The Champions League is back in earnest after the first-legs of the opening four knockout ties were played this week. As is typically the case with Europe’s premier club competition, we’ve already had our fair share of quality, controversy and confusion just a quarter of the way through the last 16 games.
These first-leg encounters can often set a positive or perennial precedent for the remainder of the competition. So bearing that in mind, let’s run the rule over each of the ties played this week and see what we can accrue from the infancy of these knockout stages.
On Tuesday, the Swedes took centre stage: Manuel Pellegrini lamented the appointment and subsequent performance of referee Jonas Eriksson as his side lost 2-0 to Barcelona. In the other tie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic stole the show in PSG’s 4-0 win in Leverkusen after yet another clinic in classy centre-forward play.
Wednesday’s fixtures saw Bayern Munich run out 2-0 winners against ten-man Arsenal, with both teams missing a first half penalty. At the San Siro, Atletico Madrid reaffirmed their status as the “fighters” of the last 16 with hard-earned 1-0 win against AC Milan.
Here are a few things to take from these opening four games:
Reports Of A Barcelona Demise Are Premature
Leading up to this one, much of the pre-match discussion centred on Jose Mourinho’s comments (not like him to get involved, is it?) that this was the “worst Barcelona team in years”. Granted, the aura of invincibility that was so prominent during the tenure of Pep Guardiola has waned, but they remain a high calibre outfit as they demonstrated here with emphatic conviction.
Their performance against City wasn’t mesmeric, but it was ruthless and efficient. They kept City at arm’s length and when the situation demanded, they injected a devastating impetus and incisiveness into their play.
It’s not through blind luck that they have reached the semifinals of this competition for six consecutive campaigns and it’s easy to disregard just how influential players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Dani Alves really are, not to mention their familiarity and experience when it comes to these two legged ties.
Plus, in Lionel Messi they have a player who’s not only supremely talent, but looks mentally and physically refreshed since returning from injury.
They may not be the unstoppable force of yesteryear and they’ll certainly give opposition teams chances, but it’s going to take a couple of excellent performances from a very, very good side to stop La Blaugrana reaching at least the semifinals again this season.
City Still Have Plenty Of Maturing To Do
Of all the challenges that face a team on an upward curve — something Manchester City can certainly relate to — the Champions League remains the most longstanding and truest litmus test of progression. The whole tournament is an education for teams; from the qualifying phases, the group stages and the knockout rounds. This was City’s maiden appearance in the latter and it showed both on and off the pitch.
On the pitch, they were doing well against Barcelona, but there was a sense the team from Catalonia had gears to move through if required. Without Sergio Aguero, you couldn’t really say the same for City. The Manchester outfit looked a little overawed by the occasion in the opening exchanges and whilst they went on to establish a foothold in the contest, they never really managed to puncture the Cules back-line. On reflection, Barca keeper Victor Valdes only made one real save of note during the 90 minutes.
After the game too, the manager and captain revealed some uncharacteristically tempestuous quips. Vincent Kompany’s claim that Barcelona were “there for the taking” was a little misguided whilst Pellegrini’s castigation of the officials was just plain bonkers. But City have a progressive, forward-thinking set-up and will surely reflect on this defeat in a positive light once their immediate frustrations have petered out.
They must learn from this knock and seek to benefit from the experience with many more European campaigns an inevitability in years to come.
Zlatan And PSG Are Genuine Contenders For The Title
The notion that the Parisians can challenge for the European crown has not been formulated off the back of their 4-0 win in Leverkusen — lets not forget Manchester United won 5-1 at the BayArena — but it’s a result that compounds their standing as one of the most talented teams in this competition.
Laurent Blanc has a spine of players to be envied. They are superbly organized and in Zlatan, PSG have a player capable of conjuring up match-winning moments with metronomic consistency.
In our preview of the knockout stages, we predicted PSG would go all the way to the final. And with Yohan Cabaye finding his feet after his January move from Newcastle United and Edinson Cavani likely to be back for the second leg against Leverkusen, they are beginning to look more and more like the real deal.
They’re better equipped for an assault on the Champions League last season’s quarterfinal experiences — City might want to take note — and with a crop of players growing into a cohesive outfit seemingly on a game-to-game basis, the French champions will have a major say in the destination of this season’s European cup.
Bayern Still The Team To Beat
In a game comparable to Manchester City’s 2-0 defeat against Barcelona, Bayern Munich ran out winners by the same score at the Emirates. And whilst the Gunners caught Bayern on the hop in the opening exchanges, the German and European Champions grew into the contest in unerringly inevitable fashion.
The move from Pep Guardiola at half-time to bring Philipp Lahm into midfield and put Rafinha on at right-back was inspired, as die Bayern constantly overloaded Arsenal’s left-hand side; Mesut Ozil offering Nacho Monreal as much defensive support as a sodden paper bag.
Granted, Bayern played against ten men for long spells, but the manner in which they stretched the pitch and worked their opponents was a magnificent example in how to play against a side that are looking to sit in. Toni Kroos passed the Gunners into submission — he completed 147 passes — and his excellent showing was matched by Arjen Robben’s exhilarating wing-play, with the Dutchman’s intelligent positioning bamboozling Monreal in the second period.
At 2-0, the tie looks done and dusted. It’s going to take something extraordinary for Bayern to let that lead slip on their own patch, and on this showing, perhaps something just as extraordinary if they are to relinquish their grip on that European Cup.
Unfair To Brand Atletico “Dark Horses”?
Diego Simeone’s side struggled to get going against Milan in the San Siro, but their unyielding spirit and composure helped them notch a vital late winner. Diego Costa bagged yet another crucial goal for his team, and they’ll be hugely confident of seeing the job through at the Calderon in the second-leg.
Despite their domestic heroics, Atletico aren’t really viewed as genuine contenders for the Champions League crown. “Dark horses”? Perhaps. But after this recent result, is that a little unfair?
Granted, they were playing a Milan side short on quality and bereft of confidence. But the Italians played well in the first leg and Atletico dug in. You can guarantee that if any of the competition’s elite sides had chiselled out a 1-0 win in such circumstances, then it would have been banded as the hallmark of “potential champions”.
This Rojiblanco side have showcased throughout this campaign that they are no flash in the pan. If they do go on to reach the quarterfinals of the competition for the first time since 1997, then perhaps people will start to take “Cholo” Simeone’s side a little more seriously. It’d certainly be a crass error of judgement to write them off.
Be sure to check out our team-by-team guide of every team in the last 16 ahead of next week’s games here.
What did you think of the resumption of the Champions League? Let us know in the comments section or get in touch with me on Twitter @MattJFootball.