Basel were faced with an ominous looking group in the earlier stages of this tournament, but to their great credit they qualified for the knockout stages along with Real Madrid. If you’re looking for a measure of their temperament, just think back to their superb display in the final match of the group stage, when they got the point needed against Liverpool to qualify for the last-16.
The Anfield crowd has expedited the wilting of supposedly superior opposition in seasons gone by, but the Swiss champions reveled in it. They silenced the Kop, dictated play and gave a clinic in how to play on the road in Europe; it was another stern indicator that you underestimate this burgeoning group at your peril.
They aren’t potential winners of this competition, though. The Swiss outfit are workmanlike, technical and tenacious in their play, but they’re lacking some star quality in advanced areas to fluster the very best defenses. Men like Marco Streller and Shkelzen Gashi are willing, energetic offensive players, but a scarcity of guile could ultimately prove to be their downfall.
Nonetheless, Paolo Sousa’s side will make things very difficult for Porto in their last-16 tie. If they can shut out the array of offensive talent available to the Portuguese—something their fine organization in the group stages suggests their capable of—then they’ll give themselves a fine chance; making an impact at the other end remains their biggest challenge.
Key Man – Fabian Schar
The defender could well be playing his last season for the Swiss giants and with his contract due to expire at the end of the campaign, a host of high-profile teams are reportedly interested in getting him on board. A look at his displays earlier in the Champions League offer a great insight into why.
Schar is a player who boasts not only fundamental defensive instincts, but an assurance in possession that allows Basel to remain compact opposition. Despite being just 23 years old, he is a commanding presence at the heart of the back-four and a player who will have to be at his studious best if the Swiss champions are going to continue their run in this competition.
Verdict – Last 16: This Basel team showed their mettle when going to Anfield to get the requisite result needed to progress to this stage and subsequently they’re a side that needs to be taken seriously. Porto should just have the edge against them in the last-16, but it’d be no surprise to see this endearing outfit make it to the quarter-finals.
It’s been a season of real potential for Bayer Leverkusen up to this point, but as of yet the Bundesliga club have yet to burst into life in earnest.
They’ve turned in some excellent performances throughout the course of the campaign and their attacking midfield trio of Son-heung Min, Karim Bellarabi and Hakan Calhanoglu possess an exquisite array of attributes, making them a very exciting team to watch. Roger Schmidt hasn’t quite got the balance right yet, though.
For all the attacking flair just mentioned, they don’t have a world-class striker to compliment their attributes. And a little further back in the side, while Lars Bender is an excellent holding midfielder, they don’t have a playmaker of real class to dictate the game and offer a constant outlet at the nexus of the team. In Europe—especially away from home—that’s something that’ll hinder them.
One in area that they do excel in is set-pieces. Calhanoglu is arguably the best dead-ball player in Europe at the moment; he has a sensational delivery and can hit stinging efforts into the top corner from anywhere within 35 yards of goal. That ability is something opposition managers must be wary of when they come up against this Leverkusen team.
Key Man – Lars Bender
The German international remains the heartbeat of this side and is a player who shields the back four with an unflustered distinction. His tireless running, ability to sniff out danger and short, sharp passing make Bender a vital player at the base of this Bayer midfield.
The job carried out by him allows the intricate attacking talents of the aforementioned trio to flourish and up against an unrelenting Atletico Madrid midfield in the last-16 Bender is going to have his work cut out. It’s paramount that he affords his side a sturdy foundation in what will surely be a rumbustious last-16 tie.
Verdict – Last 16: The BayArena is a tough place to visit and Bayer are a side that have plenty of experience when it comes to this stage of the competition. Atletico are top class however and it’s very difficult to see how the Bundesliga outfit can get the better of them. The likes of Son and Calhanoglu would have to beat at their incisive best if they’re to stand any chance.
Earlier in the competition, Bayern Munich turned in one of those performances that makes everyone involved in the game sit up and take note. Pep Guardiola’s men demolished a fine AS Roma side 7-1 at the Stadio Olimpico, going about their business with a swagger that suggests they are ready to regain the title they last won in 2013.
Last season, they looked as though they were going to become the first team to retain the tournament in its current format, but were eventually undone by a supreme counter-attacking display from Real Madrid in the semi-finals. As they plot their route towards the Berlin final this year, they’re looking just as ominous again.
Guardiola’s bespoke mantras are embedded in earnest after a season-and-a-half at the Allianz Arena and the additions made to this team at the start of the campaign have helped bolster a squad that was already bursting with classy. Xabi Alonso in particular has been immaculate at the base of the Bavarians’ midfield.
Assuming they get past Shakhtar Donetsk in the last-16 and into the latter stages of the competition, the biggest challenge facing this Bayern team is maintaining their levels of sharpness. The Bundesliga could well be wrapped up by the time the semi-finals of the Champions League rolls around, but the added personnel should mean all players in all positions remains on their toes.
Key Man – Arjen Robben
While Robben is by no means in the twilight of his career, he’s been on the scene so long that he seems to be almost evergreen. The Dutchman has been a menace to opposing defenses this season and still possesses the blistering dribbling to thrust this Bayern Munich forward or conjure up smidgens of space against packed defenses.
He’s also shed his reputation as a shrinking violet on the big stage and is now very much a big game player. Guardiola will be looking to the winger to haul his team to victories on difficult nights and this talismanic mantle is something that a refreshed Robben should relish as he looks to fire Bayern towards their sixth European Cup win.
Verdict – Winners: The Germans were found out in the latter stages of the competition last season by Real Madrid, but they look like a side refined this campaign. If the Bavarians can preserve their competitive edge in the Champions League they’re the most balanced side in the competition and in Robben, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller, have match-winners aplenty to haul them over the line.
You suspect those who frequent the Westfalenstadion will be delighted to have Champions League soccer back as Borussia Dortmund look to salvage something from the wreckage of their domestic campaign.
Things couldn’t really have gone worse for BVB on the field in the Bundesliga. Jurgen Klopp’s men have flirted with the relegation spots throughout the course of the campaign and although they will surely have far too much to avoid the trap door, the poor form has lead to questions aplenty being asked about the players, manager and their long-term future.
The Champions League was a source of salvation for this team earlier in the season however, as Klopp’s side flourished with the shackles off in Europe. With everything geared towards them succeeding in this competition for the remainder of the campaign, it would no surprise to see Dortmund turn on the style in the last-16 and make an excellent fist of qualifying for the quarter-finals.
There are some worries to be considered ahead of their upcoming clash with Juventus however. Confidence will surely be an issue and there’s a sense that Klopp isn’t quite sure of what his best team is at this juncture. Nonetheless, if it does somehow all fall into place, Dortmund are a side capable of getting past the Italians and making a run for this trophy.
Key Man – Marco Reus
Speculation has raged about the future of the German international forward, but after signing a new contract with the Ruhr club recently, hopefully Reus can concentrate on his soccer in the second half of the season. After all, he’s the player Klopp will look to to galvanize teammates and produce essential moments of class in the opposition third.
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