A Look Ahead at the Champions League Knockout Stages
Many of the top teams in Europe don’t think that the Champions League really begins until the knockout stages. However, after this week’s draw, some of them may now be in for a very short tournament.
There are some terrific matches coming up, such as Liverpool vs Bayern Munich, Manchester United vs PSG, Tottenham Hotspur vs Borussia Dortmund, and Atletico Madrid vs Juventus, but these pairings mean that some of the top teams will be out of the competition very soon. Many of these matches would be worthy finals, and it is sure to be an exciting stage of the competition.
Furthermore, with the January transfer window about to open, there could be even more surprises ahead in these matches, with players no longer cup-tied to teams if they’ve appeared in the group stage. Beyond that, VAR is set to be introduced to the competition from the Round of 16 onwards, and that is sure to bring about some controversial moments.
Here are a few things to consider ahead of the next round of the competition.
A Huge Amount of Pressure on Managers
Now that Jose Mourinho has been fired by Manchester United, his replacement is likely to be granted some leeway coming in at this late stage. However, interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will no doubt feel under a great deal of pressure to try to turn the team’s fortunes around. The team is likely to pick up some reinforcements in the January transfer window, and the players will have had some time to rest. However, they are against an excellent PSG team with an amazing number of top players, such as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, and Edinson Cavani. Obviously it is too early to make predictions about United, but PSG certainly seem to be at the advantage.
Bayern Munich’s Niko Kovac is also likely to feel the pressure. Kovac has managed to turn things around at Bayern recently, but the team are still nowhere near their best and they are falling behind in the Bundesliga after winning six straight domestic titles. Jurgen Klopp, who lost to Bayern when he was manager of Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 final, has shaped a fantastic Liverpool team and he will know exactly how to tackle the Germans. It will be far from easy for Kovac to keep his team on an upwards trajectory.
Given the current situation, both Liverpool and PSG, who battled to escape the group stages, will have high hopes of reaching the next round of the competition.
Manchester City are desperate to win this competition and the draw has been extremely kind to them. They are facing Schalke, who after losing star players and struggling in the Bundesliga, are perhaps the weakest team to advance to the knockout stages. Schalke had a relatively easy group stage but they will find things much tougher when they go up against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. While Manchester City didn’t sail through the group stage in the manner many expected, they are still an exceptional team and having had a short rest, will come back more dangerous than ever.
The drawing is the second year in a row that Manchester City have had a relatively easy time in the Round of 16, after facing Basel last season. The match also gives Leroy Sane the chance to take on his former team, which he left in 2016.
The draw has also been kind to Roma, who surprised everyone by reaching the semi-finals last year. It seems unlikely that they will make it as far this year, especially given their domestic form, but having drawn Porto, they have a real chance of reaching the quarterfinals and they are likely to be quietly confident. Porto are at their top of their domestic league and they sailed through the group stage. However, their group was by far the easiest with Lokomotiv Moscow, a very much struggling Schalke, and a Galatasaray, who failed to impress and are now in the Europa League as third-place finishers. As a result, Porto have not be truly tested and it is hard to know how they will perform.
Given how things could have turned out, both Manchester City and Roma should be very pleased with how the draw went.
Expect Plenty of Goals
If you enjoy high scoring games then there are some treats ahead. Both Tottenham vs Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool vs Bayern Munich have the potential to be high scoring affairs. All four of the teams like to attack and control the game’s tempo by pressing and playing aggressively in the attacking third. The matches look to be extremely exciting and in some ways, it seems unfair that two of the teams will be knocked out at this stage. Nonetheless, they promise to be engaging games and there is the potential for very high aggregate score lines.
Tough Times for Atletico Madrid and Juventus
Atletico Madrid vs Juventus is perhaps one of the harshest games to come out of the draw. For Atletico, who hare hoping to host the final in their stadium next June, it is another clash with Cristiano Ronaldo and a Juventus team that appears to be capable of winning everything. While some believe that there is more to come from Atletico this season, it will require a mammoth effort if they are to progress.
— Atlético de Madrid (@Atleti) December 20, 2018
On the other hand, Juventus need to face a team who have the tactics necessary to temper explosive opposition, and a team who are happy to use physicality in order to disrupt opponents. In some ways, it makes it one of the worst possible draws for Juventus, and they will know that they are facing some tough games.
Both of the teams finished as runners-up twice in the Champions League from 2014 – 17, and they have both looked capable of winning the tournament. This game could easily have been a final, and an excellent one at that. Instead, one of the teams will be finding themselves out of the competition very soon.
A True Test for Real Madrid
Real Madrid are currently kings of the Champions League having won four of the last five competitions. However, Real Madrid tend not to consider their past accomplishments, and will be as determined to win the title as ever. They have drawn Ajax in the last 16, a team that are not afraid of anyone as they demonstrated in the group stage. They made Bayern Munich work right until the very end and they certainly won’t let Real Madrid off easily.
Ajax currently has a large amount of young talent that is sure to be plucked away by Europe’s bigger teams in the coming few years. However, they also have a number of veterans such as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Dusan Tadic, Nicolas Tagliafico, Daley Blind and Lasse Schone.
Ajax are at an advantage, they have nothing to lose and there will be a great deal of pressure on Real Madrid. Madrid lost twice to CSKA Moscow in the group stage showing just how vulnerable they are at the moment. However, Madrid also have a history of finding their top form at this point in the year, and they may do so once again. They are without Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, but the team still has numerous players who are extremely talented.
The Unknown Effect of the Transfer Window
The change in rules means that players are no longer cup-tied if they have appeared in the group stage. This means that there could be some surprises resulting from the January transfer window. It also means that teams may be reluctant to sell at this point if they think it will put them at a competitive disadvantage.
There are all kind of possibilities coming up, Manchester United could sell Paul Pogba to a Champions League side or Real Madrid’s Isco could move to a rival last-16 competitor. The Financial Fair Play rules could force PSG to sell Adrien Rabiot, who is out of contract at the end of the season and who could move for free in the summer. Furthermore, Roma may consider selling the much sought after Cengiz Under.
All of the teams have the option to buy and sell players in the coming weeks and it could make these exciting games even more interesting.
The Champions League knockout stages are always a highlight of the football calendar and this year looks set to be as exciting as ever. While the games are still a little way away, you can be sure that preparations are already well underway and will continue over the Christmas and New Year break.