UEFA Champions League Round of 16 preview

For soccer fans, Christmas has arrived as the knockout round of the UEFA Champions League will kick off this week with the first four of 16 games in the Round of 16. After two months break in between the group stage and the knockout stage, it is time to see what we have in store for this year’s knockout round. Last year was full of amazing games that included Liverpool and Tottenham’s comebacks in the semifinals, Ajax eliminating Real Madrid and Juventus, and Manchester United coming back to beat PSG. What great moments will the knockout round give us this year? For those that are not familiar with this tournament, each matchup will have two games where each team gets to face the other at home. The predictions are a score prediction of the two games combined.

Atlético Madrid vs Liverpool

The defending UCL champions start their campaign in the knockout stage against one of Spain’s most consistent teams in Atlético Madrid. Atletico has gone through a rebuilding season as they lost star scorer Antoine Griezmann left for FC Barcelona and long-time leader and stout center back Diego Godin left for Inter Milan. Atlético are currently sitting in fourth in La Liga, a place which if they finish at would be their lowest since 2012. Alvaro Morata and Angel Correa have stepped up to contribute a combined 12 goals but they lack that consistent go-to scorer that they have had in previous UCLs, including two finals appearances in 2014 and 2016. However, the defense is still stout as goalkeeper Jan Oblak and center back Jose Gimenez has anchored the defense as they have only conceded 17 goals in La Liga, which is second behind league leader Real Madrid.

Liverpool, on the other hand, has come into this stage blazing hot. They lead second place Manchester City, the two-time defending champions in the English Premier League, by 25 points in the Premier League table and are 25-1-0 with only one draw. Liverpool won the UCL last year and look even better this year. Their front three, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have combined to score 34 goals which is nine more than Athletico has scored as a team in La Liga. Liverpool continues to be a dominant defensive team as in the EPL, they have only conceded 15 goals.

With a matchup of two elite defensive teams, the edge goes to Liverpool as they are the much better offensive team and that will clearly be the difference in this series. The defense of Liverpool will prove too much and the offense will produce enough to advance comfortably into the quarterfinals.

Prediction: Liverpool 4 – Atlético Madrid 1

Borussia Dortmund vs PSG

Thomas Tuchel returns to Borussia Dortmund but this time as the opposing manager. Tuchel managed for Dortmund from 2015-17 after current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp left two years after leading them to the UCL Finals. Dortmund was sluggish to start the season as they sat outside the UCL positions in the Bundesliga and desperately needed a spark. Enter 19-year-old striker Erling Halaand. Halaand was a winter-transfer pickup from Red Bull Salzburg and he has shined for Dortmund. He’s notched eight goals in five Bundesliga games and has elevated this offense.

Paris Saint-Germain is a team that once again dominating in Ligue 1. Their attack is among the best in the world as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria are producing at a high level per usual. Mbappe and Neymar have 28 goals combined in league play and Di Maria, continues to be the playmaker with 12 assists to go with eight goals. However, they also have former Inter strike Mauro Icardi to make this offense even deadlier as he has contributed 11 goals himself. The last two years, PSG has had Neymar but has gotten injured during PSG’s campaign in the UCL Knockout Stage. He will be available to play at Dortmund and their hopes for success depend on his health.

This is possibly the best of the eight series we will see in the Round of 16 as both teams can score a lot very quickly. This will simply come down to which offense will be more productive. As great as Dortmund has been with Halaand, PSG with a healthy Neymar, Mbappe, Di Maria and Icardi will be too much for Dortmund to handle and PSG will advance to the quarterfinals after three years of Round of 16 heartbreaking losses. Tuchel will defeat his former team.

Prediction: PSG 6 – Dortmund 5

Atalanta vs Valencia

This is the most surprising of the Round of 16 matchups as we have newcomer Atalanta vs Valencia who are usually a Europa League caliber team. Atalanta is a team without a true superstar but play a very quick and open style of football, allowing them to score in bunches with excellent team ball. They have scored 63 league goals which is two more than even Liverpool has scored. Josip Illicic leads the team with 14 goals and Colombian forwards in Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata have combined to score 20 goals. They are in some ways like Ajax last year where it’s a team that can contend with anyone if they are clicking and play a fun style of football.

Valencia have had a crazy last nine months. They lost in the Europa League semifinals to Arsenal last May, defeated FC Barcelona in the Copa del Ray finals, beat them again last month 2-0, won their UCL Group that included Chelsea and Ajax and have fired their manager as they sit in seventh in La Liga. They are a team that can beat FC Barcelona and Chelsea but lose 4-1 to 18th place Mallorca. They are nearly impossible to figure out as they head into a very unpredictable tournament.

I expect the style of Atalanta to be the difference in this series. Their offense is very difficult to slow down when they are clicking, and I do not believe Valencia has the defense to slow them down. Valencia can keep it close but ultimately, Atalanta’s attack will be too much for them.

Prediction: Atalanta 5 – Valencia 3

Tottenham vs RB Leipzig

The Spurs enter this matchup against a team that is a newcomer to the UCL Knockout Round. Last year, the Spurs had a flair for the dramatic as they shockingly made it all the way to the finals. They outlasted Manchester City in a wild shootout that came with some controversy. Then, down 3-0 in the second half in the semifinals at Ajax, Lucas Moura scored a hat-trick to put the Spurs in the finals where they lost to Liverpool 2-0. This year, they have changed managers as former manager Mauricio Pochettino was sacked after a poor domestic run of form and was replaced by two-time UCL winner Jose Mourinho. Tottenham is hoping to make another deep run in the tournament although it hasn’t been a promising start as in the Group Stage, they lost 7-2 to Bayern Munich.  

Leipzig are a new up and coming team that finds themselves not only in the UCL Knockout Stage, but also second in the Bundesliga. Leipzig is the Timo Werner show as the star striker has 20 goals in league play so far this season and led his team to a first-place finish in the Group Stage.

With Son and Kane out for Tottenham, they are going to have trouble keeping up with Leipzig and with Werner and a solid all-around team backing him up, Leipzig will take of business and advance.

Prediction: RB Leipzig 4 – Tottenham 2

Chelsea vs Bayern Munich

This matchup gives not only football fans plenty of nostalgia but also pain and elation from Bayern and Chelsea fans alike. In the 2012 UCL Finals, Chelsea striker Didier Drogba scored the game-tying goal and the winning penalty kick in the penalty shootout to give Chelsea an unlikely UCL title over Bayern in a game that was played at Munich. Chelsea is a much different team, although now managed by the leader of that team, Frank Lampard. They are a very young team as their top three leading scorers, Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic were all born between 1997-1999. They are inconsistent as one would expect from a young team and are 0-3 against Manchester United this season.

Bayern Munich is the opposite is they are an older team with some of their older German superstars such as Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng are still a vital part of their team. Wingers Serge Gnabry and Phillippe Coutinho are producing at a solid level but as it has been for the last six years, the scoring goes through Polish striker Robert Lewandowski who currently has 23 goals in league play. Bayern hasn’t won the UCL since 2013 and are hoping to breakthrough after years of falling in the quarterfinals and semifinals to Spanish teams.

Chelsea’s losses to Manchester United are telling of where they are at and they are not ready to compete against the beasts of Europe. Bayern has been a dominant team for years and that will show in this round as Bayern schools the youngsters of Chelsea.

Prediction: Bayern 7 – Chelsea 2

Barcelona vs Napoli

The last three years, Barcelona has involved in some of the most unforgettable UCL moments we will ever see. They came back from a 4-0 deficit and overcame an away goal to beat PSG in 2017, blew a 4-1 lead to Roma and last year, choked away a 3-0 lead at Liverpool. We all await what Barcelona will pull during this campaign. To say the least, they look shaky. They have changed managers midseason and have looked flat often this season. They are not in first place in La Liga as they usually are and are dealing with key injuries in Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez. Messi continues to be the maestro for this offense with 14 goals and 12 assists.

Napoli is a team that is always fun to watch and they, like Barcelona, have changed managers midway through the season as they sacked Carlo Ancelotti after falling to the middle of the Serie A table. Napoli have many different options on the attack that include playmaker Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and Arkaduisz Milik and they can give many defenses trouble.

This looks to be a goal-fest as both teams have their struggles defensively and Barcelona does not look like the great team we are accustomed to seeing every year. This will be decided in extra time and I think Messi will do just enough to put Barcelona through to the quarterfinals.

Prediction: Barcelona 5 – Napoli 4 (ET)

Juventus vs Lyon

Juventus has been a team that has been on a string of bad luck in the UCL since legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon joined the team in the late 1990’s. Deep run after deep run and no titles. This included two losses in three years in the finals in 2015 and 2017. Now, they have brought in Mr. Champions League himself, five-time winner Cristiano Ronaldo to finally break through and give Buffon the one trophy he so desperately covets. If Juventus wants to achieve this, then they will have to rely on Ronaldo as he has scored 20 goals on the season, 14 more than second place, Paulo Dybala.

Lyon, like Napoli and Valencia, are a team that sits in the middle of their league table and have made a managerial change midseason. They are led by the dynamic duo of Moussa Dembele and Memphis Depay who are two game-changing players. Lyon put up a solid fight against Barcelona last year as they drew 0-0 in the first game but then got Messi’d in the second leg. They will face the other GOAT in Cristiano Ronaldo.

With Mr. Champions League at their side and a solid defense to back him up, Juventus should have no problem handling Lyon. If there is one sure bet in this round, it is this one.

Prediction: Juventus 5 – Lyon 1

Real Madrid vs Manchester City

This matchup was already highly anticipated when it was announced but now its even more so after Manchester City was penalized with a two-year ban from the UCL after this season. Madrid are leading La Liga despite missing star winger Eden Hazard for the last three months. Striker Karim Benzema has stepped up to produce 15 goals and the defense and midfield continue to be dependable for this team. They look to make a run in the UCL without Ronaldo who led the, to four titles in five years.

City come into this Knockout Stage campaign desperate. They have just been handed a two-year ban in the UCL for breaking Financial Fair Play and now, this will be their last chance to finally capture that elusive UCL title until 2023. They continue to be an offensive machine led by Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane among many others. Pep Guardiola has not won the UCL without Messi and this will be a huge test for him. Will City deliver under pressure?

While Madrid might have a better defense and midfield, they lack that go-to scorer to win the biggest games that they had with Ronaldo. City’s attack will prove to be too much as Madrid flops out of the Round of 16 once again.

Prediction: Manchester City 4 – Real Madrid 2

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