With the UEFA Champions League now on hiatus until mid-February next year, there is plenty of time to ponder on what might happen, and plenty of time for teams’ fortunes to change.
As things stand, this round seems to be the most favourable one that English teams have partaken in for a number of years and, as such, the European competition’s Premier League facet have their best chance to win the competition in the last few years.
But there are still a plethora of outstanding teams that will be looking to upset the party as the tournament advances into its latter, testing stages.
Will PSG finally put their mouth where their money is? Will Spanish domination continue? Can Bayern rekindle their glory days?
Inevitably, we’ll have to wait until the New Year to find out, but that’s no reason not to start speculating now.
Juventus vs. Tottenham
Little under two weeks ago, when Spurs beat APOEL Nicosia 3-0 to progress from their group as winners, above such giants as Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, I would have said, hands down, that they could beat any side in the competition over two legs.
A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s delectable Manchester City side at the weekend, however, has proven Spurs’ vulnerabilities.
Juve, though, haven’t had the easiest of seasons thus far, and are trailing table-toppers Napoli by one point in Serie A at this moment in time. A recent upturn in form, however, has sparked new faith in the Old Lady of Turin.
All of this points towards a particularly tight affair, but I can’t shake that niggling feeling that Spurs might not get a better chance of winning the competition than this year, and I expect that they will have enough to see off the Italian Champions.
Predicted Winner: Tottenham
FC Basel vs. Manchester City
This fixture, on the other hand, should be far easier to call.
Basel have a history of upsetting the big boys—they beat City’s rivals Manchester United 1-0 in November—but the gulf in class here will be far too much for them to handle.
City look unshakeable this season—if they beat Bournemouth this weekend then they’ll have dropped only two points in a whole half of the season—and the combination of fierce, creative attacking talent that they have going forward, coupled with an outstanding, forward-sighted goalkeeper and an unexpectedly competent defence, should mean that City breeze past Basel, and that they should expect to be fighting to win the tournament as a whole.
Predicted Winner: Manchester City
FC Porto vs. Liverpool
Liverpool are an exciting outfit this season.
This is due not only to their ‘fab four’—Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, and Sadio Mané—but also because they can often be unpredictable.
Manager Jürgen Klopp promised ‘heavy metal football’ when he arrived at Anfield, and he’s starting to deliver that package—though Liverpool are just as likely to raise hairs in defence as they are going forwards.
While they still look somewhat sieve-like at the back, Liverpool, like Spurs, should have enough in their favour to see off their Round of 16 opponents, who currently reside in second place in the Portuguese Liga, behind Sporting Lisbon.
Predicted Winner: Liverpool
Real Madrid vs. PSG
Undeniably, this fixture is the tie of the round.
Double-champions Real Madrid have largely missed the mark domestically this season—up until recently, it was true that Barcelona’s Paulinho had more La Liga goals than Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema combined—and have failed to impress in their Champions League group, failing to beat Spurs either home or away.
They’re a sleeping, ageing giant, but a giant all the same. And they still possess the tools sharp enough to do damage to any team on their day.
PSG’s league form has been outstanding, but this should be totally cast aside—no one would bat an eyelid if they saw Usain Bolt outrun Wayne Rooney over 100 metres. What really has raised eyebrows, however, is their record in the Champions League.
Though they attained the same number of points as Bayern Munich, they scored a startling twelve goals more—25 in total—to comfortably win their group on goal difference.
Granted, Celtic and Anderlecht proved to be nothing more than fodder for their superb marksmanship, but a side exuding that much confidence in front of goal usually manages to perpetuate itself.
Yet there still seem to be many question marks hanging over the heads of PSG’s players, question marks that might indeed reside in the hearts of those players themselves.
Madrid still have something left to give, and they might just surprise PSG over two legs.
Predicted Winner: Real Madrid
Chelsea vs. Barcelona
And if you thought that Madrid and PSG would offer up a tasty morsel, then you’ll only have to wait just under a week to find something to sink your teeth into again.
Barcelona, like their interminable domestic enemies, have left a lot to be desired this season, and smack similarly as a team on the wane.
As fans of the Spanish international team will tell you, having players of the highest, irreplaceable quality dealing with age is one of the most agonising processes that a football follower can watch.
Messi, though, has healthily stuck his middle finger up to the usual trends of his peers, and, despite his thirty years, and despite the odd bit of pace that he has lost, has proceeded to score 14 domestic goals this season. That’s ten more than Ronaldo.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have been hit and miss, and have trailed in Manchester City’s wake in the league.
Yet they possess quality players of their own, ones that are hungry, young, and eager to prove themselves.
Morata will want to show what he can do against a club that he played against time and time again in a Real Madrid shirt, while Eden Hazard will want to impress a team that might potentially look to sign him in the not-too-distant future.
Either way, the footballing tide seems to be changing, and it’s about time that Spanish dominance was ended. I expect Chelsea may be the ones to strike the first blow against Catalan royalty.
Predicted Winner: Chelsea
Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas
While the big boys have their time tearing each other apart, Bayern will be glad that they have a relative minnow to take care of in the form of Besiktas.
Yet the Turkish side will be anything but easy to overcome.
In an eclectic group, that comprised Monaco, FC Porto, and RB Leipzig, Besiktas not only came out on top but remained unbeaten.
Confidence will be high amongst the players who have their home on the Bosphorus, but Bayern are still, despite their own golden generation nostalgia, a team of tremendous ability.
Predicted Winner: Bayern Munich
Sevilla vs. Manchester United
Sevilla will certainly provide a stern test for Jose Mourinho’s men.
Given the Portuguese helmsman’s conservative style of play, the match may well be determined by the first leg, as United travel to Spain.
If Sevilla fail to score, then Mourinho will be rubbing his hands at a game-plan well executed, and will expect to return to Old Trafford safe in the knowledge that his side possess the players to score a number of goals against Sevilla.
The team that managed to battle back from 3-0 down against Liverpool to draw 3-3, however, may fancy themselves to once again spill English blood.
Regardless, Man Utd seem to me far too well drilled to lose the overall two-leg tie against Sevilla, and should march through this without too many wounds to lick.
Prediction: Manchester United
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma
Unbeaten in their last five league games, and trailing the Serie A table’s summit by four points but with the advantage of a game in hand, Roma will fancy themselves against Shakhtar.
The Ukrainians, on the other hand, will be buoyed by their victory over an, albeit weaker and much changed, Manchester City side in the final game of the group stages.
Unfortunately, this match might well be the forgotten fixture of the round, but it will certainly be an interesting one. It’s a close affair on paper, and one that will springboard the side that wins it, at least to become a thorn in the side of any larger club that comes along next time out.
Predicted Winner: Roma