel, has the advantage of knowing numerous Dortmund players from his time at the club. The form of Lucien Favre’s side, meanwhile, remains oddly patchy although the fact they ousted Inter in the group stage suggests they shouldn’t be underestimated.
Real Madrid v Manchester City
Real Madrid paid a heavy price for finishing as runners-up in their group, although the sense is that both sides may look rather different come February. Madrid have slowly improved after a difficult start to the season, following the familiar pattern of Zinedine Zidane sides, but the reconstruction of their midfield will be severely tested by a City side who, with Liverpool 14 points clear of them in the Premier League, will presumably devote their attentions fully to Europe. Their recent stutter has been rooted in two issues: problems at the back and a lack of attacking ruthlessness, but they may melt away when Aymeric Laporte and Sergio Agüero return. City, anyway, should be a far stiffer test than they were against Madrid in the 2016 semi-final.
Prediction: Manchester City
Atalanta v Valencia
These were the sides every other club probably wanted to face in the last 16 and, if there is any romance left in European football, it is represented by Atalanta. They squeaked through with an enormous amount of luck, with just seven points from their six group games. Nonetheless, the hard pressing practised by Gian Piero Gasperini’s side can unsettle any opponent, while Valencia have been far from convincing this season. They progressed largely because of slightly fortuitous 1-0 away wins against Chelsea and Ajax and while they have won four of their last six league games, and drawn with Real Madrid in that run, there is a reason they still lie seventh in the Spanish table.
Atlético Madrid v Liverpool
What was most impressive about Liverpool’s qualification was the way, having gone 2-0 up against Salzburg in their final group game, they were able to hold vibrant opponents at arm’s length. It’s a side of their game that hasn’t been much in evidence as they have surged clear at the top of the Premier League, but a useful attribute to have in two-legged ties. Atlético are in the middle of a major rebuild, the foremost result of which appears to have been a lack of fluency: they have drawn eight of their 17 league games so far this season. An inability to finish sides off, though, is less of a drawback in knockout football than in the league.
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Chelsea v Bayern Munich
In 2012, Chelsea went to Munich for the Champions League final and pulled off a major shock, beating Bayern on penalties. Frank Lampard may not enjoy this trip quite as much. Chelsea were extremely fortunate to draw against Ajax (4-4) and Valencia (2-2) in the group stage, two games in which their defensive limitations were badly exposed. And as Tottenham found, Bayern, only the seventh side ever to win all six group games, have in Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry two in-form forwards ideally suited to take advantage. That said, Bayern remain fifth in the Bundesliga and it’s far from clear whether the interim manager, Hansi Flick, will still be in charge come February.
Lyon v Juventus
Perhaps no side in the last 16 is under such pressure as Juventus. Their decision to sign Cristiano Ronaldo in summer 2018, based on the belief his goals were the final ingredient that would bring them a third European crown, represented a huge financial gamble. A quarter-final exit to Ajax last season represented a major disappointment. Ronaldo will be 35 by the time this year’s last-16 tie comes round. The clock is ticking. And Juve have not been at their best domestically since Maurizio Sarri replaced Max Allegri, currently standing level on points at the top of Serie A with Inter. They still, though, should have far too much for Lyon who are eighth in France and have, in Rudi Garcia, a coach who has not been accepted by the fanbase because of his previous association with Lyon’s great rivals Saint-Étienne.
Tottenham v RB Leipzig
ottenham represent a dangerous wild card this season. Five wins out of seven under José Mourinho suggest a corner has been turned since the departure of Mauricio Pochettino, but the defence is still extremely vulnerable, as was seen in the way Bayern picked them apart. There must be doubts as well as to whether Mourinho’s happy-and-relaxed shtick will endure another two months and what impact a more familiar grumpy José may have on players who at the moment seem enthused by their new boss. Either way, this represents a great clash of approaches: Julian Nagelsmann is at the forefront of the modern breed of hard-pressing young managers and, while Tottenham were used to that style under Pochettino, Mourinho’s instincts are to a more reactive approach.
On Premier League
Napoli v Barcelona
Barcelona are top of the league in Spain and finished top of their Champions League group for a 13th time, yet the feeling around them is one of vague dissatisfaction. Lionel Messi – who, if not in the form of his life, is in the form of this minimalist phase of his career – papers over a lot of cracks, and they remain, as they have been for four or five years, vulnerable to sides who counterattack at pace. Napoli, though, now under the management of Gennaro Gattuso, are in a full-blown crisis of their own, with numerous players in open revolt against the president Aurelio De Laurentiis following his attempts to send them to a punitive training camp.