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FFS Talk: The UEFA Champions League Last 16 Preview Part 1

Posted by Steven Rao on

Welcome to this special 4 part Champions League Last 16 Preview! In this edition, we look ahead of tonight’s Champions League clashes between: Manchester United and Paris Saint Germain, and Roma vs FC Porto! I hope you enjoy the read!

1st Leg: Old Trafford 12/02/19
2nd Leg: Parc des Princes 06/03/19

This season’s draw for the Last 16 has raised some incredible fixtures, and this first ever clash between Manchester United and Paris Saint Germain stands right at the tip of the spear of anticipation! When the draw was made in mid-December; United were a club in turmoil, they had just been embarrassed by Liverpool in the Premier League; an affair that served as the catalyst for Jose Mourinho’s dismissal which came just 2 days after the Champions League draw was made. PSG on the other hand were 16 games unbeaten into their Ligue 1 campaign and had just lost once in all competitions; ironically, against Liverpool also. At the time of the draw, United were wounded, vulnerable, and served as an ideal match up for any team in the draw; such was the dishevel they suffered from at the end of the Mourinho era, however in the 8 weeks that have since unfolded; Manchester United have become Europe’s most in-form team, having won all but 1 of their 11 games played under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tutelage! The ‘Gilet Jaunes’ movement in France would destabilise the Ligue 1 calendar toward the end of 2018, nevertheless, the reigning champions of France ended 2018 having lost just once in 27 competitive games, and along with Liverpool, and Juventus; entered 2019 unbeaten in their respective division. 2019 however, hasn’t been so kind to Thomas Tuchel’s side, with a first Ligue 1 defeat coming away to Lyon on February 3rd, and a stunning elimination from the Coupe de la Ligue at the quarter final stage coming against Guingamp on January 9th.

Ever since Paris Saint Germain returned to Champions League competition in the 2012/13 season, they have now had to face off with: Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Chelsea (twice), Barcelona, Real Madrid, and now Manchester United at the round of 16! Their record of progress, in lieu of this array of challengers, stands at a more than impressive 4/6, in fact only Barcelona and Real Madrid PSG off at this stage. In reaching the Last 16, PSG would have to navigate one of the two groups of death, as they were matched with: Liverpool, Napoli, and Red Star Belgrade in Group C. The European campaign started with the aforementioned defeat away against Liverpool at Anfield, before going to top the group a record of 3 wins, 2 draws and the sole defeat. Furthermore, they would conclude the group stages having the most goals of all the 32 teams in the group stages with 17.

Manchester United were given a far easier set of assignments, on paper anyway, as they were drawn with: Juventus, Valencia, and competition debutants, Young Boys. A 3-0 match-day 1 win away in Switzerland against Young Boys looked to only strengthen that notion, however the wheels were already in motion for what was going to be a difficult 2018 portion of the season. In fact, they would go 290 minutes between Anthony Martial’s 3rd goal against Young Boys, and Juan Mata’s 86th minute equalising free-kick away against Juventus; a game they would somehow win 2-1 following a stunning last gasp Juventus capitulation. A stoppage time winner required to see off Young Boys 1-0 at Old Trafford, in what was one of the worst European games to have ever taken place at ‘the Theatre of Dreams’. While qualification had now been sealed at this point, a Match-Day 6 defeat away to Valencia did nothing to suggest that the team would be a threat to anyone in Pot A when the December 17th draw was made.

Even with the strides that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United had made going into 2019, the idea of them seeing off a PSG side who had beaten Liverpool on November 28th and have been so dominant in France still seemed a tall order. January 13th was supposed to be the litmus test for the new ‘OGS’ regime when they went to Wembley Stadium to take on Tottenham Hotspur in the league, and while they rode their luck in large parts; United would defeat Spurs 1-0 to win their 6th game in a row. 24 hours earlier, Paris Saint Germain had defeated Amiens 3-0 in the league, and then 7 days later, would avenge their ‘cup-set’ at the hands of Guingamp by mercilessly beating them 9-0 in the league! A game where their divine trio: Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Kylin Mbappe scored 8 of the 9 goals. Disaster would soon strike ‘Les Parisiens’, as Neymar would reinjure his metatarsal and be written out of any participation in the fixture whatsoever. On January 9th, Manchester United would swat Fulham aside 3-0, where Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial continued their galvanising form. PSG would be in action later that day, and although they would see off Bordeaux 1-0 thanks to a Cavani penalty, however in scoring the spot-kick (and PSG’s 101st goal in all competitions this season), he would injure himself in the process, so now Thomas Tuchel will be without: Neymar, Cavani and Marco Verratti ahead of the trip to Old Trafford on Tuesday.

With the crescendo of momentum that United are riding the wave of right now, and the bad luck which is now beseeching PSG; I can’t help but think that this has all the making of yet another chapter of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fairy-tale which is unfolding. While United are not the monster’s that Barcelona were in 2017, or Real Madrid last year; PSG can sometimes struggle to turn up when it really counts, and although the experience offered by Gianluigi Buffon will be invaluable, the core of this side still bare the scarring of these aforementioned Champions League exits, moreover, Thomas Tuchel himself will remember the lead that his Borussia Dortmund team surrendered against Liverpool in the 2015-16 Europa League quarter final, and lastly, as evidenced by the defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in September, and the draw with Napoli in Naples; the raucousness of a crowd can unsettle the French side, and spur their opponents to a higher level. Of course, you will be hard pressed to find a more intense cauldron than either Anfield or the San Paolo; the Old Trafford faithful are going to be absolutely clamouring and relishing PSG’s visit in the faith that how their team in currently performing, a Fergie-Era performance and result is in the pipeline. Silencing the crowd and killing off hope will be central to PSG’s success in the first leg, and in Kylian Mbappe, they have a man capable of delivering a Ronaldo 2003 performance at Old Trafford, while it will be first time return to Old Trafford for Angel di Maria who was a United player during the 2014-15 season.

This match has been billed as the battle of the hottest young commodities in the sport, namely: Kylian Mbappe and Macus Rashford; since Solksjaer’s appointment as United coach, Rashford has scored 6 goals, while Mbappe has netted 7 of his own in the same period of time. Also, during that same space of time; no player has been involved in more goals than Paul Pogba across Europe, and he’ll be absolutely chomping at the bit to assert his rediscovered confidence on the world’s biggest stage, and thus, I believe that Manchester United will defeat Paris Saint Germain 2-1 at Old Trafford to set up a tantalising 2nd leg in Paris.

For ‘the Red Devils’, the 1st Leg begins a gauntlet of hellish fixtures, as they follow up the visit of PSG with an away clash against Chelsea in the FA Cup, followed by a league encounter at home against Liverpool, before quick turnaround’s against Crystal Palace and Southampton ahead of the 2nd Leg. Defeat, particularly against either Chelsea or Liverpool, could derail much of the momentum and confidence that the new regime has done so well to garner, however I foresee United drawing at Stamford Bridge, beating Liverpool, and then gaining at least 4 points from the clashes with Palace and Southampton; setting them up in the finest of stead (bar any injuries or suspensions) going in to the 2nd Leg against the French champions. Paris Saint Germain’s run to the March 6th showdown looks relatively straight forward on paper; first will come an away trip to Saint Etienne, before clashes with: Montpelier, Nimes, Caen, as well as a Coupe de France clash with Dijon prepare them for the task at the Parc de Princes against United. Having to have done battle with teams such as Chelsea and Liverpool so soon, I think will actually have United best prepared to navigate this task at one of the great European fortress’s, and while it won’t be easy, I see United progressing to the Last 8 of the competition for the first time since the 2013-14 season, as a 1-1 draw unfolds in the French capital.

1st Leg: Stadio Olimpico 12/02/19
2nd Leg: Estadio Do Dragao 06/03/19

When the draw for the Last 16 was made on December 17th, FC Porto would have been all of the sides in Pot B’s dream match-up, while Roma would have made nicer matching than the likes of: Atletico Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur, or Liverpool for those awaiting their fate from Pot A; alas, both Roma and Porto would draw one another, in what represents a dream tie for both clubs, and a brilliant chance to reach the haven of the Champions League quarter final!

Roma were beaten semi-finalists last season after thrilling knockout ties against Barcelona and Liverpool and were comfortably Italy’s 3rd placed best side at the conclusion of the 2017/18 season. This season has been anything but the brilliant Roma we saw last year; despite a very active transfer window last summer; the departures of key figures such as: Alisson, Kevin Strootman, and Radja Nainggolan have proven harder to replace than originally anticipated. A relatively straight forward draw in Group G pit them against: Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, and Viktoria Plzen; in the end, Roma would just eek into the Last 16 by 2 points, and moreover, comprehensive defeats both, home and away to a Real Madrid side who were maligned and in upheaval during much of the 2018 portion of the season, and done nothing to suggest that Roma will be anywhere near the last 4 of this seasons itinerary. ‘I Giallorossi’ since December 2018, have only lost 3 times in 13 games across all competitions, and while there was no shame in losing to Juventus just before Christmas, the 7-1 destruction at the hands of Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia on January 30th had outlets speculating that Eusebio di Francesco would be replaced by Paolo Sousa that weekend! In the 2 games that followed since, a draw came at home against an in-form AC Milan side, followed by a fine 3-0 win away to Chievo, which leads us to the visit of Porto of Tuesday night.

FC Porto were the victim of a St. Valentine’s Day massacre when they were beaten 5-0 at home by Liverpool in the 1st Leg of their Champions League Last 16 tie last season, which all but ended any hope of reaching the quarter final. In spite of that set back, under Sergio Conceicao, Porto have been energised domestically, and would end the 2017-18 season as the champions of Portugal; ending Benfica’s 4 year stranglehold of the Primeira Liga. ‘The Dragons’ of Portugal would see the likes of: Ricardo Pereira, Ivan Marcano, Wily Boly, Diego Dalot, Andre Andre and Miguel Layun all move on in the summer of 2018, but that has done to destabilise the team, as they currently lead the way in Portugal after 21 games, and reached the Last 16 with consummate ease; going unbeaten, and winning all from 5 games from Match-Day 2 onwards. Granted, Porto were handed a group that featured: Schalke, Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow; bar the draw away to Schalke on Match-Day 1 however, you couldn’t have asked for the 2x Champions League winners to have dealt with the task any better, or more diligently than they did. Porto have played some 10 times already in 2019! And remain unbeaten in all 10 those games over 90 minutes, with the sole asterisk being their Taca da Liga final defeat on penalties to Sporting Lisbon after a 1-1 draw in regulatory time on January 30th. That setback would begin a run of 3 successive draws and were staring just their 2nd defeat of the season down the barrel on Friday, until Hector Herrera’s 94th minute goal salvaged a point away against Moreirense.

These 2 foes did battle in a knock-out tie as recent as the summer of 2016, when FC Porto stunned Roma 4-1 over 2 legs to reach the Group Stages of the 2016-17 competition. A 1-1 draw played out in Portugal, before a 9 man Roma were humbled 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico. From that game, only: Juan Jesus, Kostas Manolas, Diego Perotti, Daniele De Rossi, Edin Dzeko, Fazio, and Stephan El Shaarawy remain on Roma’s books from that 17 player squad that fateful evening. It is my opinion that the outcome of this game hangs on what AS Roma turn up over the 2 legs; Roma at their best should have enough quality to put away Porto at their best. Although Edin Dzeko hasn’t been at his goalscoring best this season; Roma are still Serie A’s 3rd top goal scoring team this season with 46 in 23 games, it has been the huge Alisson shaped hole at the back which has been their undoing, as their 30 goals conceded; the joint worst in the top 10 goes on to suggest. Porto, by contrast, have scored 42 goals of their own in the Portuguese top flight, yet have only conceded 12 times! While Dzeko hasn’t been firing on all cylinders domestically; both he, and, Porto’s Moussa Marega, have 5 Champions League goals already to their name, even if the manner in which they achieved their numbers couldn’t be any different.

With Roma in the ascendency it seems, I am going to suggest that they prevail 2-1 at home this Tuesday; an away goal for Porto seems almost inevitable given that Roma have only kept 8 clean sheets this season in all competitions. Roma will then have the schedule of: Bologna, Frosinone, and the test of Lazio on March 2nd before the teams reunite in Portugal on March 6th. Porto face a similar path of their own, albeit with an extra game, nevertheless, games with Vitoria de Setubal and Tondela are followed up with the 1st Leg of their Taca de Portugal semi-final at home to Braga, before the huge visit of a reborn Benfica side; the only team to have beaten them this season so far. I expect to expertly navigate their 3 games between ties with 3 wins, and with the momentum of beating Lazio; I see the game at the Estadio do Dragao ending 1-1; sending the Italian side into the last 8 for just the 3rd time since the turn of the century by way of a 3-2 aggregate score line.

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