Football Across Europe: February 13-21 | Champions League Edition

2017-2018 UEFA Champions League Round of 16, First Leg

The knockout phase of the 2017-2018 UEFA Champions League is underway, with matches beginning Tuesday, February 13. Even casual sports fans have likely heard the phrase “Champions League,” but the Football Across Europe blog is here to break it down a bit further for the non-football (soccer) fan. The first thing to note is that the Champions League is not a league at all, per se, but a tournament. It is comprised of professional club teams from UEFA member nations (UEFA is the governing body of the European confederation of international soccer). Qualification is based on performance in the previous season’s domestic leagues in each respective nations.

After domestic league play wraps up across in Europe in late spring into early summer, the early stages of the ensuing Champions League competition begin within weeks that same summer, with teams from the lowest-ranked UEFA member nations forced to play through a myriad of qualification rounds.

By late summer into early fall, the qualification rounds are over and the surviving smaller clubs are joined by teams from the powerhouse nations to form a 32-team group stage, a familiar format to anyone who’s watched a FIFA World Cup. The 8 group winners and 8 runners up advance to the knockout phase – or Round of 16 – where the play in a home and home two-legged format against whatever opponent they’re drawn against.

Winners are re-drawn and play in this format all the way through the semifinals, whereupon the winners meet in a one-match final, considered by most to be the highest prize in world club football and the most-watched annual sporting event in the world. It is also financially rewarding, with the prize for a Final victory in excess of €15 million, or over $18 million. Overall, with all rounds’ prize money combined, winning clubs can take home in excess of €50 million ($61m).

Real Madrid from Spain are the two-time defending Champions League winners and also have the most wins overall in the competition with twelve. A.C. Milan of Italy have won it seven times, with Germany’s Bayern Munich, Spain’s Barcelona, and England’s Liverpool all boasting five trophies. The last four have all been won by either Real Madrid or Barcelona and the last English club to win it was Chelsea in 2012, their only win.

We will be breaking down every match through the duration of the tournament, and we’ll continue with the two matches played today (previously played match previews below):

Sevilla vs. Manchester United

Where They’re From: Sevilla FC call the Andalusian capital of Seville in southern Spain home. While perhaps not the giants of Real Madrid or Barcelona, they are older than both of them, having played the first officially recognized professional football match in Spain. They also boast an impressive history, with a league title, five Spanish cups, and a long recent tradition of success in the Champions League’s little brother, the Europa League, which they won three straight times from 2014-2016. They play home matches in Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium and are currently fifth in La Liga. Manchester United scarcely need an introduction but they call the northern English city of Manchester home and play at the famed Old Trafford. They have dominated English football in the modern era, with a staggering 13 Premier League titles since its inception in 1992 and 20 English titles overall, both the most of any English club in history. They sit second in the Premier League currently.

How They Got Here: Sevilla finished in fourth in La Liga last season, which meant they had to get through a playoff round to secure a place in the group stage. They played and beat Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir and secured a spot in Group E with Liverpool, Spartak Moscow, and Maribor. They finished in second with nine points from a possible 18. Manchester United secured a spot in the Champions League group stage by virtue of winning the UEFA Europa League last season. They were drawn into Group A with Swiss regulars FC Basel, CSKA Moscow, and Portuguese side Benfica. They went 5-0-1 to win their group handily.

What to Watch For: Manchester United are clear favorites in this contest and they should be. That said, this contest has some ingredients of the kind of narratives that lead to surprise upsets in tournaments such as these. Much of that has to do with United. White hot out of the gate this season, they are realistically out of the English title race to their fierce rivals Manchester City, and have three teams within four points of them in the table.

Despite being fit, €105 million midfielder Paul Pogba will not feature, adding weight to rumors that he and manager José Mourinho are not seeing eye to eye. The Red Devils are also only 4-3-2 in their last nine league matches. That isn’t terrible form by any means, but for a team with the lofty payroll and expectations of this United squad, it’s also left fans wanting more.

United can win without Pogba, to be sure. They have one of the world’s finest goalkeepers in David de Gea. Ivory Coast international Eric Bailly recently returned from injury and could bolster the United back line. They went out and paid more big money to pry Alexis Sánchez away from Arsenal in January. Summer signing Romelu Lukaku is a striker no defense enjoys seeing on the pitch. A supporting cast that could include Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, or Jesse Lingard provides plenty of firepower. And they play for a manager in Mourinho who has won this tournament twice before.

None of this will be news to Sevilla, who boast no names of such reputation in their squad. They come in having won their last three contests domestically, though obviously against much different competition. But they will also likely not be wide-eyed. This team won the Europa League three straight times before last season, where they made it to the Round of 16 in the Champions League, so European competition is nothing new for them. They will hope that fact as well as playing at home will help them to spring the upset and show that they belong here.

Shakhtar Donetsk vs. A.S. Roma

Where They’re From: Shakhtar Donetsk represent the Ukraine in the Champions League as the only club remaining from the country hosting the tournament final in May. They’re nestled in the city of Donetsk and are in their first season playing in the Metalist Oblast Sports Complex, a 40,000-seat stadium. As 10-time Ukrainian Premier League champions and 11-time Ukrainian Cup winners, there’s no club more synonymous with glory in the country. On the other hand, A.S. Roma has no shortage of competition within Italy’s Serie A league. Along with representing the prestigious city of Rome, they play in the famous Stadio Olimpico. Roma haven’t won Serie A since 2001, but they are consistent contenders domestically.

How They Got Here: After two down years in their domestic league, Shakhtar earned immediate qualification into the group stage of the Champions League by winning the Ukrainian Premier League. They arguably surprised by finishing second in a group containing Manchester City, Napoli and Feyenoord, winning four games and losing two despite finishing with as many goals for as against (nine). One could say that Roma turned some heads en route to the knockout stage as well. They finished second in Serie A last season and topped a group containing Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Qarabag while allowing only six goals in six matches.

What to Watch For: Two of the more defensive-minded sides left in the Champions League will go head to head for two legs of an affair that won’t feature much free-flowing attacking play. Shakhtar Donetsk have navigated their way atop the Ukrainian league again so far in this 2017-18 season largely behind the effort of an impenetrable back line, which has allowed 18 goals in 20 matches. While they’ve also bagged a league-leading 43 goals in that span, they might not have faced as tough of a defensive squad as that of Roma. The Romans have allowed just 19 goals in 25 league matches, and contain the more impressive attacking names of the two with Edin Dzeko and Aleksander Kolarov manning the front. However, stealing the headlines lately has been 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under, who has banged in four goals in his last three games.

 

Chelsea vs. Barcelona:

Where They’re From: Chelsea FC are the current kings of the English Premier League after running away with the 2016-17 title. As one of many iconic football clubs located in the English capital, Chelsea hail from West London and play in the esteemed Stamford Bridge in Fulham. The Blues’ magical 2016-17 season has faded fast, however, as Antonio Conte’s men currently sit fourth in the EPL and are 19 points adrift of runaway leaders Manchester City. Barcelona are also nestled in one of the world’s most popular cities, but have their city’s footballing focus all to themselves. Playing their home matches in the spectacular Camp Nou, Barca endured a tough 2016-17 season but are back on track this campaign; they sit seven points clear atop La Liga, appearing poised for another trophy-filled spring.

How They Got Here: Barcelona’s second-place finish in La Liga last season is undeniably below their lofty expectations, but got them an automatic UCL bid. Starting out in a tough group containing Juventus, Sporting and Olympiacos, Barca only conceded one goal in the group stage and became one of four teams to go undefeated. On the other hand, the Blues achieved qualification through last year’s EPL title but faced plenty of peril in the group stage with two draws and a blowout loss at Roma. However, they still eased through into the knockout stages with a whopping 16 goals.

What to Watch For: Chelsea vs. Barcelona guarantees to be one of the knockout stage’s most dazzling affairs, but one that pegs two clubs who have endured quite the opposite runs of form as of late. The Blues have looked far from their best over the course of 2018, having won just four of their last 12 in all competitions and being outscored 7-1 combined in league defeats to Bournemouth and Watford. They do take a stellar head-to-head record against Barcelona into Tuesday’s fixture, having gone unbeaten against the Spanish giants in seven straight matches including a 2012 semifinal triumph that led to Chelsea winning the Champions League.

However, recent form indicates that trend could very well be bucked by the brilliant Lionel Messi and crew. His Barcelona side have only lost once in all competitions throughout the 2017-18 season, somehow seeming to improve after Neymar’s exodus to Paris Saint-Germain. Messi should once again be hungry to prove his all-time great status against one of England’s marquee clubs, while Luis Suárez’s EPL history has him very familiar with how to thrive against the likes of Chelsea. But for their brilliance, it’s no individual effort that propels Barcelona – instead, they’ve returned to their free-flowing team football that collected so many trophies over the last decade and promises to deliver more to the Camp Nou.

While Chelsea are loaded themselves with quality including the likes of longtime Barcelona target Eden Hazard, they will be hard-pressed to match up personnel-wise against La Blaugrana. The midfield pairing of N’Golo Kanté and Cesc Fàbregas that proved so magical a season ago has lost some of its luster, and Conte’s once impenetrable five-man defensive scheme has been anything but in 2017-18. The Blues will have to hope the back line can play lights out, and will need to procure a mental edge stemming from their recent history of success against Messi, who has failed to score in eight matches against Chelsea.

 

Bayern Munich vs. Besiktas

Where They’re From: Bayern Munich are Germany’s most successful club team in history both domestically and in Europe. They play in the Bavarian capital in the south of Germany with home matches played in the Allianz Arena. They have won the Bundesliga five years running and are cruising to six in a row, a whopping 19 points clear. Besiktas hail from Turkey, where they play their home matches in Vodafone Park in the Besiktas area of Istanbul. They are one of the traditional powerhouses in Turkish football, having never been relegated from the top tier. They are reigning champs but currently sit in fourth.

How They Got Here: Bayern Munich have been the class of Germany for most of the decade and are en route to their sixth straight league title and 28th overall. As such, they qualified directly for the group stage and were drawn into Group B with PSG, Celtic, and Belgian side Anderlecht. Despite finishing level with PSG with an impressive 15 of a possible 18 points, they lost 3-0 to the French side and wouldn’t have touched their staggering +21 goal differential anyway and settled for second. Besiktas also qualified directly for the group stage by virtue of winning the Turkish league title last season. They were drawn into Group G along with FC Porto, German side RB Leipzig, and last season’s French champion Monaco. They went unbeaten at 4-2-0 and won the group four points clear of Porto, allowing only five goals in six matches.

What to Watch For: While Besiktas were impressive in the group stage, this is their first match ever in the Round of 16 and will be heavy underdogs against the giants of Bayern. Bayern have won 19 of their last 20 home matches in Champions League play. Besiktas won all of their away matches in group play, including their last match, and will be hoping that counts for something, though that was back in early December. They are on a seven match unbeaten streak domestically, but were held to a 1-1 draw last Friday.

For the hosts, the only issues facing manager Jupp Heynckes seem to stem from an embarrassment of riches. His world-class first choice goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, is still recovering from a broken foot, but understudy Sven UIreich has handled duties just fine, contributing to 24 wins in the team’s last 25 matches in all competitions.

In attack, Robert Lewandowski is an elite scoring threat, but his supporting cast also has few holes to exploit. With a back line anchored by German international Mats Hummels, Lewandowksi can get support in midfield and attack from the likes of Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben, James Rodríguez, Arturo Vidal, and long-time Germany international Thomas Müller.

Besiktas will no doubt take confidence from their away record in the group stage as well as their overall defensive numbers. But they will need to be at their absolute best against the firepower of their hosts if they are to limit the damage. Any precious away goals would likely be seen as a bonus.

 

FC Porto vs. Liverpool

Where They’re From: FC Porto ply their trade in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, where they are one of three clubs who have remained in the top flight since the league’s inception. They are the second most-decorated team in Portugal. They call the city of Porto home and play in the Estádio do Dragão. They are currently on top of their table and have yet to lose in their league season, taking 55 from a possible 63 points. Liverpool hail, unsurprisingly, from the city of Liverpool in the northwest of England. Though the 21st century has not been as fruitful as the previous, they are one of English football’s true giants. Only Manchester United have won more domestic championships (20) than Liverpool’s 18, though the Reds last won the league in 1989-90, before the current Premier League was formed. They remain the most decorated English club in European play. They play their home matches at Anfield and currently sit third in the Premier League.

How They Got Here: FC Porto finished second in the Primeira Liga last season, qualifying directly for this Champions League’s group stage. They finished second in their group, taking ten points from a group that included Turkish side Besiktas, Germany’s RB Leipzig, and French side Monaco. Liverpool finished fourth in the Premier League last season. They had to survive a play-off round to earn passage to the group stage. They defeated German side Hoffenheim 6-3 on aggregate to advance before being drawn in and winning a group with Sevilla, Spartak Moscow, and Slovenian side Maribor.

What to Watch For: In short: goals. FC Porto are second in their league in scoring and led their group in goals for. Liverpool tallied the second highest goal total of any team in the group stage and only Manchester City have scored more in England. Both squads feature high-powered, electric attacking front lines capable of finding the net. Both teams, however, have also had questions asked of them defensively. Porto have a fine defensive record domestically, but gave up ten goals in the group stage, the second highest total of any advancing team. Liverpool only allowed six goals in six matches in the group stage, but have allowed seven more goals than the next highest total of the top five teams in England.

The main man in attack for FC Porto is Cameroonian striker Vincent Aboubakar, who has 26 goals in 32 matches in all competitions, though he is questionable to play in this first fixture. Though he’s only featured sporadically this season at age 36, FC Porto also feature one of this era’s best goalkeepers in Spanish international Iker Casillas. In a long and storied career at Real Madrid, Casillas won five La Liga titles and three Champions League trophies, establishing himself as one of the greatest goalkeepers of his age.

For Liverpool, much was made of their losing Brazil international Philippe Coutinho in the January transfer window, but all season long their man has been Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah. With 29 goals in 35 appearances in all competitions, he is the focal point of a dangerous Liverpool pressing attack. Defensively, keep an eye on center back Virgil van Dijk. After a clumsy and frustrating pursuit last summer, Liverpool finally got their man in January, and much is expected of the Netherlands international in regard to providing some stability and resolve to Liverpool’s maligned back line.

 

Real Madrid vs. PSG

Where They’re From: Real Madrid are arguably the biggest sport brand in the world. Hailing from Spain’s capital city, they have won La Liga more than any other club and are also the most successful club in European competition of all time. They play in the famous Santiago Bernabéu Stadium which seats over 80,000 fans. They are the reigning La Liga and Champions League champions, though this season has been a disappointment thus far, with the giants currently fourth in the table. PSG, short for Paris Saint-Germain FC, is by most measures the pride of French football. They have never been relegated from France’s Ligue 1 and have the most domestic trophies in history including four straight before finishing second last season. They play home matches in the Parc des Princes in the French capital and are back in their familiar position atop their table, twelve points clear of their closest competition.

How They Got Here: Real Madrid earned automatic UCL qualification by beating Juventus in last year’s final – their second straight and third in the last four years – but Los Blancos would have qualified with last season’s La Liga title regardless. Despite an incredible 2016-17 campaign, Madrid have been far from their best this season. They did manage to advance through a difficult group containing Tottenham Hotspur, Borussia Dortmund and APOEL, but finished second to Spurs and sit a whopping 17 points shy of Barcelona in La Liga. Currently in fourth place domestically, they’re in danger of missing the Champions League altogether next season. On the other side, no club looked as dominant throughout the group stage as Paris Saint-Germain. They won a group boasting the mighty Bayern Munich, Celtic, and Anderlecht while scoring 25 goals and conceding just four in six group-stage bouts. PSG were shockingly beaten in France’s Ligue 1 by Monaco last season, but still easily qualified for the UCL and appear hungry to make up for last season’s nightmarish collapse to Barcelona in this very same round.

What to Watch For: We’re only in the round of 16, but football fans may not see a more scintillating contest throughout the rest of the tournament. The 12-time European Cup champions, Real Madrid has more than enough pedigree, confidence, and skill to make up for a recent dip in form. They have always owned this competition, whether you’re pulling from a recent sample size or in history. But their opponent may have the most eyes on it. PSG has long been a formidable foe in the Champions League, but their gigantic summer acquisitions of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe have thrust them into the forefront of European club football. The domestic French league is no match for PSG this season, leaving the Champions League as the only true barometer to measure their quality.

Real Madrid has the greatest player in Champions League history on their side, forward Cristiano Ronaldo, whose 114 goals in the competition are the most all time. He links up with Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale to formulate an all-time great attacking trio, but albeit one that hasn’t performed up to standard in 2017-18. Madrid’s attackers, fueled by midfielders Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, are notorious for rising to the occasion when the spotlight is brightest, but they’re used to facing outmatched competition at this stage. Will they rise to the level it takes to dissect PSG’s defense?

The other end of the pitch, however, possesses the most compelling matchups. Neymar, Mbappe and striker Edinson Cavani are possibly the world’s best-performing attacking trio this season, but they haven’t faced a back line with half the quality possessed by Madrid. Sergio Ramos and Marcelo will go down as some of the greatest defenders in footballing history, but even they can be susceptible to foes who attack with fluidity and unselfishness. Neymar moved over from Barcelona this summer so that he could be the hero on a stage just like this, and he’s not short on teammates with the skill to complement him. If he happens to fall flat against one of the most vulnerable Real squads we’ve seen in recent times, the criticism will be palpable.

 

Juventus vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Where They’re From: Juventus are the reigning champions of Serie A in Italy, their sixth consecutive league title and 33rd overall. They are, simply put, the class of Italian football right now. They play their home matches in the Allianz Stadium in Turin in the northwest of Italy. They currently find themselves in unfamiliar territory as they are second in the Serie A table, albeit a mere point behind leaders Napoli. Tottenham are based in north London and play their home matches for this season in Wembley Stadium, home to the England national team, while they build a brand new facility on the site of their long-time home White Hart Lane. They currently sit fifth in the English Premier League table.

How They Got Here: Juventus qualified directly for this year’s Champions League group stage by virtue of being Italian champions last season. They had the misfortune of being drawn into the same group as Barcelona, but finished second with 11 points, ahead of Portugal’s Sporting CP and Greek side Olympiacos. Tottenham also qualified directly for the group stage via their second place finish in the Premier League last season. They were drawn into what many considered one of most difficult groups alongside Spanish giants and reigning champs Real Madrid and German side Borussia Dortmund (as well as APOEL FC, champions of Cyprus). But they won their group with all but two of the possible 18 points to advance as group winners.

What to Watch For: Juventus bring to this contest deep Champions League experience and pedigree as regular Italian champions and having reached the Final in two of the last three years. They also boast arguably the era’s greatest goalkeeper in Gianluigi Buffon. He just turned 40, however, though he often makes it hard to believe. Juventus are a squad who traditionally, like the Italy national team, begin their match plan with defense. Though they gave up five goals in group play, three of them were to Barcelona and they have not conceded a goal in 2018 in any competition, winning seven consecutive matches.

They also feature a number of dangerous attacking players, including Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuaín. However, they also carry a number of injuries into this match. Those include key man and fellow Argentina international Paolo Dybala and Colombia international Juan Cuadrado, both of whom are expected to miss the match.

On the opposite side, Tottenham have also been on a roll. They have not lost a match in any competition since mid-December, and that to Premier League leaders Manchester City. They have drawn three of their last seven, but they are coming off a win against fierce rivals Arsenal in a North London Derby this past Saturday.

In attack, the conversation must be about striker Harry Kane. With 32 goals in 33 appearances in all competitions, Kane is considered by some to be the best footballer in the world right now, and his form makes it very difficult to argue. Playmakers in midfield like Dele Alli and Eric Dier give Kane plenty of opportunities. Belgium international and long-time center back Jan Vertonghen and captain / goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, also the captain of the France national team, are at the heart of a Tottenham defense that has only conceded six goals in their last nine league matches.

 

FC Basel vs. Manchester City

Where They’re From: FC Basel are the pride of Switzerland’s club football, having won 20 Swiss Super League titles in the club’s esteemed history. They have claimed eight straight league titles, but are currently sitting second in this season’s domestic campaign. They call the northwestern city of Basel home, the country’s third-largest city that carries past the Swiss borders with France and Germany. They play at St. Jakob Park, Switzerland’s largest stadium that hosted matches during Euro 2008. Manchester City are often dubbed the “little brothers” behind Manchester United within the northern English town, but there’s nothing little about these European giants. One of the world’s richest clubs, City have basically wrapped up the English Premier League title with months left to play as legendary manager Pep Guardiola has transformed Manchester City into one of the most dangerous attacking teams that the sport has seen in several years. Even in the ultra-competitive EPL, The Citizens have the look like they could remain on top for quite some time.

How They Got Here: FC Basel cruised to another Swiss league title last season, etching their place in Group A alongside Manchester United, CSKA Moscow and Benfica. They managed to lose twice in the group stage, but a shock win over United turned heads and helped to advance them into the round of 16. As for Manchester City, they earned an automatic qualification by finishing third in the Premier League last season. Guardiola’s men cruised through the group stage with only one hiccup, having no trouble winning a group that included Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli, and Feyenoord. However, they may have a bad taste in their mouths after rounding out the group stage with a 2-1 defeat to Shakhtar.

What to Watch For: With no disrespect to FC Basel, who are Champions League regulars and a tough out for any foe, they will have to play at their absolute best to have any chance at upsetting Manchester City. They’re currently second domestically behind Swiss club Young Boys, who failed to qualify for the Champions League group stage, while City are 23-3-1 in an English Premier League that has five of the 16 teams left in the CL. It may not be a full “David vs. Goliath” affair, but Basel may face the toughest road to the quarterfinals of any club in the competition.

Manchester City are on pace for the best finish in EPL history behind their unstoppable team attacking play. They have 79 goals in 27 league games, and with an average of 66.5% possession, opponents hardly get the chance to match them on the scoresheet. Sergio Agüero and Raheem Sterling are the usual goal-scoring suspects, but the influence of Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Gabriel Jesus and several other attacking-minded stars make for a cohesive unit that consistently passes the ball with conviction until easy goal-scoring opportunities are presented.

Basel may have the defensive quality to limit City as they’ve only conceded 17 goals in 21 domestic contests, but they’ll need to stay glued to their defensive assignments and must refrain from being caught out of position. Even in the opening leg at home, viewers can expect Basel to play a conservative game in the hopes of preventing City’s quest at an all-important away goal. In their rare counter-attacking opportunities, look for Dutch striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel to push the Manchester City back four and try to get in behind.