The first legs of every last-16 Champions League tie were concluded this week and we’re beginning to establish a clearer picture of who looks likely to be challenging for the European Cup come the final in Lisbon on Saturday May 24.
After the first four games saw no goals for any of the home sides, those teams on their own patch were able to fare slightly better this time round. But not by much.
On Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund produced a scintillating attacking display to beat Zenit St. Petersburg 4-2 at the Petrovsky Stadium, whilst Olympiacos became the first team to win a home game in the knockout stages, as they triumphed 2-0 over an out-of-sorts Manchester United.
On Wednesday, we were treated to six of the best from Real Madrid as they smashed Schalke 6-1 at the Veltins Arena thanks to braces from Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. In Wednesday’s other game, Galatasaray recovered from an early setback to draw 1-1 with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team.
With some ties in the balance and a few seemingly done and dusted, here’s what we learned from this week’s four last-16 games with a little glance towards the quarterfinals and beyond…
Dortmund The “Liverpool” Of The Champions League?
A side who are blistering in attack but prone to defensive wobbles? Dortmund certainly fit the bill in that respect, and there are plenty of comparisons to draw between their Champions League challenge and Liverpool’s free-spirited assault towards the Premier League title.
Dortmund flew out of the traps in this one, catching Zenit completely off guard with two goals in the opening five minutes. But instead of commanding the game and staying solid from that point on, Jurgen Klopp’s team kept giving the hosts hope.
Zenit made it 2-1 before Robert Lewandowski re-established BVB’s two-goal lead. But even then they failed to learn their lesson, as Dortmund conceded a penalty in the second half that Hulk tucked away. Luckily for them, it was Lewandowski to the rescue again to immediately restore their two-goal advantage.
In an attacking shootout, Dortmund can go toe-to-toe with anyone. Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Lewandowski are all exceptional goalscorers and with that firepower at hand, they will surely put this tie to bed in the home leg. Looking ahead, they’re capable of going away from home and scoring goals anywhere, which certainly gives them a chance of matching last season’s final appearance.
But injuries have hampered them defensively and Klopp has been unable to name a settled back-four throughout the entire season. The injury to Sven Bender is another major defensive blow and lack of defensive solidity will ultimately cost them in their attempts to go one better than last year.
United Can Progress, But Have No Chance Of Winning The Tournament
It’s been a season of unprecedented lows for Manchester United, but their 2-0 defeat to Olympiacos plunged them into new depths. They showcased no cohesiveness, no quality and no confidence before the raucous home crowd, and the Greek champions will take a deserved 2-0 lead to Old Trafford.
It’s not an ideal situation for David Moyes and his team, but it’s not beyond reprieve. Olympiacos are not a great side and away from the cauldron-like atmosphere of their own stadium, they will certainly be there for the taking.
But perhaps it would be something of a blessing for United supporters if they were knocked out. Because even if they can conjure up a 3-0 win at Old Trafford, there is no chance of them winning this competition. After they were taken to task by arguably the weakest team remaining in the competition, can you imagine what a team like Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Barcelona would have done to them? Things would get very embarrassing very quickly for the Red Devils.
Of course, a strong performance at home is a must in the second leg, but this season is fast reaching unretrievable status for Moyes and Manchester United.
Galatasaray Can Trouble Chelsea At Stamford Bridge
After an early tactical blunder that saw Roberto Mancini’s Galatasaray side employ a ridiculously high defensive line, the Turkish champions acquitted themselves well against Chelsea. They switched to a 4-5-1 system early in the first half and after that alteration, they were much more cohesive and energetic.
There are two qualities that the Turkish side must carry through into the second leg, where Chelsea remain big favorites to go through. If Galatasaray drop off in the middle of the park and allow Chelsea midfield players time on the ball, then the likes of Frank Lampard and Oscar will pick passes in behind that ropey and somewhat ponderous back-line all evening.
The key for the Turkish champions will be preserving that defensive solidity whilst trying to score themselves. With the tie poised at 1-1, they know they have to breach the Chelsea back-line once again and will have to strike a balance between their attacking and defensive play.
It’ll be tough, but with firepower that includes Burak Yilmaz, Wesley Sneijder and former Chelsea man Didier Drogba, they might just fancy their chances of sneaking through at the Bridge. Expect another tight affair in the second leg of this tie.
Ancelotti Stamp Clear On Magnificent Real Madrid
Naturally, after a 6-1 win much of the post-match discussion will center around the goalscorers. And yes, Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema were all magnificent as they grabbed two goals a piece. But Carlo Ancelotti deserves huge credit for the way this side is playing.
The former AC Milan boss has fashioned a 4-3-3 system that facilities the talents of the aforementioned trio as well as a midfield triumvirate of Angel Di Maria, Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso. The former, in particular, has performed magnificently in a central role and was arguably the best player on the park against Schalke.
Since fashioning this system, Real Madrid have stormed to the top of La Liga and will glide into the quarterfinals of the European Cup. The team seems to be blossoming at the perfect time and they look set to finish the season with an extravagant flourish.
They have so many players who can turn a game in a flash, but perhaps most importantly when it comes to the UEFA Champions League, they have Ancelotti. He’s seen it al in this competition and whilst his influence will remain typically understated, the Italian might just be the key in guiding Real Madrid to their tenth European Cup crown.
Be sure to check out our team-by-team guide of every team in the last 16 ahead of the second legs here.
What did you think of this week’s games in the Champions League? Let us know in the comments section or get in touch with me on Twitter @MattJFootball.