British teams return to UEFA Champions League action next week.
Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have made it through to the last 16 of Europe’s premier tournament and there are a number of mouth-watering ties for fans to enjoy.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool travel to Atletico Madrid whilst Borussia Dortmund entertain Paris Saint Germain in first leg clashes on Tuesday. José Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur meantime host RB Leipzig, Atalanta play Valencia the following night. Heavyweight clashes a week later see Frank Lampard’s Chelsea tackle Bayern Munich and Napoli play Barcelona (February 25). Twenty-four hours later Lyon take on Juventus, while in arguably the tie of the round, Real Madrid play Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at the Bernabeu Stadium.
Defending Champions League winners and runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool go into their clash with Atletico as favourites but this is a test against Diego Simeone’s side. Atletico may be way off the pace in La Liga, 13 points adrift of Real Madrid but they are tough to break down. Liverpool though will not be phased. They have a top-class strike force in Sadio Mane-Mohamed Sala-Roberto Firmino backed by a defence marshalled by Virgil van Dijk and ‘keeper Alison Becker. An astonishing 22 points ahead of City at the mid-winter break as they break records galore at home, Klopp can put all his efforts into landing an astounding Premier League, Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup treble. Liverpool find a way to win and it will be a brave pundit to back against them going all the way and bagging a seventh European crown.
Dortmund are four points off the pace in the German Bundesliga after beginning the season in superb form. They did well to overcome Inter Milan and finish behind Barcelona in the group phase. But Paris Saint-Germain are once again running away with the league and looking to break through at the top table of European football. Kylian Mbappé scored five goals in the group and his team will be expected to progress.
Mourinho’s Tottenham, meantime, face RB Leipzig and this will not be an easy ride for the north London team. Mourinho has settled the Spurs ship after Mauricio Poccettino’s departure last November and are within striking distance of former club Chelsea for a top-four spot but this is a poor Premier League outside the top two. Tottenham are not the side they were when they reached last season’s final and are without injured talisman strike Harry Kane. ‘The Special One’ is looking to end a long trophy-less period for devoted fans. Christian Eriksen has finally moved on to pastures new so Mourinho will be hoping Dele Alli, Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura to provide the firepower. Another run to the final is realistically beyond Tottenham but they could make the last eight though Leipzig are not a point adrift of Bayern Munich for no reason and could well upset Tottenham’s European dreams.
Atalanta lost three group games on their Champions League debut yet still progressed. Currently in the Seria A top four they are favourites to get past Valencia who did well to get through to this stage of the competition.
Chelsea have enjoyed plenty of European success in recent years and in Lampard have a head coach who has seen it all before in the Champions and Europa League. Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have impressed in breakthrough seasons. Skipper César Azpilicueta is an experienced campaigner but these are early days in the Lampard era and his team will be tested to the limit by Bayern Munich who again head the Bundesliga. The five-time winners have had issues but can trouble any defence and Chelsea have leaked goals at the back. Bayern are favourites but Lampard’s team have shocked team this season. Could this be another game when they cause an upset?
Napoli have a new head coach in Gennaro Gattuso after the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, who is moving Everton in the right direction. It was a shock to many when Ancelotti departed and Napoli are all but out of the race for next season’s tournament. They take on a Barcelona side desperate to be crowned champions for a sixth time. Currently a few points behind Real Madrid in La Liga, this has not been a vintage season for Catalonia side but in Griezmann-Messi-Suárez there is an attack that must click sooner rather than later. Messi is not quite the force he was but it’s hard not to see Barcelona advancing to the next stage though it could be a bumpy ride.
Mention Messi and Cristiano Ronlado’s name is not far behind. Ronaldo’s goalscoring exploits continue at Juventus and the Italian giants are involved in a three-way challenge for the Serie A title.
The Italian giants face a Lyon side who are struggling and ex-Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri is a man on a mission. Juve ultimately might fall short but they should make the quarterfinals.
Real Madrid and Manchester City is the standout clash of the last 16. Pep Guardiola’s City are out of sorts compared to last season but that is relative when you look at the standards they have set. This
is the trophy Guardiola is desperate to win but City are not the side of 12 months ago when they were favourites to land it. However, in Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva et al there is talent to burn.
After a shaky start, Zinadine Zidane’s reshaped Madrid are heading Barcelona in La Liga and playing well. There is uncertainty over Gareth Bale’s future at the 13-time champions but after a sticky spell, under skipper Sergio Ramos, no club takes this competition more seriously than the Spanish giants. However, this fixture is too close call, nevertheless my eight quarterfinalists are Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Atalanta, RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester City.