Following a two-month winter hiatus, the Champions League returns for the business end of the competition, i.e. the knockout rounds. The first legs of the round of 16, which are conveniently broken up over two weeks, kick off on Tuesday. The return is marked by four games over two days, but two of those fixtures clearly stand out as blockbusters.
TUESDAY’S MATCH OF THE DAY
This is arguably the tie of the round, as the French champions host the Spanish champions in a match that features the top two goal scorers from the Champions League group stages.
When diving into Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona, one cannot help but note that both teams collected impressive victories over the weekend leading into the round of 16. PSG won 3-0 away at Boudeaux on Friday, while Barcelona won 6-0 away at Alaves on Saturday. The extra night of rest and recovery is a clear advantage for PSG, compounded with Tuesday’s fixture being played at the Parc des Princes.
Also, Barcelona suffered a shocking setback late in their 6-0 victory as right back Aleix Vidal, who will now miss the remainder of the season due to an ankle injury. After a slow start at the club, Vidal finally looked ready to fully assume the role vacated by longtime right back Dani Alves, who left the club for Juventus over the summer. Vidal set up Luis Suarez with a perfect delivery for Barcelona’s opener on Saturday and scored a goal in his previous start. His absence is a major blow to Barcelona’s domestic and European hopes, but Sergi Roberto is an able right back for the Catalans and should be expected to start.
Players to watch:
- Lionel Messi: From open play and set pieces, no one is better at the moment. Messi bagged 10 goals in five group stage appearances and is the Champions League’s top scorer.
- Edinson Cavani: The Uruguayan has scored in each of his six previous matches across all competitions and is up to 25 goals on the season. Also, Cavani’s six goals in six matches during the group stages ranks second to Messi in European play.
UEFA stat: If Barcelona advances to the quarterfinals, it will be in the final eight of Europe’s elite club competition for a record 10th consecutive season.
Prediction: PSG 2-1 Barcelona. The Parisians are an in-form team playing at home and should not be taken lightly. Cavani and Angel Di Maria will score early goals with Lucas Moura involved in both, while a Messi free kick accounts for the all-important away goal and sets up an intriguing second leg at the Camp Nou.
Borussia Dortmund scored 21 goals in the group stages to set a new record, and the Germans come into this tie as the favorites. But it’s not necessarily cut and dry. Benfica has won 12 of its last 15 fixtures across all competitions since the Champions League group stages concluded on Dec. 7. Dortmund, meanwhile, suffered a shocking loss on Saturday away to Darmstadt, which previously had not won since October. Prior to Saturday’s defeat, though, United States men’s national team starlet Christian Pulisic and Dortmund put on a run of nine matches unbeaten.
WEDNESDAY’S MATCH OF THE DAY
If Barcelona and PSG don’t live up to the hype on Tuesday, Arsenal heads to Germany for an encounter that promises drama on the pitch and on the sidelines.
Both Arsenal and Bayern won by 2-0 score lines on Saturday, but neither team could claim those score lines with clear consciences. The Gunners scored their first goal against Hull City off an Alexis Sanchez hand ball that went uncalled and scored their second off a penalty in stoppage time moments prior to the final whistle. Similarly, Ingolstadt put up a strong resistance and gave up a goal to Bayern in the 90th minute. Like their English counterparts, the Germans scored their second goal in stoppage time just moments shy of the final whistle.
Bayern Munich is nearing the end of a cycle with Philipp Lahm announcing his retirement and Xabi Alonso also hanging up his boots at the end of the season. Speaking of retirements, reports out of London suggest that Gunners manager Arsene Wenger is getting close to finally stepping away from the sidelines, which would mark the end of a 21-year run on the North London sidelines. Wenger talked down the rumors.
Bayern is unbeaten in its previous 11 matches entering Wednesday’s encounter. Meanwhile, Arsenal has won eight of its last 13 matches, but that record also included four defeats.
Players to watch
- Alexis Sanchez: If Arsenal hopes to have a good day, Sanchez will likely play a part. When the Chilean scores, the Gunners have a record of 10 wins, two draws and one loss this season.
- Robert Lewandowski: He scored five goals in the group stages and trails only Cavani and Messi on the Champions League scoring charts.
UEFA stat: Arsenal has been eliminated in the Champions League round of 16 for six consecutive seasons.
Prediction: Bayern Munich 3-1 Arsenal. Lewandowski and Arjen Robben score one goal each, while Thomas Muller gets hit in the face by a ball that goes in off the post. Olivier Giroud scores a late consolation goal.
Napoli is 18 matches unbeaten, with 12 wins. Real Madrid, obviously, is hoping to become the first back-to-back champion during the Champions League era and is an 11-time European cup champion. Madrid has scored at least once in every match this season across all competitions and currently leads the Spanish league despite having two matches in hand on its six closest competitors. In his last 10 matches across all competitions, Belgian Dries Mertens has scored 14 goals and passed off five assists. Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, has scored a goal in each of his last three appearances across all competitions.
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