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.
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.
Fitness has been a big problem for Reus so far this season and his regular injury layoffs have been a big contributor to the club’s abject domestic form. But when he’s fit and firing, Dortmund have a world-class forward on their hands and someone who can breath fresh initiative into this toiling season.
Verdict – Last 16: The Champions League has been a small fillip of positivity in a horrendous season for Klopp’s side and although they shone in the group stages of the competition, Juventus are a team that will expose their flaws in earnest in their last 16 clash.
There’s something rather ominous about this Chelsea team. A year-and-a-half on from taking the reins at Stamford Bridge for the second time, Jose Mourinho’s principles are well established, the personnel in the squad is of the highest calibre and that unerring knack of how to win matches even though they aren’t at their free flowing best is becoming increasingly prevalent.
The Blues are a balanced group and while the aesthetic abilities of Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, Oscar and Willian make them great to watch, they are unyieldingly uncompromising in their defensive duties too. John Terry is a player reborn under the Portuguese’s tutelage and in Thibaut Courtois they have one of Europe’s finest goalkeepers.
Mourinho knows exactly what it takes to win this competition too. Having triumphed in Europe’s top tier competition with both Porto and Internazionale, he’s a boss who can steer his side through the unforgiving final rounds; you suspect that a European Cup triumph with the Blues would surpass those previous successes.
Any weaknesses? The team isn’t quite as irresistible as it was earlier in the season and Mourinho’s notoriety for working with a small squad could could leave the Blues a little fatigued, especially given they’re still fighting on three different fronts. But if Chelsea have a sharp, stocked squad, they are amongst the big favorites to sample glory in Berlin.
Key Man – Diego Costa
Love him or loathe him, there are not many supporters who would decline the chance to have the tumultuous centre-forward in their squad. Costa has been a magnificent signing for the Blues this season, with his rough and tumble brand of centre-forward play giving Chelsea a completely different edge to their attacking forays.
The gusto he demonstrates on a weekly basis is complimented by some forensic finishing in front of goal too and in tight games his predatory instincts will be so important for this Blues team. After coming so close to winning this competition last season, the Spanish international will be insatiable in his intentions to sample glory with the Londoners.
Verdict – Semi-Finals: Chelsea were in sensational form at the start of the campaign and while they’re romping clear atop of the Premier League, some minor cracks have appeared in recent weeks. They’re a tremendous team, but if they draw one of the elite sides early, even Mourinho could find it difficult to drag them to the title.
After a turbulent qualifying campaign, Juventus eventually progressed from a difficult group stage. Now the onus will be on this established side to make a long overdue impression in the knockout stages of this competition.
The Bianconeri have dominated things on the domestic front for the last three-and-a-half seasons and look set to win a fourth successive Scudetto this year. With that in mind, it’s little surprise that the supporters of this great soccer club are hungry for victory on the European landscape, especially when they have a team capable of delivering.
Not only do Juve have classic Italian solidity at the back, but their midfield four can rival any side in European soccer and leading the line is Carlos Tevez, who is enjoying something of a renaissance in Serie A. All the components are there for a potential championship-winning side, but there are some intangible concerns that linger ahead of their clash with Borussia Dortmund.
Most of them centre around the mental state of this team. Most of this group have yet to flourish in the latter stages of the competition and in Massimiliano Allegri the Bianconeri possess a manager that has yet to guide a team into the latter stages of this tournament.
Key Man – Paul Pogba
The Frenchman has been in simply ridiculous form since the turn of the year, enhancing his reputation from potential superstar to thoroughbred world-class midfield man. He’ll be at the heart of the Bianconeri efforts and has the ability to turn a game with a moment of sheer genius.
Pogba has so much to his game and his fearless approach should serve Juve well as they go in search of what’d be their third European Cup triumph. Whether bossing the midfield with his brute physicality or incomparable poise, the young man is a player very difficult to nullify and someone capable of inspiring this Juventus side to great things.
Verdict – Quarter-Finals: The players are there for Juventus to be one of the dark horses for this title and a last-16 win over Borussia Dortmund should give this group some impetus going into the quarter-finals. But you just wonder whether they are streetwise enough in the Champions League to get any further than that.
A cornerstone win over AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico suggested that Manchester City have finally sussed out how to play on the road in the Champions League, but things haven’t been going particularly well for Manuel Pellegrini’s team as of late.
Injuries to key players have shunted their form in the Premier League, as has the loss of Yaya Toure on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations. But with their midfield star back in the fold, Sergio Aguero beginning to find form and Wilfried Bony on hand to lend some support in attacking areas, positive times don’t look too far away for this group.
The clash with Barcelona gives City a fine chance to avenge their loss to the Catalonians at this stage last season and they’ll take some encouragement from the fact that they were in with a chance in both clashes. But they’ll have their work cut out this time against a Blaugrana team that are in sensational goalscoring form.
For City, the game at the Etihad Stadium is vital to their chances of progression; the win over Bayern Munich in the group stages gave us an emphatic indication of what the home crowd can do for this team. With memories of that evening still relatively fresh, the City supporters—who have been previously nonplussed by the Champions League—should conjure a cracking evening.
Key Man – David Silva
The Spanish maestro knits everything together during City’s attacking ventures forward. If they’re to get at the Barcelona back-line, his ability to pick pockets, thread dangerous passes into the box and jink past opponents with his patented panache will be the catalyst.
Silva is the kind of player who could easily slot into this Barcelona team and with the Catalonians likely to dominate possession in both legs, it’s imperative that City’s midfield star make the most of his time on the ball. The Etihad faithful will be hoping he turns it on and pushes them towards a quarter-final berth.
Verdict – Last-16: Pellegrini showed a willingness to be adaptable in the Champions League in the group stages, but a draw against Barcelona represents one of the most difficult in the entire competition. City are making strides when it comes to the Champions League, but they haven’t made quite enough to best a side of the Blaugrana’s pedigree.
There will have been sighs of relief in unanimity from the Emirates when Arsenal were pitted against Monaco in the last-16 of the competition, but to dismiss the principality club out of hand would be extremely premature.
There’s little denying that this Monaco team are worse off without the creative talents of James Rodriguez and the forensic finishing of Radamel Falcao, but they’re a side who still boast some classy operators. If anything, the sale of the aforementioned pair has made them a more organized unit and that’s something Arsene Wenger and his team must be wary of.
Indeed, no team in Ligue 1 has a better defensive record than Monaco, it’s the other end of the pitch that they’re having problems. So far they have only been able to bag 25 goals in 24 league games and with players like Dimitar Berbatov, Joao Moutinho and Lacina Traore in situ, that’s simply not enough.
They are a team that could definitely spring a surprise, though. Monaco have the defensive acumen to go to the Emirates and frustrate Arsenal, but it’s vital they discover an attacking edge to compliment their underpinning fortitude.
Key Man – Joao Moutinho
Moutinho is the most talented player in this squad and a midfield who has the cutting edge to unlock even the most stringent of defenses. The Portuguese playmaker isn’t enjoying the best of campaigns, but at this stage of the competition Leonardo Jardim will be looking to him to carry this team to a pair of important performances.
Monaco probably won’t get much of the ball in the two matches, so it’s crucial it’s recycled well by the talented midfield trio of Moutinho, Jeremy Toulalan and Geoffrey Kondogbia. But it’s the former who boasts that little bit of magic needed and he must show it against the Gunners if his team wants to make it into the last eight.
Verdict – Last-16: This tie certainly won’t be a cakewalk for Arsenal, but Monaco look poised for a narrow defeat over the two legs. They’ll contain the Gunners and will be tough to beat, but their performances in Ligue 1 and Europe this season suggest they won’t have quite enough in their offensive play to get the better of the Londoners.
Last season, Paris Saint-Germain looked as though they were primed to launch a major assault towards European glory and although they spent big last summer, their chances of success sadly look a little slimmer this season.
On the domestic front the French champions have been a far cry from their free-flowing best. Laurent Blanc is striving for a balance between the attacking talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, Lucas Moura et al and consequentially they’ve had some big problems when it comes to consistency in Ligue 1.
The Champions League has yielded some encouraging signs however. PSG qualified from a tough group with ease and their 3-2 victory over Barcelona at the Parc des Princes in this season’s competition showed that this is a group of players capable toppling anyone when they click. But there seems to be a lack of clear strategy when playing on the road.
They’ll have the chance to avenge last season’s quarter-final loss to Chelsea when they square off in the first knockout round of matches, but while the Blues are a dramatically improved outfit, the Parisians are still searching for their mojo.
Key Man – Blaise Matuidi
A loss of form and fitness have diminished Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s influence this season, but in the heart of the PSG midfield, Matuidi is growing into just as critical a player. The Frenchman is unrelenting industrious, ferocious in the tackle and is showcasing a burgeoning responsibility to take responsibility with the ball at his feet.
Against Chelsea’s clutch of exquisite midfield men, Matuidi’s ability to close off spaces and physically impose himself will be the hallmark of a potential PSG victory. Some top quality performances would further enhance the player’s burgeoning reputation as one of European soccer’s best central midfielders.
Verdict – Last-16: Sadly, PSG look as though they’ll have to wait another year at least to sample Champions League glory. The Blues are in formidable fettle and the Parisians remain a potentially brilliant but wholly inconsistent team; it’s going to take a staggering turnaround in fortunes if the French champions are going to get through this tie.
In what looked like a very even Group H on paper, Porto emerged as the superior side in the group, winning four and drawing two of their matches. Their reward for topping the group is a very winnable last-16 tie with Basel and there will be sense amongst the group that this is a squad with a chance of making a surprise deep run.
Julen Lopetegui has a host of capable players at his disposal and although there aren’t many star names in the group, Porto boast plenty of pace, skill and tons of energy. If the Dragoes can add some organization to compliment these desirable attributes then they should surge into the quarter-finals and from that point on, anything is possible.
It’s something this club knows more than most after they unexpected hoisted this trophy aloft 11 years ago and although they’d be one of the weakest teams on paper in the last-eight, Porto are a team that have the requisite class to capitalize should any opponents take a complacent approach to their tie.
First they have to get past Basel and like the Portuguese giants, the Swiss club are a team looking to spring a shock in this competition. The attacking prowess of Jackson Martinez, accompanied by the likes of Cristian Tello and Yacine Brahimi should give Porto, but Lopetegui hasn’t instilled the defensive cohesion required for them to be considered as dark horses for eventual glory.
Key Man – Jackson Martinez
This Porto team is bristling with intricate, incisive players, but the burly Colombian forward gives them a completely different option in the attacking third. Martinez’s hold-up play is refined, his utilization of space is astute and in front of goal, he’s expertly clinical.
There are a host of top Premier League clubs reportedly tracking the Porto man and with the creativity supplying him he should get plenty of opportunities against Basel. If the Portuguese club are to progress beyond the last-eight, Martinez must provide an immaculate foil for those around him and gobble up clear chances that come his way.
Verdict – Quarter-Finals: Getting past Basel and into the last-eight would represent a major achievement for this Porto team. If they do get past the Swiss champions there will be dreams of replicating their astonishing feat of 11 years ago, but the Dragoes don’t have the quality required to make it to the semi-finals.
The reigning champions were in a sensational spell at the back end 2014, but as Real Madrid get set to defend their title, some cracks are starting to appear for manager Carlo Ancelotti.
Admittedly, it doesn’t take much to plunge Real Madrid into apparent crisis, but the concerns that were conjured in the aftermath of their 4-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid are serious. The lack of endeavor, diligence and classy personnel in defensive positions were stark, and it’s certainly something the rest of Europe’s elite will have taken notice of ahead of potential meetings.
If they can recapture the swagger that was on show during the aforementioned 22-match winning run then they’re going to be very tough to stop. Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema combined to devastating effect during that stunning spell and Ancelotti will be desperate for the former to rediscover the stratospheric goalscoring feats that were on show earlier in the season.
Real will be looking to add another history-making chapter to their European Cup history by becoming the first side ever to retain the Champions League in its current format. But history dictates—as does sagging form and an ever-increasing injury list—that they may find it difficult to triumph once again.
Key Man – Cristiano Ronaldo
While he’s not quite at his peak form at the time of writing, Ronaldo has cemented his status as the world’s finest footballer with some stunning displays this season. His prolific goalscoring earlier in the campaign bordered on ridiculous and if he can replicate that in the latter stages of the Champions League, Madrid have a great chance.
Ronaldo came into his own at vital times for Los Blancos during their run to the final last season and with key players currently suffering with injury problems, the onus will be firmly on him to shine again. It’s a spotlight that the Portuguese sensation typically relishes.
Verdict – Quarter-Finals: The reigning champions should have more than enough to get past Schalke, but if they run into a top side in the quarter-finals they could be in line for a shock exit. They have quality, but an industrious, energetic side like Atletico, Bayern or Chelsea would have too much for Real in their current form.
After going up against a formidable Real Madrid team in the last-16 in the previous campaign, Schalke’s Champions League hopes were abated in a flash. They lost 6-1 to the eventual winners in front of their own supporters in the first-leg, but they have a chance to gain a degree of revenge when they face the same opponents at the same stage this season.
A year on, is there much that suggests they have a better chance? Well, this time round they have a manager who has won this competition in Roberto di Matteo; his experience and know-how will surely give Schalke more of a fighting chance this time round.
The Ruhr club are an inconsistent side, though. They’ve not been able to put together a sustained run of positive results as of yet in the Bundesliga and injuries to key players have sapped momentum from the team at decent times. Schalke do boast some talents Real must be wary of though, especially Cameroonian forward Eric Choupo-Moting.
If they can somehow can past Real, this is a team that could thrive off the momentum accrued. The home leg is going to by absolutely vital for Di Matteo’s team and it’s paramount they bring their very best if they’re going to head to the Santiago Bernabeu with a fighting chance of qualifying for the next round.
Key Man – Benedikt Howedes
While Di Matteo has tinkered with the personnel in his first XI during his relatively brief tenure, Howedes’ influence typically makes an immovable figure. The World Cup winner is an adaptable defender, and whether he plays as centre-back, right-back or left-back, the German does an exceptional job.
Howedes is superb at protecting his penalty box, aggressive in the tackle and a defender who can bring the ball out, setting attacks in motion for this Schalke team. His organizational skills and fundamental defensive abilities must come to the fore if the Germans are going to nullify the stunning firepower boasted by Real Madrid.
Verdict – Last-16: Schalke simply haven’t showcased the requisite consistency to get the better of Real Madrid and as the group stages illustrated—they lost 5-0 against Chelsea at home—against the very best sides they can occasionally cave in. Expect them to make a better fist of things than last season, but to come up short for the second successive year.
Despite routinely selling off their best talents at the end of every season, Shakhtar Donetsk are a team have been an eminent presence in the Champions League. But a combination of these players setting off for pastures new and perennially poor away form has prevented this team from making a major impression at the sharp end of the competition.
As they get set to face German juggernauts Bayern Munich in the last-16 this time round, it’d be fair to say that little has changed. The Ukrainians showcased some outstanding firepower in the group stages—they bagged 12 goals in two games against BATE Borisov—but against the better opposition, they struggled to preserve that kind of cutting edge.
Eventually they finished in second place behind Porto in what was an admittedly weak Group H, but Shakhtar will be tough opposition to best in the last-16. When the team’s attacking quartet clicks into gear, they’re capable of scything through even the most stringy of defenses.
It’s doubtful that they’ll be able to keep out the very best offenses away from home, though. Andriy Pyatov is something of an erratic presence between the sticks, while manager Mircea Lucescu seems unsure on what his best combination is at the back.
Key Man – Douglas Costa
While Chelsea eventually landed Juan Cuadrado from Fiorentina in the mid-season window, there was much talk about them potentially lining up the Shakhtar star and it’s easy to see why. Costa is vibrant midfield player who combines intricacy, intelligence and a fierce intensity to make life very difficult indeed for opposition defenses.
He is just one of a clutch of attacking midfield talents in this squad and this is the area of the field in which Shakhtar can really hurt opponents. Typically deployed on the right of this engrossing triumvirate, Costa will also have to work back and put in some defensive diligence when his team come under pressure.
Verdict – Last-16: Shakhtar don’t have the experience, solidity or enough 1quality to cause Bayern big problems and they’ll find exceptionally difficult to take anything from their tie with the German giants. If they don’t establish a commanding lead in front of their rowdy home crowd after the first-leg, their hopes of glory could be dashed very quickly indeed.
Christopher Moore (World Soccer Talk writer): Since September 1st, Real Madrid has recorded an astounding 25 victories in 26 matches when they don’t play Atletico Madrid (winless during that stretch in four matches against the club located just five miles away from the Bernabeu).
Real picked up a favorable draw (Schalke) in the upcoming round of 16 of the Champions League knockout phase. The Spanish giants should be able to handle the Germans in the two-legged affair and with the quarterfinals set to be played in April, both Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos should be fit and available once again (and a chance of James Rodriguez recovering from injury as well).
If Real can avoid Atletico in the tournament, they have a solid chance to become the first team to win consecutive Champions League crowns since AC Milan accomplished the feat 25 years ago.
Matt Lichtenstadter (World Soccer Talk writer): Real Madrid are, and rightfully so, favorites to repeat as Champions of Europe, except their road to glory has been met with speedbumps, namely Atletico Madrid asking questions of the Merengues midfield.
Bayern Munich too are favorites, but they have not been tested on the level at which they will be when the competition thins out. Atleti certainly have the credentials to produce more upsets, and their matchup against Bayer could be tricky, but they should be able to break through Roger Schmidt’s press well enough to advance.
But you get the sense that this is Jose Mourinho and Chelsea’s year. There is no standout favorite since all of the big teams remaining in this year’s tournament are fallible, but Chelsea seem to have the fewest problems among the mix.
Their midfield on its day is the best in the Premier League and possibly the best in Europe, and Diego Costa is the type of striker that can thrive in a 2 leg series. So long as the centre-back pairing of Cahill and Terry hold out, Chelsea can, and probably should, hoist the trophy come June 6 in Berlin.
Nick Webster (World Soccer Talk Podcast host): It sounds like a cliche as to why Chelsea will be champions but the simple fact is this…they are the best team! From top to bottom, Jose Mourinho has assembled a squad that contains all the qualities needed to scale Europe’s biggest heights.
Defensively they are rock solid with discipline and commitment being preferred to flair and adventure. They always defend with 8 which makes them very difficult to break down even when opponents enjoy more possession.
In midfield, Mourinho has workers who can flat out play mixed with experienced match winners who can flip a game in the blink of an eye. They’ve all learnt the Mourinho doctrine that ‘team’ triumphs over ‘I’ and realize that collectively they’re stronger than individually. Think Oscar, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas.
Upfront, Chelsea has an assassin in Diego Costa. The man was built to score goals.
And then there is the man himself, Jose Mourinho. The most calculating manager in world soccer. The Champions League is where he measures himself against the best and his record of taking teams to the latter stages of the competition is unmatched.
Christopher Harris (World Soccer Talk Editor/Publisher): I’m not expecting any major shocks or surprises in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, so if Bayern Munich and Real Madrid can keep themselves separated, I can see them meeting in the European final for the first time in either club’s history.
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