For many football aficionados, the Champions League only really begins with the knockout stages. While we may enjoy the odd great match in the group stages, it feels at times like a sideshow before the real business begins. This week saw the conclusion of the Round of 16, and, as in previous years, the big teams and big players have finally turned up while some of the wannabes have been found out.
Progression for Europe’s Super Powers
Watching the Round of 16, we saw Barcelona, Bayern, Real Madrid and Juventus flex their muscles once again and show that they are contenders for Europe’s biggest football prize.
Cometh the hour cometh the man and Europe’s big players didn’t disappoint when called on to deliver. Against PSG, Madrid’s modern galacticos didn’t disappoint and showed despite their disappointing Liga form, that they could claim a record third consecutive title. Ronaldo led the way with 3 goals while Sergio Ramos was back to his best once again. On the flanks, Carvajal and Marcelo, tormented the Parisians, while they also were able to show off their strength in depth, benching the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale, players who would walk into most starting 11’s.
Meanwhile, Bayern were back to their imperious best against Besiktas with a rejuvenated Thomas Muller rediscovering his best form under Jupp Heynckes. It has been quite a remarkable turnaround since Heynckes replaced Carlo Ancelotti in October. Domestically they are running away with the Bundesliga and look like a team who could go all the way in Europe. And don’t forget Bayern last won the Champions League under Heynckes in 2013, a season where they destroyed Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals, one of the Blaugrana’s most humiliating defeats.
Talking of Barcelona, the magic of Messi was evident once again in the Round of 16 as he ruthlessly punished Chelsea mistakes in both legs. In this form, he is simply irrepressible and underlines why he is possibly the world’s greatest ever footballer!
While this is maybe not the most fluid Barcelona side we have ever seen, they do look a well balanced and more robust unit. Indeed at the centre of defence they have in Umtiti an immovable object who has brought real steel to the backline. Credit must go to Valverde, as Barcelona are now well on their way to winning La Liga and are surely one of the sides who could be lifting the trophy come May.
The Old Lady of Juventus showed she can still dance a step or two in dispatching an impressive young Spurs side. After drawing at home, the Bianconeri travelled to Wembley as slight underdogs and produced a stunning second-half come back to win. Gonzalo Higuaín scored a crucial goal to level the tie while a moment of brilliance from Paulo Dybala, who has recently returned to the fold notched the winner. At the back, Chiellini provided a defensive masterclass to help seal victory. In this form, nobody will fancy a trip to Turin.
Underachievement at Great Expense
One of the big talking points of the Round of 16, was the failure once again of big spending PSG, to make it to the latter stages of the competition. This is a team, remember, who have spent hundreds of millions since the Qatar takeover in 2011 with the ambition of challenging for a seat at Europe’s top table. However, the tie with Real Madrid showed that they are as far away as ever. Perhaps the lack of real competition in Ligue 1 is a hindrance, as was the loss of the talisman, Neymar, at a crucial time.
However, looking at the squad, it appears imbalanced. Cavani consistently fails to deliver on the big stage, while Mbappe is a great talent but one for the future. Against Real, he showed a naivety at times and failed to make an impact. The defence is also ageing, while the lack of a top quality defensive midfielder seems to hurt them.
PSG’s failure to get to at least the semi-finals, is highly likely to cost Unai Emery his job, despite the prospect of a domestic treble. Potential names who have been linked include Carlo Ancelotti, Massimiliano Allegri, Luis Enrique but not Big Sam!
Another team assembled at great expense who massively underachieved were Mourinho’s Manchester United, who failed to get past possibly the worst side left in the competition. While the result was bad, it was the manner of defeat which must really hurt and will trouble Mourinho. United’s big money signings simply failed to deliver. Lukaku looks out of his depth at the top level, Sanchez appears increasingly to be a panic purchase who does a passable impersonation of a headless chicken, while Pogba, seems increasingly disinterested and disillusioned. When brought on in the second half of the Sevilla tie he produced a breathtakingly dreadful performance at one point passing the ball into touch and missing the intended recipient by a country mile. For the Old Trafford faithful, a last 16 exit simply is not good enough particularly when arch-rivals Liverpool and Man City booked their places in the last 8.
For Chelsea and Spurs, there will be disappointment at going out, but unlike United at least went down fighting. Chelsea came up against a better and more ruthless team while Spurs showed a youthful naivety against a cunning and wily Juventus side. Provided they can hang on to Pochettino and their marquee players, they will surely come again.
Lurking in the shadows
Manchester City, despite not being among the superpowers just yet, have proven this season that they could be real contenders with their slick liquid football and attacking quality. I am reserving judgement for now as Basel are hardly elite opposition and tougher tests will await.
Liverpool, however, are one of my dark horses for the Champions League, possessing a scary front three who have terrorised many of the teams they have faced this season. They cruised past Porto and look to be a team who, in a one-off game, are capable of beating anyone…just ask Man City. At their best, they play Klopp’s heavy metal football with speed, power and, no fear. They also have pedigree having won the trophy five times and expect to be here.
Champions League Quarter Final Draw
Juventus vs. Real Madrid
Liverpool vs. Manchester City
Sevilla vs. Bayern Munich
Barcelona vs. Roma