This Valentine’s week, fall in love with the beautiful, lively, Uefa Champions League.
Traditionally, the month of February is the month of love; the month in which lovers express how much they mean to one another; where roses and chocolates are exchanged and everyone just oozes pheromones.
If you are a football fan, your significant other may have to step back for a while and watch you whisper sweet nothings to your favourite player, exchange thorny abuses with rival fans, and ooze sweat, spit and tears after a match. The Uefa Champions League round of 16 has arrived with as much emotion as Cupid’s heart-shaped arrows.
Defending champions Real Madrid kick off their 23rd knockout campaign against four-time European champions Ajax with a trip to Amsterdam on Wednesday evening. The Dutch are the only team remaining in the competition that had to go through the qualifying rounds to reach the league’s group stages and, despite this, remain undefeated. Their summer signing, Dušan Tadic, has already paid dividends, with the Serbian netting 22 times before yesterday’s league match – where they sit second on the log – with five of those goals coming in the Champions League. Madrid face an uphill task if they are to beat the Sons of the Gods at the Johan Cruyff Arena as Ajax have not lost at home this season.
In contrast, Los Blancos have lost six times away from home, sit third on La Liga and cannot decide which attacker to start with. For all their early season failings and indecisive squad selections, Madrid seem to be taking to their second coach of the season, Santiago Solari, like love on Valentine’s Day. Earning a draw against eternal rivals Barcelona this week must have surely put to bed the demons of that 5-1 El Clásico drubbing earlier this season, and with the likes of Vinícius Júnior, Mariano Díaz and new signing Brahim Díaz, young blood could be the answer to reviving the heartbeat of Madrid.
In another match on Wednesday, which is the only other tie that does not feature a reigning domestic league champion, Tottenham Hotspur take on Borussia Dortmund at Wembley Stadium in London. Spurs’ form, since their 85th-minute Lucas Moura goal at Camp Nou sent them into the knockout stages by the slimmest of margins, has been like a mixed box of chocolates. The Lilywhites began the Champions League break as domestic title contenders and then hit a brick wall against Manchester United that left them clinging on to the third spot.
What followed was, well, Spurs. Mauricio Pochettino’s team – in a space of four matches over two weeks – exited the FA Cup and the League Cup, suffered injuries to top goal-scorer Harry Kane and winger Dele Ali, and failed to sign a new player for the second consecutive transfer window. A win today against Leicester City will give Spurs a chance at some self-confidence and, with Kane and Ali out, Son Heung-min and Fernando Llorente will need something more than hand hearts if they are to beat the German league leaders.
Although they had a seven-point lead on the Bundesliga before yesterday’s league game, Die Schwarzgelben seem to be losing some steam as they were kicked out of the their domestic cup competition this week, with the club’s top goal-scorer Marco Reus picking up an injury. The injury does not seem to be too serious, but precautions will no doubt be taken to rest the star player. There’s at least one stat the Yellow Wall will be able to double tap – that of their defence and Roman Bürki’s four clean sheets in the Champions League so far.
On Tuesday evening, Portuguese champions and league leaders Porto make the 2 000km journey to Rome to take on a languishing AS Roma. Sitting just outside the top-four Champions League qualifying spots in the Italian league, the hosts will be aiming to make the best of their last 16 opportunity while also trying to get revenge on Porto, who beat them two seasons ago in the Champions League play-offs to qualify for the group stages.
Eusebio Di Francesco’s side has been out of sorts this season, particularly in the past two weeks, notching two draws and a humiliating 7-1 loss in the Coppa Italia. Having also lost their last two Champions League games, Roma seem to be banking on their early season form as they are the only team in the last 16 to have an unchanged squad after the winter transfer season.
Porto, however, will be hoping that free signing Pepe will provide some experience within the squad. Clearly favourites in the tie, Porto are undefeated after the group stages, finishing top of their group with the most points of any team this season. The Dragons have only lost three games this season, with one being the League Cup final two weeks ago on penalties. But, for all the bounties bestowed upon the Portuguese outfit, they will find themselves without top striker Moussa Marega, who joins the casualty list with a thigh muscle injury. Marega has five goals (out of a total of 16) to his name in the Champions League and will be missed as terribly as a puppy-eyed teenager pining over their first love.
Without a doubt, the game of the week sees Manchester United welcome Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) to the Theater of Dreams for the first time in European competition. The two sides have not met before in any Uefa competition and both teams have everything to play for, with neither advancing beyond the quarterfinal stage since the 2010/11 season. Under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, United are undefeated in 10 games, winning nine of them. PSG, by comparison, have only lost three games this season – one in the domestic league, one in the Coupe de la Ligue and the other their first Champions League game against Liverpool in September.
With Brazilian superstar Neymar ruled out due to injury and a potential injury lay-off for Marco Verratti, the Parisians seem a little fragile upfront and the attacking nature of Solskjær’s Red Devils squad lends them a slight advantage considering that they have had no injury scares – yet.
With Paul Pogba finding his goal-scoring shoes (and subsequent dancing shoes), Anthony Martial attacking with fervour and Marcus Rashford scoring six times in the past 10 games, it might be wise for Les Rouge-et-Bleu to cancel their Valentine’s Day plans under the Eiffel Tower and rather take a trip to Parys for a boerewors roll.
Next week, match day seven continues with Lyon taking on Barcelona, Liverpool welcoming Bayern München, Atlético Madrid hosting Juventus and Schalke 04 hoping to get one over on Manchester City’s mean machine in Germany.
*All stats were sourced prior to Friday February 8.
Rule changes for Champions League
Uefa approved a few rule changes for the 2018/2019 season. Some have already been implemented while others will only take effect from the start of the knockout phase. Here are the major ones pertaining to the knockout phase of the competition:
- No cup-tied players: Players who moved clubs during the winter transfer window, and who played for another club, even if they are still in the competition, will be allowed to take the field for their new club.
- Fourth substitute: A fourth substitute listed on the match sheet may take part in knockout matches exclusively during extra time.
- More bench depth: Only for the final in Madrid, the two teams will be allowed 23 players (instead of 18 ) on the match sheet. This will allow 12 substitutes (instead of seven) to sit on the bench.
- VAR to be used: The use of Video Assistant Referees will also be used from the round of 16 till the end of the competition.