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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Champions League last-16: Predictions, best ties, players to watch and what’s changed

The Champions League is back on Tuesday with 16 teams still in contention for a place in the final at London’s Wembley Stadium on Saturday, June 1.

The clubs to have made it into the knockout phase include the holders Manchester City and 14-time European Cup/Champions League winners Real Madrid, along with less familiar contenders such as Real Sociedad and FC Copenhagen.

Here, a group of The Athletic writers analyse the eight two-leg ties that will be played out over the next month, pick out the key players and storylines to follow and make their predictions on who will be in the quarter-final draw on March 15.

Which is the most intriguing of the eight ties?

Carl Anka: Inter Milan vs Atletico Madrid should be a fun match-up between two clubs who think Johan Cruyff was important but believe there are also other ways to play football. Styles makes fights, goes the boxing adage. It’ll be interesting to watch two brilliant teams who use wing-backs go head-to-head.

Dermot Corrigan: There is a real David and Goliath feel to Real Sociedad and Paris Saint-Germain — the Basque team based around youngsters developed in their Zubieta academy against the Parisians, a side full of expensive individuals signed by the club’s Qatari owners — and David has a real chance of winning again, too.

Mark Carey: PSV Eindhoven vs Borussia Dortmund looks like a great tie, with both sides built upon principles of intensity and verticality. Peter Bosz’s side are flying in the Eredivisie with their high-octane style in and out of possession, while Dortmund are no strangers to punishing teams in transitional moments. Expect this one to be an entertaining slugging match.

Will things get any better at Barcelona for the exiting Xavi? (David Ramos/Getty Images)

Stuart James: ​​Inter-Atletico is the box-office tie. PSV-Dortmund has the potential to be a wild ride. Porto vs Arsenal will have the celebration police out in force if Mikel Arteta and his players dare to do anything other than walk straight down the tunnel after getting through. But La Real-PSG is the one that intrigues: can a team of largely homegrown players give one of European football’s superpowers a bloody nose?

Sarah Shephard: Napoli vs Barcelona, simply because I’m not entirely sure what to expect from either side. Xavi’s announcement that he will step down as Barcelona coach at the end of the season revealed a man with little left to give, which could have a myriad of effects on his players, while Napoli are far from the team that invigorated Europe last season while winning the Serie A title. This one’s intriguing, but perhaps for all the worst reasons.

Round of 16 fixtures

Tuesday, February 13: FC Copenhagen vs Manchester City, RB Leipzig vs Real Madrid (return legs: Wednesday, March 6).
Wednesday, February 14: Lazio vs Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain vs Real Sociedad (return legs: Tuesday, March 5).
Tuesday, February 20: Inter Milan vs Atletico Madrid, PSV Eindhoven vs Borussia Dortmund (return legs: Wednesday, March 13).
Wednesday, February 21: Porto vs Arsenal, Napoli vs Barcelona (return legs: Tuesday, March 12).

Which player are you most looking forward to watching?

Anka: Martin Zubimendi has been talked up as a potential successor to Barcelona and Spain stalwart Sergio Busquets and as a possible replacement for Thomas Partey at Arsenal. In the here and now, the defensive midfielder is one part of a delightful Real Sociedad side taking on Paris Saint-Germain. The 25-year-old will be key to any success they have in that tie.

Corrigan: As Kylian Mbappe’s future remains such an open question, most La Liga watchers will take any chance to see the French forward playing in a big, competitive game. A match-winning performance against Real Sociedad will increase the expectation at Real Madrid that club president Florentino Perez should do everything possible to finally sign him. Multi-million euro decisions should not be made on two games’ evidence, but they often are.

Carey: Strikers are always exciting, but it will be interesting to see if RB Leipzig’s Lois Openda can punish Real Madrid. The 23-year-old Belgian has bagged 14 goals in the Bundesliga (behind only Serhou Guirassy of Stuttgart and Bayern Munich’s Harry Kane) and has been in great individual form since the turn of the year, despite some poor results from Marco Rose’s side.

Openda has been in fine form for a struggling Leipzig team (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

James: I’ve seen a pass. You must have seen it too. Hakan Calhanoglu, reborn as a deep-lying playmaker these days, pinging a sublime 60-yard diagonal, complete with fade, to take two Juventus defenders out of the game during Inter’s 1-0 win the Sunday before last. Calhanoglu is a joy. Oh, and Xavi Simons, on loan at Leipzig from PSG, is a lot of fun to watch, too.

Shephard: Japanese winger Takefusa Kubo seems to have found his feet at Real Sociedad after joining them from Real Madrid in the summer of 2022. His form this season has seen him linked with a move — although he has recently signed a long-term contract. This competition is a key opportunity for him to shine on a huge stage.

Which manager has the most to lose?

Anka: My answer to this will be Luis Enrique, at every single round of the tournament. Any season in which PSG don’t win is considered a failure, but misbehave in this one and you may find yourself being linked to the Chelsea job in the summer.

Corrigan: Xavi has claimed that his decision to leave this summer will take some pressure off his Barca team and give them the best chance of success over the remainder of the season. That theory could well be tested against Napoli, and I wonder if a defeat there could mean the former Camp Nou playmaker leaves the job even quicker than he has laid out.

Carey: Thomas Tuchel has had his fair share of criticism in Germany already this season, with Bayern Munich stuttering badly behind a Bundesliga-leading Bayer Leverkusen. A meeting with Lazio is among the easiest of these last-16 ties, so if they don’t win either of the legs convincingly, the heat will truly be on for the manager.

James: The simple answer is Pep Guardiola, given the trophy belongs to City at the moment and they have the easiest last-16 tie. But in the real world, City are already through to the quarter-finals. Defeat for Tuchel would surely be extremely damaging, given that the annual formality of another Bundesliga title for Bayern is, well, anything but a formality this season.

Shephard: Dortmund’s Edin Terzic faces the unenviable task of taking on a man who once sat in his chair (for half a season, at least) and is now thriving elsewhere. Given the way things ended for Bosz in Dortmund, he will be keen to prove a point, and this season has already seen Terzic under pressure thanks to a run of poor form pre-Christmas and an early exit from the DFB-Pokal (Germany’s FA Cup).

Whose fortunes have changed most since the draw in December?

Anka: Xavi sounded weary and burnt out when he announced he’d be leaving Barcelona at the end of the season. Injuries have decimated his playing options and his top striker Robert Lewandowski is 35 years old and entering a physical and goalscoring decline. This isn’t the free-wheeling Napoli of last season (they really should have found a way to beat AC Milan in the quarter-finals) but Barca are far from the favourites for this tournament right now.

Corrigan: Leipzig’s group performances — they won four games and competed admirably against City in the other two — suggested they could be tricky opponents for Madrid. But three straight Bundesliga defeats last month on returning from the winter break led to Spanish media headlines of “Leipzig in ruins”.

Carey: It’s hardly the case that City’s fortunes have “changed”, considering they are the competition’s champions and took maximum points from the group stage. It is more a case that the start of a new year often sees Guardiola’s side find another gear — and after coasting for the first half of the season, they are in serious mode now. The recent returns of Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland from injuries have restored them to title-favourite status in the Premier League. In Europe, you just have to feel sorry for FC Copenhagen.

City are motoring at full speed with Haaland and De Bruyne back (Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)

James: Not ignoring the fact that Barcelona were in a mess even before the draw was made, it’s been quite a story since. By my GCSE Grade C-Maths calculations, Their next 12 matches after they were paired with Napoli on December 18 produced 55 goals: five of them scored by Villarreal on their league visit, four by Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana final in Saudi Arabia and another four by hosts Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals. On top of that, Xavi has announced he’s stepping down as coach. That apart, it’s been quiet.

Shephard: When the draw was made, Arsenal topped the Premier League table, a point clear of Liverpool and five ahead of City. Now they sit third, two points behind leaders Liverpool and level with City (who have a game in hand). Nobody believed Arsenal had the title sewn up before Christmas, but they seemed much more in control of the situation than they do today.

Who should the neutrals be supporting?

Anka: If you’re the sort of person who likes discovering bands before they start selling our arenas, pay attention to Real Sociedad. They have a squad of talented players on the verge of being snapped up by bigger clubs. Now’s the time to learn about Zubimendi, Kubo and more.

Corrigan: Most of these teams are so well known at this point that we’ve made up our minds whether we like them or not. Atletico could perhaps buck this trend; coach Diego Simeone keeps trying to evolve their style to play more joined-up attacking football, knowing his current squad has a lot more quality in attack than defence. But will many non-Atletico fans really be rooting for them?

Carey: It was the 2018-19 season when Ajax caught the hearts and minds of the neutral fans when they charged to the semi-finals of this tournament before somehow getting knocked out by Tottenham. This season, it’s another Dutch side who could be the dark horses, with PSV not to be underestimated thanks to their exciting attacking unit.

James: “Many would have liked to see us dead. But we are very much alive.” That was Luis Enrique talking in the wake of PSG scrambling through their group (of death) in second place, behind Dortmund and after seeing off Milan and Newcastle. Nothing personal, mate, but plenty of football fans probably feel the same about your Real Sociedad tie. What a story it would be if the Basques, playing their first Champions League campaign since 2013-14 and second in 20 years, made it to the last eight. Get on the San Sebastian bandwagon.

Shephard: Not many people outside of the blue half of Manchester really want to see another City clean-sweep of the major trophies, do they? In which case, you’d have to say FC Copenhagen should be the neutrals’ choice. They were beaten 5-0 by City in Manchester in the group stage of last season’s competition so an upset feels pretty unlikely, but it wouldn’t be an upset if that weren’t the case, right?

Who do you expect the quarter-finalists to be?

Anka: Let’s follow the law of parsimony here: the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. Arsenal, Barcelona, Dortmund, PSG, Inter, Bayern, City and Madrid. The most monied tournament in club football will likely favour the richest teams in it.

Corrigan: Inter-Atletico and Napoli-Barcelona look more evenly balanced, and Atletico seem a lot better positioned than Barca to come through a tight tie at this point.

Carey: It would be great to see some surprises, but the safest bet would be the obvious ones. Arsenal, PSG, Inter, Bayern, City and Madrid look pretty nailed-on, but the games that could throw some doubt would be Napoli vs Barcelona and PSV vs Dortmund.

James: A lot of the usual suspects: City, Madrid, PSG, Bayern, PSV, Atletico, Arsenal, Napoli. Arguably, the two surprises in there are PSV and Atletico. In the case of PSV, they’re unbeaten in the Eredivisie and Sergino Dest could nutmeg a mer… no, I’m not going to say it. Anyway, there’s a lot to like about Bosz’s football ideology. As for Atletico’s progress, Inter are a terrific side but I sense a rejuvenated Alvaro Morata and some classic Simeone s***housery causing them problems.

Shephard: Arsenal, Barcelona, PSG, Atletico, PSV, Bayern, City, Madrid. Sorry, Dortmund fans, but let’s at least try to keep things interesting.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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