Champions League Knockout Stage Preview, Part 2
The first half of the Champions League Round of 16 is underway, and we had some exciting and shocking results in the first four matches. Now, we turn our attention towards the other half of the first-leg ties, as the two heaviest favorites to win the competition begin their journey through the knockout stages.
Join us as we break down the four matchups taking place on Feb. 23 and 24 (with the return legs being played March 16 and 17), and tell you who is most likely to advance to the quarterfinal round.
La Liga is seeing a potential change of the guard, as Atletico Madrid are now the pacesetters in Spain. Six points clear of Real Madrid with a match in hand, they have lost just once in 22 league matches, and their typically stellar defense has conceded just 14 goals in league play.
After falling 4-0 to Bayern Munich to open their group stage play, Atletico Madrid went unbeaten in the next five to secure qualification. One concern for the club is their recent struggles at the back, having conceded eight goals in their last six matches with no clean sheets.
Meanwhile, Chelsea have turned their fortunes around after the appointment of Thomas Tuchel, moving back into the fight for next year’s Champions League spots with a run of five consecutive victories across all competitions. He has yet to lose as manager of the Blues, and the defense has improved under his hand, keeping five clean sheets in his six matches in charge.
The first leg has been moved to Bucharest, Romania due to COVID-19 regulations by the Spanish government, much to the chagrin of Atletico’s leadership. Furthermore, forward Yannick Carrasco may miss at least the first meeting with an injury to his left leg. Given Chelsea’s resurgence under Tuchel, combined with Atletico’s recent struggles at the back and the possible absence of Carrasco, I give Chelsea the slight edge to advance in this one.
Bayern Munich are the favorites to win the Champions League, and with good reason.
Last year’s trophy-holders have not lost a step this season, as they sit five points clear of the league atop the Bundesliga table, with a whopping plus-32 goal differential. They have now won 16 of their last 17 matches in the Champions League, scoring at least twice in 15 of those outings, after winning five of their six group-stage matches.
Meanwhile, Lazio also went unbeaten in the group stage, but only two of those six matches resulted in wins. Their domestic form has been stellar since the calendar flipped over, with six wins and a draw in eight Serie A matches in 2021. The only defeats in their last 10 are to AC Milan and Inter Milan, the top two teams in the league.
Despite that run of form, Bayern Munich are a machine the likes of which Lazio will struggle to contain. The Bavarians will be without RB Benjamin Pavard due to COVID-19, which means Joshua Kimmich may have to shift from the midfield. Still, that simply won’t be enough of a speed bump to slow down the Germans on their way to the quarterfinal round.
Real Madrid are strongly favored to advance in this one, but it’s possible the lines have not caught up to the team news just yet.
Los Blancos are mired in a severe injury crisis, as striker Karim Benzema was injured in training on Friday and might miss the first leg. As of Saturday morning, the club have just 11 senior outfield players fit for their weekend match with Real Valladolid. Among those missing are defenders Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, and Eder Militao, while star forward Eden Hazard and dynamic midfielder Valverde is also missing.
Atalanta will be keen to capitalize on the situation. Currently sitting seventh in Serie A, the club is just three points back of third place despite a dip in form over the past month that has seen them win just four of their last nine matches.
However, they have lost just one match in all competitions over their last 19, spanning to late November. The departure of star attacker Papu Gomez – sold in January after a falling out with the manager – has not yet been terribly felt, as the Italian side has scored three or more goals in four of their last seven matches.
Benzema has scored in three of Madrid’s last four wins in league play, and his 12 goals in La Liga are eight more than anybody else on the team has recorded this season. He also scored four of their 10 goals in the group stage. While they have been able to overcome the injuries at the back, they have no replacement for the French striker.
Look for Atalanta to take advantage of Madrid’s misfortune and deliver a shock upset in the Round of 16.
Perhaps the most sesquipedalian matchup in Champions League history, the unstoppable force that is Manchester City will square off with a Monchengladbach side that currently sits 16 points off the Bundesliga summit in seventh place.
The German side endured a rough month of December, in which they enjoyed just one victory in seven matches across all competitions. Three points from a possible twelve in Bundesliga play saw them drop like a rock down the table, but now they are in another spell that has seen them take just two points from their last three matches. They have kept only two clean sheets in their last eight matches across all competitions.
Meanwhile, Manchester City have won a staggering 17 consecutive matches across all competitions, and have not tasted defeat since November. They have conceded only six goals during their win streak. In the 24 matches since their defeat to Tottenham, they have yet to concede multiple goals.
Manchester City are prohibitive favorites to advance for a reason. This should be a cakewalk with little value for bettors in regards to who will move onto the quarterfinals, but there is some value to be found in the individual matches.