Champions League Knockout Stages Preview

Rejoice! It’s back! Europe’s top club competition returns this week just in time for Valentines Day, and after several weeks of clubs focusing on their domestic leagues and cup competitions, some very tasty ties have been offered to us at the last 16 stage. Here are our predictions for these intriguing contests which will take place over the next four weeks.

Benfica vs Borussia Dortmund – Tuesday 14th February/Wednesday 8th March

This could be a very interesting tie. Benfica are flying high at the top of the Portuguese league, while Borussia have dropped off the pace in the Bundesliga, sitting in fourth. The German side do have the superior players, and this should make the ultimate difference, particularly with the second leg at Signal Iduna Park and in front of the infamous Yellow Wall. Benfica, though, aren’t used to losing, so don’t be surprised if Dortmund have to overturn a first leg deficit.

Verdict: Dortmund to qualify – but only just

Paris Saint Germain vs Barcelona – Tuesday 14th February/Wednesday 8th March

We’ve seen this tie before and we’ll see a similar outcome. PSG proved while playing in Arsenal’s group they do not carry the same threat without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Edinson Cavani is a good striker but far off from being world class, so don’t be surprised if he misses some golden chances for the French side – if they can get any that is. They haven’t dominated Ligue 1 like they have done in recent years – letting Monaco and Nice lead the race so far this season – so the Champions League isn’t the big priority anymore. The La Liga title is slipping away from Luis Enrique’s men, so I would expect that Lionel Messi and co will see this competition as their best chance for major, elite silverware this season. I hope this’ll be a good contest, but Unai Emery’s great European record will surely come to an end here.

Verdict: Barcelona to qualify comfortably

Bayern Munich vs Arsenal – Wednesday 15th February/Tuesday 7th March

This is the tie of the round for me, though my heart and my head tell me there’s a shock on the cards. Yes, the Gunners have been poor once again in the big games this season but Bayern Munich aren’t the same side they were under Pep Guardiola and Jupp Heyneckes. They have struggled for form under Carlo Ancelotti, and, like PSG, haven’t been as dominant in the Bundesliga as they would have liked. On the weekend, they needed two late goals to get past strugglers Ingolstadt, so if there was ever an ideal time for Arsenal to play them – this would be it. All the Gunners need at the Allianz is a goal, because even if they lose the game 2-1, they could easily turn that round at the Emirates. The Gunners also beat Guardiola’s Bayern 2-0 last season, so there isn’t that psychological block that Arsene Wenger’s men normally have against the big teams. This could go all the way.

Verdict: Arsenal to get over the line.

Real Madrid vs Napoli – Wednesday 15th February/ Tuesday 7th March

Another fascinating tie, as this is not as simple for Real as it seems. Although Napoli have let Juventus run away with Serie A once again, they have been playing some excellent football recently, with Dreis Mertens reveling in a false 9 positions while being supported by Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne and former Madrid player Jose Callejon. Their attack will give the Spanish side problems. Going away to Naples won’t be an easy task, so Zinedine Zidane’s men need to establish a strong lead in the first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu. Despite leading the way all season in La Liga, Real have dropped off the pace slightly and have been at the wrong end of some shock results recently, and in previous years have been accused of complacency in this elite competition. Teams like Wolfsburg, Schalke and Legia Warsaw have held this Madrid side before, and I expect them to have similar struggles in this tie, though not serious enough to knock them out.

Verdict: Madrid to qualify but Napoli will give them a game.

Bayer Leverkusen vs Atletico Madrid – Tuesday 21st February/Wednesday 15th March

Leverkusen have the players to harm Atletico, such as Javier Hernandez, Karim Bellarabi and Kevin Volland, but this is Diego Simeone and the Champions League, so his side should get through this stage without any major problems. Hakan Calhanoglu will be a big miss for the German side, he’s the playmaker and one of the men they turn to. For me, although Atleti aren’t performing as well this season compared to previous seasons, they have the mentality needed to go on and win the competition, and they will start that potential quest with a safe passage through to the quarter finals in this round.

Verdict: Atletico to qualify comfortably.

Manchester City vs Monaco – Tuesday 21st February/Wednesday 15th March

I’m looking forward to this tie; as this won’t be easy for Pep Guardiola’s men. Monaco have stunned English sides in recent years; most notably Arsenal at this stage two years ago and also played a part in Tottenham Hotspur’s elimination from this year’s group stages. The French side have been very lethal in Ligue 1 this season, particularly at home where they’ve scored a lot of goals. Radamel Falcao is showing signs of the player he was at Atletico while Bernando Silva’s performances are proving why the big European clubs are tracking his progress. Keep an eye out for striker/winger Kevin Mbappe, who has been touted as the next Thierry Henry and he’s also a big transfer target for some English sides. If Gabriel Jesus misses this tie it will be a big blow for the Citizens as he provided a real breath of fresh air to the team. But when you can bring in a player like Sergio Aguero to take his place, you know you’ve got a big squad. I think City will qualify, but will need to assert themselves in the first leg as that second leg match away will not be easy. I expect David Silva to shine and take control of these two games.

Verdict: City to qualify but Monaco to impress

Juventus vs FC Porto – Wednesday 22nd February/Tuesday 14th March

I can see this tie being over by the end of the first leg. Juventus have won something like 20 successive games in a row in Serie A, so are not used to losing in front of their home fans. They have one of the best strike forces in Europe with Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala and credit must go to Massimmo Allegri for finding a system to accommodate both these players. The Turin side have such a good squad beyond that as well; even their second XI could qualify here. Porto are a good side, but showed in Leicester’s group how inconsistent they are.

Verdict: Juventus to qualify without breaking sweat

Sevilla vs Leicester City – Wednesday 22nd February/Tuesday 14th March

This really depends on which Leicester team turns up. If it’s the title winning side of last season, then they could get qualify, but if it’s the Leicester of this season then they could get a hiding from Sevilla. The Foxes steamed through the group stage despite putting in dire performances earlier in the Premier League, so maybe they do have half a chance. If I were a Leicester player or fan, I’d be really disappointed with this draw. Sevilla are a good side but not a world class opposition, which takes the magic out of this tie a little bit. They beat Real Madrid a few weeks ago, which shows their ability to turn up and produce a good performance for a big game, and with a very impressive manager in Sampaoli, they should get through this round.

Verdict: Sevilla to go through but don’t be surprised if Leicester do a … Leicester