The knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League typically churns out some of the most dramatic soccer matches of the entire campaign and we don’t have to wait long until the last-16 gets underway.
This season’s competition is packed with quality, as the remaining sides look to plot their path to the Berlin final on June 6.
Here’s a closer examination of the 16 teams remaining in the tournament, the players set to make a major impression in the latter stages and the view of some of the experts from World Soccer Talk on who will be lifting that iconic trophy at the Olympiastadion.
First, here’s the TV schedule for viewers in the United States for the Round of 16:
Tuesday, February 17
Wednesday, February 18
Tuesday, February 24
Wednesday, February 25
Tuesday, March 10
Wednesday, March 11
Tuesday, March 17
Wednesday, March 18
Encouragingly for Arsenal supporters, Arsene Wenger has started showcasing a willingness to be adaptable in big games this season and that could bode well for them in the Champions League.
Another positive fillip for the Londoners is the draw. This season the Gunners will face Monaco in the last-16 and while they’re a capable, diligent outfit, for Arsenal, facing a team of their calibre will be a welcome change to going up against the might of sides like Bayern Munich. It’d be a major disappointment if they didn’t make it to the quarter-finals.
There are some concerns that do linger when it comes to the Gunners, however. The more polished midfield men—of which Arsenal have plenty—Wenger has in his team, the more they seem to compromise on the defensive principles. Striking that balance between intricacy and industry will be crucial if they’re to progress any further in the competition.
Winning this cup has eluded Wenger throughout his distinguished managerial career and with an ideal draw in the knockout stages, he may not get many better chances of guiding the Gunners to a deep run into the tournament. You suspect they may need a few more favorable strokes of luck if they’re to lift the trophy in June, though.
Key Man – Alexis Sanchez
Since his switch to the Premier League, Alexis Sanchez has thrilled spectators and added an effervescent edge to Arsenal’s attacking play. The Chilean brings goals, creativity, directness and an astonishing work-rate to the Gunners’ attacking line-up and is the kind of player who could carry this team through in difficult circumstances.
Sanchez is a world class talent that bristles with the kind of vim every manager on the planet would love to have in his side. Wenger will be hoping his intensity rubs off on the rest of the team and that the former Barcelona man continues to rack up the numbers in the latter stages of the Champions League.
Verdict – Quarter-Finals: The Gunners should have enough to get past Monaco in the last-16 and if they showcase the kind of cohesiveness that was on display against Manchester City in their 2-0 win in the Premier League, they might go further. But when they come up against the elite sides, they just don’t have the defensive acumen to keep out some of the world-class attackers in this competition.
A remarkable 2013/14 campaign for Atletico Madrid ended on a sour note as they had European glory snatched from their grasp by Sergio Ramos and Real Madrid in Lisbon. Since that disappointment, the club have lost key players and could have faltered, but on the brink of the knockout stages of the Champions League getting underway, they’re flourishing again.
Their 4-0 win over rivals Real in the recent Derbi was as complete a performance as they’ve put in under the tutelage of the eminently ferocious Diego Simeone. And not only did they show off their patented functionality, but an additional panache and swagger to compliment their supreme organization.
Players like Antoine Griezmann and Mario Mandzukic have slotted straight into the heart of this team to give Atletico even more of an incisive attacking edge and they’ve taken on their manager’s bespoke principles with real aplomb. With plenty of the players from last season’s run to the final still intact, they should fancy their chances of going far again.
The versatility they’ve showcased in recent weeks is especially encouraging. Atletico can shut up shop, play on the break and also have the class to completely outplay opponents, just as they did against Real not too long ago. With Simeone’s inspiration and nous on the sidelines, they must be considered as genuine contenders for the title.
Key Man – Diego Godin
Godin is one of the heroes from last season who decided to stick around at the Vicente Calderon despite reported interest from supposedly more illustrious sides and he’s continued to establish himself as one of the finest center-backs in world soccer.
Atletico are a team who are founded on their defensive solidity and Godin’s skills at the back are tantamount to their underpinning fortitude. He’s physically imposing, a superb reader of the game and an astute organizer for Simeone’s side; the Uruguayan also has a desirable trait for notching crucial goals in important matches.
Verdict – Semi-Finals: Atletico will be one of the toughest teams to beat in the latter stages of the tournament and they look to be settling into a superb groove as they gear up for their clash with Bayer Leverkusen. Simeone’s side came so close last season and although some faces from that particular squad have moved on, they’re a side refreshed and one of the favorites again this time.
It’s not been straightforward for Luis Enrique in his tenure as Barcelona boss to date, but with the Champions League looming large, the Blaugrana are looking indomitable once again.
The Blaugrana boss has found a way to accommodate the wide-ranging talents of all three of their star forwards and Lionel Messi in particular is in sparkling form on the right flank. Neymar looks to be growing into the Barcelona jersey and is enjoying a magnificent season on the left-hand side while at the point of the attack, Suarez is a menacing, irrepressible attacking presence.
While the defensive side of this team isn’t quite comparable to the very best in the competition, it’s a lot better than than general consensus dictates. Gerard Pique is playing superbly after a rocky start to season and he’s flanked by the eminently energetic Dani Alves and Jordi Alba. At the base of the midfield, Sergio Busquets remains a serene, steadying influence too.
Enrique was under a lot of pressure at the start of 2015 but to his immense credit, Barcelona have turned things around under his watch. They’re playing some of their best soccer in years on the brink of their clash with Manchester City and look primed for an overdue deep run into the latter stages of the Champions League.
Key Man – Lionel Messi
The genial Argentine has been shining in a role from the right flank and in 2015 he’s been bagging goals and assists aplenty. Messi may not be involved in the game quite as much from this new position, but when he does get on the ball, it’s in space and time to make a real impact on proceedings.
Messi has the class to drag this team far in the competition and if he turns on the style like he has done already this year, Barcelona have a fine chance of glory. The Argentina man looks galvanized and ready to win this competition for the fourth time in his decorated career.
Verdict – Runners Up: After a difficult start to the season Barcelona are in blistering form and Messi is back at full tilt. The effervescent attacking triumvirate could take this team to the final of this competition but the perennial issues at the back will ultimately prevent them from lifting a coveted fifth European Cup.
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