After a two-month hiatus, the Champions League makes a welcome return this week, with both Tottenham and Manchester United in action.
For the second season running, all of the Premier League teams in the Champions League made it through the group stages and into the round of 16. That was back in December, but this week, finally, the teams will be able to test themselves against Europe’s best once again. That is no exaggeration either, as bar Manchester City, the other three Premier League sides face games against difficult opposition. However, with current champions Real Madrid having a season to forget and other top European clubs not faring much better, there could be a real opportunity this year for an unfancied side to go the distance.
Rejuvenated Man United should be feared
The last time we saw United in this competition was in a dismal 2-1 defeat to Valencia back in December. It was a performance and result which summed up everything that was wrong with the Jose Mourinho era.
United had already laboured their way through the group by this point, but this loss ensured they finished behind Juventus and thus set up a potentially more difficult tie in the next round. Players and pundits alike knew how important this result could prove, especially considering the club’s performances under Mourinho. Fast-forward to February, however, and United look a totally different animal under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian has got this side firing again, with Paul Pogba in particular finally starting to showcase some of the world class talent seen on display at Juventus and with the French national side.
Solskjaer is yet to taste defeat as United manager, with an outstanding 11 wins and 1 draw from his first 12 games. Although heavily rumoured, the caretaker boss has not yet been offered the job on a permanent basis. If they were to beat Paris Saint Germain on Tuesday and subsequently make it through, the job would surely be his. PSG meanwhile, are desperate to go the distance in this year’s competition, having failed to ever really impress since their big money Qatari takeover in 2011. With United’s current form, though, there are precious few places PSG would less rather go than to Old Trafford, with Gianluigi Buffon admitting that without the injured Neymar, it could be very difficult to get a result. Edinson Cavani has now been ruled out as well, and if United play like they did against Arsenal, this one could be over before the second leg.
Tottenham in the tie of the round?
When the round of 16 draw was made on 17th December, Tottenham’s match up with Borussia Dortmund instantly stood out as one to watch. Two high-intensity, attacking teams seemed the perfect match up for neutrals. At the time, Dortmund were arguably playing the best football in Europe and were still unbeaten in the Bundesliga. So good was their form that some didn’t give Tottenham a chance in this one.
Dortmund’s progress has slowed somewhat since, while Tottenham’s own recent domestic form has been superb. Both sides will be without their star players on Wednesday though, with Marco Reus and Harry Kane set to miss at least the first leg due to injury. So far in Kane’s absence, Tottenham have coped admirably and the versatile Heung Min-Son will again be vital for their chances against Dortmund. The spotlight will be on another England star at Wembley, however, with Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho returning to the UK for the first time in a club game since his move from Manchester City in 2017. Still only 18, Sancho is having an outstanding season in Germany and this could be a real opportunity to announce himself on the world stage.
Best of the rest
On paper, there isn’t that much to get excited about around this week’s remaining games. Last season’s semi-finalists, Roma, take on Porto in a game that they would probably be expected to win, but could go either way. The Italian side are a real threat going forward but have conceded 30 goals already in Serie A, so Porto should feel confident of getting an away goal to give them an advantage going into the second leg.
Real Madrid travel to Ajax in the other game, which could be one to keep an eye on. Madrid have had an up and down season and Ajax will know this is a real chance to record a famous knockout victory over the holders and record winners. Saying that, Madrid are just starting to hit form and it would be totally characteristic of the club to now go on a run and win the competition for the fourth year running.
We will have to wait until next week for more glamour ties, when some of the European heavyweights will face off. Liverpool face Bayern Munich in the biggest game of the week. This will be the first time the sides have met since 2001, but Jurgen Klopp knows what to expect, as he has faced Bayern more times than any other team in his career. Atletico Madrid and Juventus provide the other outstanding contest, with both teams boasting some of the meanest defences in world football. Manchester City will be licking their lips at the prospect of facing Schalke, arguably the worst team left in the competition. The final game sees Barcelona travelling to Lyon, a side that caused Man City plenty of problems before Christmas. If they put in a similar performance against the Catalan giants, this could be the story of the round. Sadly, all this will have to wait until next week.