Well the 16 best teams in Europe have been decided, now we come to the serious part! The weekend (thankfully) is over and today has seen the draw of the first knockout stage of the best competition in the world, the Champions League. With so many strong teams on the continent now, it seems impossible that someone might look at the draw and ever think “oh great, we got the easy draw!” unlike say 10 years ago. But, nonetheless, one must beat whatever is put in front of them, whether people think they’re good or not!
Manchester United vs. Paris Saint-Germain
So I guess I’d better start off with the one I want to talk about the most, my boys, for the first time I recently learnt, are going to be taking on the best the French have to offer (the only decent chance the French have to offer). I was talking to people in the office today and, if I’m honest, there was a raucous cacophony of laughter when I proudly proclaimed “PSG haven’t got a hope in hell of beating us!” But, I digress, there have been better draws for United in the last 16 (Sevilla, here’s looking at you) and we couldn’t even get over that hurdle, even when coming home with a 0-0. This time, we’ll be away second leg and, if their group stage play is anything to go by, Mourinho won’t be in a job much longer after 6th March. Honestly, after yesterday’s performance I’m actually kind of hoping he won’t be there by the time the first leg rolls around…..but that’s a conversation for another post!
PSG managed to keep Liverpool to one shot on target for a whole game, whereas United couldn’t keep them to under 10, so just looking at that would make any fan tremble at the sight of the draw. I, on the other hand, have not completely lost faith yet (don’t ask me how) and so, because it’s the knockout stage where anything can happen, I’m still remaining hopeful that, over two legs, we might be able to produce something special and hope for Porto/Roma in the next round! This is, again, a battle of head versus heart where I want to back my team, but common sense tells me to run and hide….if you check out my last post, you’ll see just who won that. I won’t make any predictions right now as there’s at least a transfer window and 3 months between now and the games so anything I say could be ridiculous, especially if it isn’t Jose at the helm (fingers crossed).
Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich
This, again, is another big game to come out of the last 16 draw. Munich did well to beat Ajax to first place, their last game was an absolute slobber knocker of a match where both could’ve taken first place. Nonetheless, Niko Kovac pulled them through and they’ve made it through to here where, sadly, Arsenal are not awaiting them this year for obvious reasons. Liverpool will prove a much harder task for them and, with Bayern also struggling in the league compared to previous years, they will have to make a hard choice at some point, whether to chase the Champions League glory that so eluded them under Pep, or to try for an 7th straight league title. This is one problem (amongst many) that they didn’t have in previous seasons and it’s going to be one that could well affect them. Between now and March, they have time to work on their league form so that maybe they’ll be on a bit of a morale high when it comes to the knockout stage, but if they were to play tomorrow I wouldn’t give them much of a chance.
Liverpool, diversely, are absolutely killing it this season, they’re top of the league, unbeaten and have just hammered their rivals in the Derby. Klopp, as much as I hate to say it, is working absolute wonders at Anfield. It’s taken him some time to find the perfect combination, but right now he has a deadly attack and a defence that has taken his team to new levels that they couldn’t have hit last season. More than that, he remains a likeable guy, even by me! It’s very rare that a Liverpool manager can even make United fans smile, Benitez didn’t even do it til the very end of his career there and it’s only in recent years that I’ve really grown a respect for Rafa, with my United brain taking rather a while to get over disliking him. Klopp, though, remains a man who can make me laugh and that is all props to the guy: a football genius and a true, all-round good fellow. His team are looking like a reflection of him this season, they are winning people over and showing a calmness under pressure that hasn’t existed at Liverpool for years gone by (can’t go without mentioning THAT slip, sorry can’t help myself). Therefore, for me, Liverpool have got a real edge this season that, if they put to good use, could see them go deep into competitions, I believe Virgil Van Dijk when he says Liverpool can compete on two fronts, lets put it that way!
Tottenham vs. Borussia Dortmund
This is one of the ties I spoke about earlier when I mentioned the strength in depth that the Champions League has got these days. Tottenham have one of their strongest teams in decades, while Dortmund seem to have come through their dizzy post-Klopp phase and look like doing the business again. To be honest, I never knew a lot about Lucien Favre before he took the Dortmund job, other than that he almost took the Everton job a few years back and then almost took Nice into the Champions League – a quality result don’t get me wrong. This time, he seems to have been given a job that has suited him perfectly, I’m sure many reading know of the wonder season Jadon Sancho is having so far, even rightfully playing for England at just 18. In the league, they are barnstorming the Bundesliga, with a goal scoring record (41 in 15 games!) that would put last season’s Liverpool to rights! Therefore, they were always going to be one of the teams that others were looking to avoid but, unfortunately, someone has to get them and this time that unlucky someone is Tottenham.
Totty have been having a fairly decent season it has to be said, they spent nothing in the summer and I predicted that they might struggle this season. In actual fact, despite the lack of reinforcements, they are showing a grittiness and a winning attitude that means they are grinding out results. Point in case, the Burnley game on the weekend where, normally, they would have bottled it against Dyche’s men and maybe even lost! They came through though and are only 6 points off the top two, it could’ve been 3 had they not lost at The Emirates in that wonderful, already-legendary match. Because of this, I reckon they could well be dark horses for the title, should Liverpool and City both have a couple slip ups and given that they should strengthen in January. With a bit more depth, Spurs could definitely compete in this game and even win, they did it last season in the group at least. They almost put out Juve too, so it shows Tottenham have an appetite for doing it on European nights like never before, with Kane surely aching to prove himself properly on the Champions League stage. Right now, I’m still siding a little on Dortmund’s side as they have a bit more pedigree in Europe, but these are two sides who like to play lightning quick, slick football so it could go any way, one of them has to go out for sure!
Manchester City vs. Schalke
Ok, this is probably the one tie here that I can say I probably could predict what’s going to happen. Schalke have done very well to get to this stage, although they came from the group where there wasn’t really a superpower in the mix. They’re not one of the teams that you would pick to be chasing down the Champions League, so I’ll probably go out on a limb here and predict Pep’s City will most likely steamroll them. They’re currently 13th in the Bundesliga and having a horrible season, they are only still in the German Cup by the virtue of penalties and have been hit and miss at best. They’re not exactly favourites for relegation, don’t get me wrong, but City are most definitely on another level to those that Schalke have faced so far. Their coach, Domenico Tedesco before you Google it, was a bit of a left field choice, as he had only ever managed in the second tier of Germany before coming to Schalke and now he’s in the Champions League against Pep Guardiola. He’s part of the new breed of coaches in German football, where it seems they are trying to find the next type of football that’s going to dominate Europe. They are giving big roles to rather unknown coaches, the likes of Nagelsmann being one successful mention, along with giving younger players bigger roles and allowing them to flourish. It may be good for German football’s competitiveness, but I’m not sure it will help make their teams into superpowers yet.
I was talking to a Dutch colleague the other day, where I said that the type of football City are playing right now is reminiscent of the Total Football played by his boys back in his day (he’s a little more senior than I am). He then turned round to me and he said “Nick, Total Football was good, but Guardiola has taken them one step further”, now what better compliment can you give a team other than that? Needless to say, my money is on City in this one.
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