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The UEFA Champions League round-of-16 draw has been made; our menu for February’s European footballing feast set. It looks a tasty one.
Almost every tie has an element of either epic intrigue or balance of strength. Whether you’re struggling to predict how Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich or Tottenham vs. Borussia Dortmund plays out, or wondering how Lyon’s talented kids get on against elite opposition, there’s something for everyone.
Let’s take a look at all eight ties, pick out the key men who will decide matters and offer predictions for each matchup.
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Unless Schalke seriously pick things up after the winter break, it’s difficult to see any kind of upset happening here.
They’ve endured a pretty poor season so far—unbelievably, they’re just three points off the relegation play-off—and probably would have failed to qualify from any other Champions League group; they’ll likely be no match for City come February.
This draw facilitates a return to the Veltins-Arena for Leroy Sane, who moved from Schalke to Man City in the summer of 2016. Players often find additional motivation against their former clubs, and Sane’s come a long way since his time in Royal Blue.
Schalke’s status as underdogs for this one is illustrated by the fact their key man will be defensive. Goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann is one of few whose form hasn’t dipped severely in 2018-19 so far, and he’ll have to work overtime.
A comfortable aggregate Man City win.
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On the basis that an Atletico Madrid win would be an upset—they are the second-placed finisher in this tie after all—then yes, this one has that sort of potential.
Atletico may not have found their best levels consistently this season—they’ve drawn eight games already this term—but on the right day they’re one of the best in the world.
They’re also no strangers to the big occasion having reached the Champions League final twice in the last five years and won the Europa League last season.
There’s a man among the ranks of Juventus who knows the Atletico players, manager and blueprint very well: Cristiano Ronaldo. Having duelled with them at least twice a season while at Real Madrid for nine years, he’ll have a fair idea of how to push their buttons.
Atletico, renowned for being defensively solid, have been far from that for most of this season, and they’re now relying on goalkeeper Jan Oblak—arguably the best in the world—to bail them out more than ever. He’ll be busy in Turin.
Juventus edge it by a goal.
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Things shift violently at Manchester United on a week to week basis, so there’s no telling how they’ll look in February. On current evidence, though, it’s almost impossible not to think they’ll suffer at the hands of PSG.
You can probably expect Man Utd to produce a similar, stifling game plan to the one we saw at Anfield on Sunday in their 3-1 defeat to Liverpool. Such a plan blocks the middle and makes things congested for central operators.
That naturally places the spotlight on a wide man who can get around the formation and beat the full-back; step forward Kylian Mbappe.
The nature of United’s tactical plan will likely place an importance on individual moments of brilliance, and when facing multiple World Cup-winning colleagues, Paul Pogba might just muster a performance.
PSG ease through this one.
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Like with Atletico Madrid vs. Juventus this one’s finely balanced, with no obviously superior side. Tottenham are the second-placed outfit in this tie, though, so if you’re asking whether they can progress, the answer is yes.
BVB boss Lucien Favre has extracted superb form out of the vast majority of his players this season, but one player has shone brightest as the go-to guy: Marco Reus. He’s averaged a goal or an assist per game in the Bundesliga so far, and his darting runs will have be tracked by Spurs.
As is the case in any big game, Tottenham will inevitably look to Harry Kane to steer them through this one. He’s the captain, the goalscorer and the big-stage performer.
Dortmund triumph in an aggregate tie that features at least seven goals.
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Which team will show up? Good Lyon, or bad Lyon? If it’s the former, Barcelona are in for a testing two legs, but you can never truly bank on that happening.
No matter the circumstance, Lionel Messi is always the key man for Barcelona. He is going to provide one hell of a test for Marcal and Ferland Mendy.
Lyon will look to their own talismanic figure here, with Nabil Fekir‘s voracious pressing, long-range shooting and set-piece expertise their best chance of finding success.
We get a good gauge on how “ready” some of Lyon’s youngsters are for the next stage (such as Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Aouar), but their Champions League journey ends here.
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Roma have endured a really difficult season so far; they’ve slipped well behind Napoli and Inter Milan in the Serie A table and look nothing like the team we saw reach the Champions League semi-finals last season. Were they drawn against any other top seed, we’d have been writing their competition obituary now.
But Porto, despite their whopping 16-point haul in the groups, are the group winner everyone wanted. The Giallorossi have a chance.
Even when Roma aren’t looking particularly fluent, Edin Dzeko‘s reliable goalscoring abilities bail them out of sticky situations. He bagged five in the group stage and will need to score a few more if the Italian outfit are to succeed here.
Porto are a good all-round side but look particularly threatening from set pieces. Alex Telles‘ corner and free-kick deliveries are so good, defenders and strikers alike are lining up to convert.
Porto progress after 180 not-so-watchable minutes.
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On current evidence, very much so. Real Madrid have proved themselves to be fragile throughout this campaign, while Ajax emerged unbeaten from a group containing Bayern Munich and Benfica, and they are beating Dutch teams by four or more goals regularly.
If you’re Real Madrid, this is where you count on your decorated, elite players to step forward and show their best. Luka Modric should be looking to show rising star Frenkie de Jong just how much he still has to learn.
If you’re Ajax, you hope the talented players who have got you this far can keep on shining. Hakim Ziyech, this is your stage.
Real Madrid remember who they are, find their focus and win—but not with any degree of comfort.
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Yes, however you wish to define it. Liverpool are the second-placed team here, but they’re clearly stronger; Bayern have the players to beat anybody if things click into place.
Centre-back Virgil van Dijk is suspended for the first leg (at Anfield), meaning Bayern’s chance to win the two-legged affair will either be taken or not in that match. Robert Lewandowski must be as clinical as ever in that leg.
Liverpool will look to their own elite forward in Mohamed Salah to guide them through. As great as he was in 2017-18, it was Sadio Mane who really grasped the mantle on European nights—Salah needs to reciprocate his colleague’s form.
Given the factors at play, this one feels like it will develop into a shootout, so the question is: Which team would you back to outscore the other? Our answer is Liverpool.
All statistics via WhoScored.com.