Ask any soccer fan around the world, and they’ll tell you that the most torturous time of the year is the two-month period between mid-November and mid-February.
To have to wait so long for the Champions League knockout rounds to begin is almost criminal. For two months now, we’ve all been left licking our lips at the Round of 16 fixtures and the fascinating matchups the draw has thrown up.
The thing with the Champions League, especially with the new format that was adopted in 1992, is that it pushes each team to its absolute limit. With a six-game group stage followed by two-legged knockout games, it truly does become a game of survival of the fittest.
Luck has very little to do here. Each team goes only as far as they deserve to. So, for instance, Roma knocking out Barcelona in the quarterfinals last year was no fluke. Neither was Monaco reaching the semifinals the year before that. It gives the so-called lesser teams the license to dream. That’s the beauty of the Champions League.
Here are five things we have to look forward to in the Round of 16:
- Will PSG finally take the next step forward?
How do you solve a problem like Paris Saint-Germain? Because clearly buying the best players around the world and changing managers like revolving doors isn’t helping. The problem with PSG is they crave for the UCL with an almost sad desperation.
And it’s this very fact that hinders them. They want it a bit too much. Granted, the draw hasn’t been easy on them in recent years — in the last three years they’ve faced Barca, Real Madrid and now Manchester United in the Round of 16. But hey, if you want to be the best, you need to beat the best.
Neymar and Edinson Cavani’s absence could hurt PSG against a resurgent Manchester United, but Kylian Mbappe has the opportunity to further the claim that PSG is his team.
- Spurs – Dortmund is the bout to watch out for
Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund are similar in more ways than they probably realize. Strong fan base? Check. Youth team players? Check. Captain Fantastic? Check. Glory? Let’s wait and watch.
Both of these teams were in the same group last year, and Spurs won both the games with an aggregate score of 5-2. But Dortmund isn’t that same team anymore. An 18-year-old English winger in the form of Jadon Sancho has turned around the fortunes at the Westfalenstadion.
The German side sits pretty atop the Bundesliga, as they hope to bring an end to the era of Bayern Munich’s domination. All eyes will be on Sancho as he makes his return to England. It is to be seen if he will wilt under the pressure, but if his recent performances are anything to go by, the Spurs defenders have a lot to contend with Wednesday.
- Captain Marvel Messi
Lionel Messi is a unique player and a unique captain, too. Much like his style of play, which is all about his dexterity and small, delicate touches, his captaincy is molded much the same way.
In the second leg of the 2019 Copa Del Rey quarterfinal against Sevilla, Barca needed to produce a comeback, coming into the game 2-0 down. Eleven minutes in, Barca were awarded a penalty, but Messi, the usual penalty taker, gifted his penalty to Coutinho.
Coutinho, whose performances and confidence have dipped in recent months, converted the penalty and went on score another goal in the second half. Barca not only needs Messi the player, but also Messi the captain if they want to bring the trophy back to Catalonia.
- Bayern could determine who wins the Premier League
Liverpool are the favorites to proceed to the next round in their matchup with Bayern. Yes, you read that right. The very same Liverpool who, six years ago, were languishing in the Europa League under Brendan Rodgers while the very same Bayern went on to clinch a historic treble.
In soccer, you can’t really predict the future. The Premier League has been an obsession for Liverpool, and it’s to be seen how they’ll cope with the Champions League and its midweek fixtures. Win here, and they’ll have two big competitions to divide their energy and squad between. Lose, and they can focus completely on the EPL.
But then again, beating Bayern can be the confidence boost Liverpool needs to fend off Manchester City. It’s in your hands now, Bayern. England awaits.
- Will Ronaldo take down Atletico again?
Cristiano Ronaldo is back in Madrid. Six months after his move to Italian giant Juventus, the Portuguese superstar is back in Spain to take down his old team’s arch nemesis, Atletico Madrid.
Ronaldo has a habit of scoring against Los Rojiblancos, as he has 21 goals in 30 games against them. Diego Godin and company won’t have forgotten the hat-trick he scored against them in the Champions League semifinal two years ago. The Wanda Metropolitano is a daunting venue, and Atletico will need their fans if they want to bring down the Old Lady of Turin.