Champions League last-16 preview don’t miss Dortmund vs. PSG pressure on Man City will Liverpool get upset?
With the Premier League race over, PSG running away with Ligue 1 and Bayern and Juventus seemingly in charge of the Bundesliga and Serie A, respectively, we might have to look to the UEFA Champions League for our soccer drama between now and May. The action returns in force this week with the start of the last-16: All 16 teams still standing are from Europe’s top five leagues, and there’s upset potential up and down the draw.
Will holders Liverpool successfully defend their crown or are we destined to get a new champion? What can we expect from Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barcelona? How about RB Leipzig, who have soared from nowhere to challenge Bayern domestically but have more than enough talent to cause a shock in Europe, too?
Consider this your ultimate guide to the first knockout round of the biggest club competition in soccer.
Your first-leg viewing guide and predictions
Presented in order of watchability from “must-see TV” to “DVR for later,” Gab Marcotti breaks down all eight first legs of the last-16.
Despite a string of injuries this season, most notably to record signing Eden Hazard, Real are leading la Liga and would love nothing more than crushing Pep Guardiola’s dream of a third Champions League crown. Especially given the fact that after his City side have been hit with a two-year ban from European competition, he won’t be getting another crack at it for a while.
PREDICTION: Tense, thrilling draw sets up possible drama at the Etihad
This has the potential to be the most wide-open and popcorn-worthy tie of the round. Both sides love to score, and score often: Kylian Mbappe and Neymar may be the most glamorous pair of forwards in the game right now, but the Dortmund duo of Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho could one day supplant them. The German side aren’t what they used to be defensively but have more than enough in attack to trouble the French champions.
PSG have suffered their share of Champions League heartbreakers over the years, whether against Barcelona or Real Madrid. With former Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel leading the way, is this the year it all comes together for PSG?
PREDICTION: Borussia Dortmund to strike first against French elite
Free-scoring Atalanta’s high-energy, high-press, all-out attack has made them among the highest scorers in Europe, and they’ve done it on a shoestring budget, coaxing goals galore from Papu Gomez, Josip Ilicic and Luis Muriel. Sometimes, it looks as if they’re simply playing a different sport. Valencia have had a rough season and have already changed managers this year, but they’re a classic feast-or-famine foe, and you just don’t know what you’re going to get.
PREDICTION: Atalanta to take advantage
Bayern had a major wobble at the start of the campaign but are back to their laser-focused selves in 2020, marching toward more silverware domestically and, they hope, in Europe. Interim boss Hansi Flick has revived Thomas Muller‘s form and gotten more out of Serge Gnabry, while Robert Lewandowski might be the best pure scorer in the modern game.
Chelsea have punched well above their weight with a bunch of homegrown youngsters in Frank Lampard’s first season as manager, but it remains to be seen if they can hold their own against one of the most relentless and experienced footballing machines around.
PREDICTION: First-leg draw sets up fun in Munich
Jose Mourinho — as he’ll no doubt remind you — has won this competition twice and knows what it takes to get it done in a two-legged format, though he’ll be without star striker Harry Kane, who is injured. Without the talismanic No. 9, plenty will be expected of Heung-Min Son around goal while Giovani Lo Celso looks ready to be the anchor of Tottenham’s midfield and transition game.
Leipzig are the ultimate intangible: At 32, manager Julian Nagelsmann is a veritable wunderkind who relies on a defensive beast (Dayot Upamecano), a deadeye pest of a scorer (Timo Werner) and plenty of hard running and tactical creativity in between. They have the talent to catch teams on the counter.
PREDICTION: Tottenham to seize control
The contrast in styles is sharp — deep defending vs. high energy, hunt ’em down, full-court press — but the ethos is the same for both teams known for their gritty, tough and uncompromising attitude. The problem is that Atletico Madrid are trying to (unsuccessfully) transition from the system that brought them to a success to a more open style, whereas Liverpool boast clockwork efficiency and are finding many different ways to win games under Jurgen Klopp this season.
PREDICTION: Liverpool to walk on with first leg win
Funnily enough, these are the only two teams that have beaten Liverpool’s first team since Jan. 3, 2019, but both are going through a bumpy patch. Napoli changed managers in December, have a number of players in contractual disputes and are midtable in Serie A. Europe appears their only hope for joy this season. Barcelona have suffered key injuries (Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba), have also changed managers and are still coming to grips with new boss Quique Setien’s old school, press-and-possess style.
Past editions of Barca have been reliant on Lionel Messi for that burst of inspiration, but it has become a dependence in 2020. If he’s on, this game becomes routine. If he’s not, they’re in trouble.
PREDICTION: Barcelona to take a lead back to Camp Nou
Lyon are yet another club to have changed managers in midseason and while Rudi Garcia has righted the ship to some degree, they’re still midtable in Ligue 1. The silver lining: They’re getting great performances from the most hyped 16-year-old in the game, Rayan Cherki.
After eight straight Serie A crowns, Juventus did a 180-degree turn in the summer, bringing in new boss Maurizio Sarri with a view toward becoming more attack-minded. It’s definitely a work in progress though Cristiano Ronaldo‘s run of 10 straight Serie A games with a goal (and 20 league goals in 20 games) has been their saving grace on many occasions this season. At 35, he’s in the form of his life. Will that continue in the Champions League?
PREDICTION: Juve all the way given Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring spree
Big questions to be answered in the round of 16
Looking to make sense of the talking points in Europe’s top competition? ESPN’s writers have you covered.
Who’s under more pressure: Zidane or Guardiola?
There’s more pressure on Pep Guardiola, no question about it. It’s not just the 25 points separating Manchester City from the top of the Premier League, or the fact that he may be watching the next two Champions’ Leagues on TV due to his club’s FFP violations, or even the fact that having won two Premier League titles delivering the biggest trophy in club football is the last unconquered peak. Rather, as Guardiola himself has admitted, he puts an absurd amount of pressure on himself. Not so much in terms of achieving results, but in terms of the process his teams go through to get there.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, is a perpetual hot seat, but Zinedine Zidane has more padding than most. The great stone-face has been there, done that, and his team are sitting top of La Liga, a competition they’ve won just once in the past seven years. — Gab Marcotti
Can Simeone spring a surprise vs. Liverpool?
Something odd happened when Atletico Madrid played Leganes on Jan. 26. Or, perhaps more accurately, nothing happened. And that’s exactly the point.
There was a moment in the second half when Diego Simeone turned toward the fans and began to do the kind of gesture he has done a thousand times before, raising his arms to try to get them going. But as he began, the reaction was not as immediate or as unanimous as it used to be (it barely existed at all, in fact), and almost as soon as he had started, he stopped again. It wasn’t a big deal, perhaps, and most people wouldn’t even have noticed, but for those that did and who know it wasn’t normal, it added to the feeling that something is not right.
For a brief moment, it was as if the man Unai Emery once described as “war personified” wasn’t fighting any more. He stood alone. In front of him, Atletico don’t look like his team, the players are not his sort of players, the demands are not what they once were, the identity is not, either, and the results are worse than they have ever been under him. They’re not even the second-best team in Madrid anymore, let alone the first. Out of the cup, out of the league and, most suspect, soon to be out of the Champions League.
There is little faith, an inescapable, overwhelming awareness that Liverpool are the better team and that the odds are stacked against them. But then, that’s the way Atletico always liked it. And if they are to get back in touch with themselves, if this is to feel like a Simeone side again, a rebellion with the odds stacked against them, maybe that’s what they need. — Sid Lowe
Dortmund vs. PSG is the best game of the round, right?
I don’t even need to tell you, as you know this already. Regardless of your team or whom you support, you know that this is the tie of the last-16. There is nowhere else this month where you will find so much attacking talent, so many ballers. Who will have the most nutmegs: Neymar or Jadon Sancho? Who will score the most beautiful goal: Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappé? Who will be the most exposed defensively: Keylor Navas or Roman Burki? Who will get his tactics right: Lucien Favre or Thomas Tuchel?
– Okwonga: What makes Haaland so special
You know there will be loads of goals, loads of entertainment and loads of drama. The pressure is certainly on PSG and Tuchel, for his return to Dortmund (and it will be fascinating to see what reception he gets from the Yellow Wall). The French champions can’t afford to be knocked out early again in this Champions League. They believe they have the best and most balanced squad they have ever had. But the Germans also have faith in themselves and in their ability to cause problems for any opponent. — Julien Laurens
Who will step up next to Messi for Barcelona?
If there was any quiet jubilation around the Camp Nou when the Champions League draw paired them with Napoli, it has firmly dissipated now.
Napoli don’t have a pedigree in this competition, let alone one that bears comparison with FC Barcelona. Napoli closed out 2019 needing to change coach, seventh in Serie A and already 17 points off the top. Barca, under Ernesto Valverde, topped their Champions League group and led La Liga, and their two strikers had shared 28 goals between Europe and the domestic title chase. Now Luis Suarez is injured, Valverde sacked, Messi goal-shy, Ousmane Dembele out for the season and Messi’s other great playing ally, Jordi Alba, won’t be fit to play in the San Paolo stadium.
Moreover, while new manager Quique Setien is introducing ideas that this team badly needs — a sharper use of possession, much more intense training sessions — it somewhat feels as if Barcelona’s depleted squad are struggling to cope. His side looks obedient, but they also look sluggish. All Setien’s victories have been by a maximum of one goal, have looked in jeopardy and are unlikely to frighten Rino Gattuso’s re-energised Napoli.
Fundamentally, Barcelona’s recently unrequited love affair with the Champions League simply has to spark some kind of elemental competitive reaction, Messi must start scoring again and Marc-Andre ter Stegen needs to continue his glittering form or else, remarkably, Napoli will look like slight favourites to many. — Graham Hunter
Is the Champions League too top-heavy or should we just enjoy the show?
This year’s last-16 feels like a logical end point to a direction of travel that’s been glaringly obvious for some time. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with the best teams in Europe facing one another: That’s the whole point of the competition, and taken on its own, there are bound to be some exceptional games of football.
It is also true to point out that certain match-ups between the continent’s elite are slowly gaining their own folklore in the eyes of the modern fan, such is their regularity. But the overwhelming domination of five super-wealthy leagues and their clubs comes at the expense of the diversity, intrigue and genuine unpredictability that makes the sport itself so great. It said plenty that Ajax, who have won this competition four times, were regarded with such astonishment when they reached the semi-finals last year.
Football’s landscape is an ever-shifting one and nobody is expecting a return to the period between 1981 and ’91, when sides from seven different countries — including Yugoslavia and Romania — won the European Cup, at least not yet. But surely the possibility of that is what should make this competition great.
The spectre of a closed shop is drawing ever nearer; it should concern everyone, and, while nobody should be discouraged from enjoying the games in their own right, it’s worth asking yourself if this is the future you want for our sport. — Nick Ames
Can Nagelsmann seal his status as the next ‘Special One’ vs. Mourinho?
Julian Nagelsmann quickly became Germany’s most promising coach, but now the 32-year-old is looking to take the next step. Before coaches become great by winning, most show signs of moving in that direction. Nagelsmann has done that, and now his next opportunity to move toward greatness has come. If Nagelsmann can get the better of a serial winner such as Jose Mourinho, it will show that the young coach has more than promise: He has the ability to win when it really matters. The Bundesliga might be exciting, but the value of success on the European stage is unparalleled.
Victory against a Premier League opponent and a coach such as Mourinho would be a massive step forward for Nagelsmann. He’s already on the coaching map, but win here and he becomes a major attraction. To do that, he’ll have to outfox a coach and a personality who has been here many times before. He will also have to prove that he can create a plan to handle deep-lying, counterattacking opponents. After RB Leipzig failed to do so against Frankfurt and showed up for only half the game vs. Bayern, this is the ultimate test for the young head coach. — Jonathan Harding
Which Serie A side has the best shot of moving on?
Jurgen Klopp has named Juventus favourites for the competition, which is odd timing considering how vulnerable the Old Lady appears at the moment. Napoli have tended to raise their game against top sides this season, taking four points from six against Liverpool and recently defeating Italy’s top three. Honestly though, it’s hard to look beyond Atalanta.
Manager Gian Piero Gasperini feels the draw for the round of 16, against Valencia, couldn’t have been kinder and his players have shown they’re acclimated to the speed and skill expected at this level. After becoming the first team ever to qualify for the knockouts with zero points from their opening three games, impossible is nothing to the Bergamaschi. Atalanta have already made more in TV and prize money than the total cost of their wage bill and with a return to the competition looking likely next season, they can play with minds at rest and smiles on their faces.
It may still be a bit of a leap to nominate them this season’s Ajax, but for now, Atalanta seem the healthiest and most in-form Italian side left in the Champions League. — James Horncastle
Which young talent will seize the spotlight in the last-16?
The latter stages of the Champions League is when whispers become roars regarding certain up-and-coming stars, so who should we keep an eye on as the last 32 approaches? Let’s start with someone who has already announced his arrival. Erling Haaland has eight goals in 305 Bundesliga minutes for Borussia Dortmund, and is about to face a fragile PSG defence. They also have this kid called Jadon Sancho, too.
Ideally, Ansu Fati would be only on the fringes of the Barcelona team, but things are far from ideal at the Nou Camp. Injuries to Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele mean that the 17-year-old is a regular by necessity though he certainly has the talent: Fati could do some damage against Napoli. At 16, Lyon’s Rayan Cherki is even younger than Fati: Lyon have been more cautious because they’re able to be, but if things aren’t going to plan against Juventus, we could see him unleashed.
Finally, Callum Hudson-Odoi has endured a slightly stop-start time at Chelsea since he rejected Bayern Munich and stayed at Stamford Bridge, but he has found some form recently. It would be very apt if he did some damage against the very team he turned down. — Nick Miller