The Champions League is back and no longer is there any margin for error among Europe’s top sides. Some teams, like Manchester City, could scarcely pick a better time to show the continent how they have developed since the group stage in November. Others, like struggling Liverpool , want nothing less than more football amid their recent struggles.
Certainly this year’s round of 16 has plenty of ties that promise intrigue and drama. Even without Neymar there will be plenty of star wattage when Barcelona face Paris Saint-Germain whilst Chelsea’s tie with Atletico Madrid looks all the more intriguing now that Thomas Tuchel is in the Stamford Bridge dugout. Meanwhile Liverpool, one of the tournament favorites at the start of the season, look like they will be facing an almighty test against last season’s semi-finalists RB Leipzig after their recent domestic struggles.
We’ve taken an in-depth look at those issues and made five bold predictions about the round of 16, so read on. And remember, you can stream every match on CBS All Access (soon to be rebranded as Paramount+). Select matches will also air on CBS Sports Network and the May 29 final will be broadcast on CBS.
Craving more Champions League coverage? The Que Golazo podcast has you covered with a preview show bringing you everything you need to know as the round of 16 begins. Listen below:
1. Premier League contenders exit early
Well, not Manchester City, who are facing a Borussia Monchengladbach side who have been paragons of inconsistency for much of this season. But England’s other two representatives in the last 16 will face significant challenges if they are to find their way through to the quarter-finals.
Chelsea would have known that was coming when they were drawn with Atletico Madrid. Since Tuchel’s appointment they have made impressive strides and changed significantly as a team. Though the sample size remains small, the new manager has dramatically tightened up his side’s defense by prioritizing possession. Premier League opponents have averaged five shots per game with their expected goals tally almost halving from 0.97 to 0.5. The German’s task has been eased by some exceedingly conservative opposition but there has been a dramatic upswing in how much of the ball they have seen, from 58.2 percent to 68.6 percent.
But the limited opposition Chelsea will have faced before their first leg tie in Bucharest means Tuchel will still have little experience to draw on when he sets his side up against an Atletico Madrid team that have become a clearly defined winning unit. For all the difficulties they had in the group stage the La Liga leaders survived and advanced and have a clear system with most of their starting XI settled and where every player knows their role.
By contrast Tuchel is, naturally and rightly, still working out how to get the best out of his squad. Everything down to his formation seems unclear.
As for Liverpool, there have long been systemic issues that boil down to the absence of almost every senior center back and the sacrifices that has necessitated across the side. What has changed of late and was blindingly apparent in defeat to Leicester was that Jurgen Klopp’s mentality monsters look to be befuddled and bereft. There could be no worse time to return to European action.
If there is cause for hope at Anfield it is that RB Leipzig are not the sort of explosive attacking engine that will offer huge pressure to the Liverpool backline. They are still to find their replacement for Timo Werner since his departure to Chelsea last summer; sharing the goal scoring burden has worked to an extent but when your left back is your top scorer with seven goals in mid-February, it is fair to question how effective the frontline is.
In the group stage only three teams outperformed their expected goals by more than the 2.4 Leipzig did on their way to a return of 11 goals from six games; this is not a team that has created a string of chances against Europe’s elite. However, they will not have met many defenses as vulnerable as Liverpool’s are right now. This could be their chance to send the Premier League’s defending champions crashing out.
2. Papu Gomez makes Sevilla a force to be reckoned with
It is rare, even in a normal season, to see Champions League knockout sides add significant pieces to their squad at the mid-season break. The odd Virgil van Dijk aside, most clubs have found themselves among the 16 best teams on the continent largely because they are already strong teams and haven’t needed to reshape their squad on the fly. It is what makes the addition of Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez to Sevilla all the more intriguing.
Gomez arrives in Sevilla from Atalanta after falling out with the Italian side’s manager, Gianpiero Gasperini. The diminutive Argentine arrives in Sevilla offering them the one thing they were missing, a spark in the final third that can turn ok chances into great ones.
Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla side created a decent number of shooting opportunities in the group stage of the Champions League, 73 in six games, but the quality of them was rather underwhelming. Only eight were what Opta terms big chances and the shots they took tallied up to only 9.41 expected goals, middle of the pack for the group stages. Sevilla will believe that a Borussia Dortmund side reeling in the Bundesliga is there to be got at, what they need are the creative weapons to do so.
Enter Gomez. Sevilla need big chance makers and he offers them that in abundance. Along with Kylian Mbappe of PSG and David Neres of Ajax he created the most big chances in the group stages, just three fewer than his new club. A penalty box poacher supreme such as Youssef En-Nesyri ought to be able to continue his fine form with the service from his new teammate while Gomez’s presence in the lineup will turn whichever of Lucas Ocampos and Suso is confined to the bench into quite the impact sub.
Gomez and his new club are a marriage rich with recent European pedigree. The 32-year-old was one of the stars of Atalanta’s run to the brink of the Champions League semi-finals and Sevilla have been a remorseless winning juggernaut in the Europa League. Now that hey have the quality to make their chances count in the final third, what is stopping them from going deep in the main competition?
3. PSG can thrive without Neymar
For neutrals, the absence of Neymar from the first leg of Paris Saint-Germain’s tie with Barcelona — and potentially the second — is naturally a cause for disappointment, a hammer blow to the narrative arc of the game that pitted the hero of La Remontada against the club he abandoned to what seems like rack and ruin ever since. PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino would certainly rather have his Brazilian forward available to him than sidelined by an adductor.
In an ideal world any manager would rather have the choice between playing Neymar or not but no PSG boss really does have that option. If the world’s most expensive player is fit and available he plays and the rest of the team has to be designed around him and Kylian Mbappe. It is certainly a dilemma that most coaches in world football would relish, but it is a dilemma. There have been high-profile matches where the French champions might have been better off without one of their superstars.
Take the 2018-19 group stages, when PSG were eviscerated down their left for much of a 3-2 defeat to eventual winners Liverpool because Neymar would not track back and defend Liverpool’s fullback, Trent Alexander-Arnold. Thomas Tuchel, then PSG’s manager, the crown prince of the high press, was left defending with eight men as the Brazilian and his fellow forwards opted against tracking back or pressing with intensity.
Similarly, PSG can and have performed well without him and in a style that may suit their needs in the Camp Nou. In terms of attacking output PSG seem to be just as good in attack against top opposition regardless of whether Neymar is on the field. In Champions League matches against top tier opposition (those they face in the knockout stages as well as Liverpool and Napoli) without Neymar the French giants actually have a slightly higher expected goals return without Neymar, though they do also allow better chances to their opponents.
When they won at Old Trafford in February 2019 and crushed Real Madrid seven months later they were an intense, aggressive machine, characterized and carried by the versatility and ingenuity of Angel Di Maria, whose absence from the first leg will be no less significant. There was a grit to those performances that is far more indicative of what Pochettino, who took the helm in December, tries to instill in his teams
None of which is to say that Neymar cannot offer that should he so wish. Nor that PSG would not be better placed if they had him available. But they can cope and even thrive without their best player.
4. Phil Foden is Europe’s breakout star
Almost every season of the Champions League has a breakout star, be it Frenkie De Jong with Ajax, Kylian Mbappe in a Monaco shirt or Diego Costa back in 2013-14. With his prominence growing in arguably the best team in Europe, there is every reason to believe that Phil Foden will be the next to make the leap on the biggest stage.
His steady development under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage means the 20-year-old already has plenty of experience of life in Europe’s toughest competition with 18 appearances to his name but it is perhaps only this season that you get the sense that Foden has won his manager’s trust to start in the biggest games. Prior to this season the youngster had played in only two knockout ties, both of them second legs City entered in the ascendancy. A 7-0 win over Schalke and the 2-1 victory against Real Madrid have not yet offered him the stage to prove his talents.
Yet in recent weeks Foden has emphatically proven that he merits Guardiola’s faith. In the 4-1 win over Liverpool he was as good as any player on the pitch, excelling in the false nine role that City will deploy frequently in this tournament with star striker Sergio Aguero struggling for fitness. The following game against Tottenham he did not steal the headlines in quite the same fashion but he was quietly excellent, creating three chances for teammates and completing over 20 passes in the final third. At such a young age he is already displaying consistency against top tier opponents and is approaching the tie against Borussia Monchengladbach in the form of his young life.
Recent weeks have seen his standing rise ever higher among the Premier League’s young elite. The coming months will see him do the same on a continental level.
5. Juventus return to form against Porto
The project to add a third Champions League title does not look like it is getting any easier for the Old Lady of Italian football even after the addition of Cristiano Ronaldo and a host of stellar names over recent years. Indeed in the three seasons since reaching the 2017 final Juventus have won just two knockout ties, squeaking past Tottenham and stunning Atletico Madrid before falling at the hands of Real Madrid, Ajax and Lyon. It would take quite a positive view of their current form to say that this season they rank among the favorites; after all this is the rare year where they arrive at the knockout stages struggling in the Serie A title race.
To make matters more concerning ahead of their round of 16 tie with Porto, their 1-0 defeat to Napoli brought disappointing performances by the sort of veterans who have so often willed their clubs across the line in recent years. Giorgio Chiellini, who conceded the penalty from which Lorenzo Insigne won the game, and Cristiano Ronaldo were among those to receive the greatest criticism from the Italian press after the defeat in Naples, the latter receiving a 5/10 from both Corriere dello Sport and Gazzetta.
Juventus had been rounding into a sustained period of form prior to their visit to the Partenope, a run of six wins followed by a draw against Inter Milan that was all they needed in the Coppa Italia semi-finals. But even then they did not look quite the force of old, an improved team for sure but one that was still searching for a clear identity under rookie head coach Andrea Pirlo.
Add to all the above the absence of Juan Cuadrado, Aaron Ramsey and potentially Paulo Dybala and Arthur and a Porto side who impressed in securing second place behind Manchester City in the group stage threaten to be quite the test for Andrea Pirlo’s side. And yet their opponents’ recent struggles are greater than Juventus’.
Four draws in their last four is a curious enough experience for a side that are used to consistent success in the Portuguese league but the manner in which they have come about is all the more concerning. Take the 2-2 draw with struggling Boavista, when basic defensive errors left them with a two goal deficit to overturn at the interval. The hosts did so and manager Sergio Conceicao was in tears when his son Francisco netted what looked like being the winner only for VAR to deny Porto a return to winning ways, a draining experience ahead of such an important game.
Conceicao will doubtless know there are more important matters to focus on than a special family moment ripped away but if his side cannot address the basic errors at set pieces that allowed Jackson Porozo to score an unmarked header in the eighth minute then they are in for an almighty challenge against Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Juventus may not be back to their best just yet but a struggling Porto offers them an ideal chance to get back to that.