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FFS Talk: The UEFA Champions League Last 16 Preview Part 2

Posted by Steven Rao on

Welcome back to FFS Talk! I hope you enjoyed part 1, at the moment, FFS is ½ in the correct score department! Here is the preview for the 2 Legs of: Tottenham vs Dortmund, and Ajax vs Real Madrid; I hope you enjoy and see you again next wee for more!

1st Leg: Wembley Stadium 13/02/19
2nd Leg: Westfalenstadion 05/03/19

A fine match-up awaits between 2 of Europe’s most exciting, and dare I say it, overachieving teams this season, as the Premier League’s 3rd placed side meet the Bundesliga leaders with a place in the quarter final at stake. These 2 teams share a recent European history with one another beginning in the Last 16 of the 2015/16 Europa League, where Dortmund prevailed 5-1 over 2 legs. Last season’s Champions League group stages would then set the backdrop for their next meeting, and Tottenham would win both games 3-1, and 2-1 as Dortmund endured a horrendous start to the season last year, and subsequently, fell out of the competition at the group stage, while Tottenham were given the task of meeting Juventus in last season’s round of 16, in spite of finishing on top of a group that also featured Real Madrid! While Spurs would huff and puff, but in the end, Juventus would eliminate Tottenham after an exhilarating 2 legs of action. Dortmund didn’t fare too much better during their Europa League expulsion, as they were eliminated in the round of 16 by RB Salzburg.

Much has been made of the decision made by Spurs not to sign a single player in either of the two transfer windows this season, yet it is hard to fault the decision, given that the club sit in 3rd place, and just 5 points shy of the Premier League leaders Manchester City. Even more was made about how Tottenham would cope with the injuries suffered by Harry Kane and Dele Alli, yet they’ve won 5 out of their 6 Premier League outings in 2019, with the sole blemish coming on January 13th against Manchester United. The size limitations of the squad were exposed in their respective cup exits in January, as they bowed out to Chelsea in the EFL Cup semi-final, and then Crystal Palace in the FA Cup 3 days later. The cup exits might prove to be a blessing down the stretch however, as the club pursue an unlikely title challenge, and sustained participation in the Champions League. Now in their 3rd successive season playing Champions League football, they were given their toughest ever assignment in the group stages as they were pit against: Barcelona, Inter Milan, and PSV Eindhoven! The experiences garnered from 2016 have started to bare their fruit as they overcame back to back defeats in their opening two games against Inter Milan and Barcelona, before eventually qualifying at the expense of Inter, by way of a superior head to head away goal record. While mentality has always been a question when it comes to Spurs, their resilience was what got them to the dance in the Last 16, given that they scored late on in the wins over PSV and Inter at home, and then in the qualification clinching draw away to Barcelona, moreover, in the game at the Camp Nou and in both games with PSV; they would have to come back from behind in each of those games.  

There would be change at the helm once more for ‘Der BVB’ at the start of the season, with Lucien Favre becoming the 3rd coach to take charge since Jurgen Klopp parted ways with the club in 2015. The results have been nothing short of fantastic in the short 7 months that the Swiss coach has been in charge for; leading his team to the summit of the Bundesliga, and the top of Group B of this seasons Champions League Group Stages’s. Moreover, the club have lost just 2 times over 90 minutes across the 30 games they have played in all competitions this seasons, and if that wasn’t impressive enough, the 1997 European Champions have occupied first place in the Bundesliga for each of the last 14 rounds of play, and own stunning victories over both Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid! As January drew to a close, it appeared as though the stars had finally aligned for Marco Reus who was enjoying his most injury free season since 2015-16, while Jadon Sancho had announced himself as arguably the next most sought after young footballer in the world, just behind the footsteps of Kylian Mbappe and Marcus Rashford! They, and Atletico Madrid were always going to be the favourites to progress from a group that also featured Monaco, and Club Brugge, however to finish the group in 1st place; beating Atletico Madrid 4-0 at home, conceding just twice, and losing just once was more than impressive, especially given the less than glamourous exit from the competition at the same stage last season!

2019 hasn’t been as fortuitous for Dortmund, well February, I should say specifically, with the Bundesliga leaders falling out of the DFB-Pokal on penalties to Werder Bremen after a 3-3 draw over 120 minutes, before managing to squander a 3-0 at home against Hoffenheim on the weekend! While complacency has befuddled Dortmund, Spurs have displayed fortitude and heart in their 4 wins since being stunned by Manchester United on January 13th; coming from behind to see off both Fulham and Watford, while they had to play the long game in collecting wins over Newcastle United and Leicester City. It may be that differentiation that decides the fate of this knockout contest with Spurs playing the first leg at home. Since adopting Wembley Stadium as their temporary home in 2017, Spurs have only been beaten by Juventus and Barcelona at the national stadium when in European competition; a far cry better than their stint during the 2016-17 season when the club used Wembley as their home ground exclusively for European ties; winning just 1 game in 4.

When Tottenham Hotspur were eliminated by Juventus at the round of 16 last year, the feeling when it was all said and done, was that Spurs threw the tie away; especially after coming from 2-0 down in the 1st Leg to draw 2-2, and then leading until the 64th minute in the 2nd Leg, before losing 2-1 on the night. That cruel experience has clearly put the ‘Lilywhites’ in much stronger stead this season, while Dortmund have never looked close to replicating their unlikely run to the Champions League final in 2013; and as thrilling as their group stage was, they were soundly beaten 2-0 in the reverse fixture against Atletico Madrid, and if their woes this month were not compounded enough; they will be without their talisman and captain: Marco Reus, while Paco Alcacer, the player who everything he touched, turned to gold in 2018, hasn’t scored since the 2-1 defeat away to Dusseldorf on December 18th. Although Tottenham will still be without Harry Kane, and Dele Alli; Heung-Min Son has been in imperious form, while Christian Eriksen continues to impress as the clubs chief playmaker’, and it will the ability of these 2 men imposing their will in the attacking third that I feel edges the first leg in the home sides’ favour, and consequently, has them winning 3-1 on the night.

After going 4 matches without a win, Dortmund risk going into flux; especially with Bayern Munich now just 5 points behind them in the league. Their 3 games in between the 2 legs will be away against Nurnberg, at home to Leverkusen, and away to Augsburg. Both Nurnberg and Augsburg should yield 3 points each, and while Leverkusen always remain dangerous; at home they should have enough to defeat the current 6th place side in Germany; meaning that when they welcome Spurs to the Wesfalenstadion on March 5th, they will be absolutely brimming with confidence. Spurs’ run between now and the 2nd could be season defining, as following the 1st Leg with Dortmund, they play a seriously in-form Burnley, before back to back games with Chelsea, and then Arsenal. It’s not inconceivable that they could collect 9 points from those 3 games too, however, given the physical and mental exertions this series of clashes is set to take, coupled with the diminishing squad; I think around 5-6 points sounds much more realistic, and sadly for them, the end of a fringes title challenge. With what is seemingly going to be a reversal in momentum going into the 2nd Leg, it will be an emotionally supercharged battle in Germany, and I see Borussia Dortmund winning 2-1 on the night, but crashing out 4-3 on aggregate, as Spurs reach the quarter final of the competition for the first time since the 2010/11 season.  

1st Leg: The Johan Cruyff Arena 13/02/19
2nd Leg: Westfalenstadion 05/03/19

In another match up that differs almost entirely in prospects, some 8 weeks after the draw for the Last 16 was made; Real Madrid and Ajax will be doing battle for the 7th and 8th time respectively in the Champions League this decade; albeit, for the first time in a knockout tie. Just to follow up on the opening statement, Ajax came into 2019 having won 11 straight games in the Eredivisie, and stunned Europe by breaching the group stages, at the expense of Benfica, to reach the Last 16, along with Bayern Munich. This represents the first time that Ajax had reached the knockout stages of the competition since the 2005-06 competition, and when the draw was made on December 17th; the meeting with Real Madrid came with a degree of optimism, after all, Ajax had to begin their European foray as early as July 25th in the 2nd qualifying round of the competition, and then upon the reaching the group stage; they would go unbeaten in all 6 games of their group outings, securing 2 thrilling draws with Bayern Munich, and stunning Benfica 1-0 on match-day 4. Their progress represents a wonderful continuation of the arc that began in 2017 when they reached the Europa League final. 2019 however, has been much harder to navigate for the legendary Dutch outfit, with just 1 league win coming this year, and while it was a 6-0 demolition of VVV-Venlo on February 2nd; defeats to Heracles, and especially Feyenoord, have left Erik ten Hag’s side now 6 points behind PSV Eindhoven in Eredivisie.

Real Madrid came into 2019 with new coach: Santi Solari’s future hanging in the balance; despite retaining the FIFA Club World Cup title in December, and in their first two La Liga clashes of 2019; they would draw with Villarreal and lose to Real Sociedad at home. Since then however, Real Madrid have arguably become the in-form club of Europe; they have rattled off 5 wins in a row in La Liga, and with their stunning Madrid Derby triumph this past weekend, have now moved into 2nd place, and just 5 points behind Barcelona. Speaking of Barcelona, Real Madrid have also left themselves within a brilliant place of reaching the Copa del Rey final, having battled to a 1-1 draw with Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the first leg of the semi final on February 6th. If Real Madrid were not the favourites heading into this tie beforehand, they sure as hell are now! It represents not just a huge turnaround on the domestic front, but on the European theatre also. They were originally drawn in Group G with: Roma, CSKA Moscow, and Viktoria Plzen. As defending European Champions, they were expected to navigate this group with consummate ease, and after smashing Roma 3-0 at the Bernabeu on match-day 1, the ill-fated Lopetegui-era seemed to picking up from where the legendary Zidane-era left off, however back to back defeats to CSKA Moscow, including a 3-0 hammering at home by the Russian outfit; their worst ever home defeat in the Champions League, left critics all but resigned to the notion that Real Madrid’s hegemony of the trophy would finally reach its climax…

I previously touched upon the prior meetings this decade between the two clubs, and it doesn’t make for pretty reading for Ajax fans; in the Group Stage’s of the 2010-11 competition saw Real win 2-0 at home, and then 4-0 at the then named Amsterdam ArenA. 12 months later, Real would smash 6 goals over 2 games past the Dutch side again, and then in the following season, Ajax would be subject to back to back 4-1 defeats! Unsurprisingly, Ajax would not qualify from the group stages in any of those 3 instances! The last time Ajax defeated ‘Los Blancos’ was in the 1995/96 groups stages, the same season they went on to win the competition, however, it seems all the more likely that they will see 8 goals plundered past them again, then upset the European Champions. Wednesday’s clash in the Dutch capital will likely see the tie all but ended for Ajax, and I am backing Real Madrid to win by a 3-1 score line, in a game to unfold not to dissimilar to how their Madrid Derby went on the weekend, in that they take a lead, they find themselves on parity, only to win the game down the stretch.

Ajax will then have 4 games to pick themselves up within until the 2nd Leg in Madrid; most importantly a KNVB Cup semi-final against Feyenoord on February 27th. Just 2 days after meeting Zwolle on March 3rd, they make the visit to the Spanish capital; another caveat that doesn’t favour the Dutch side. Real Madrid continue a season defining spell of games, culminating with the 2nd Leg on March 5th; including 2 clashes with Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Copa del Rey, and La Liga respectively; the latter of which coming on March 2nd. Potentially, Santi Solari’s side could be on top of La Liga, and in the Spanish Cup final by the time they renew acquaintances with Ajax, irrespectively however, I still expect them to see off the Dutch side 2-0 at home in a ‘through the motions’ performance, to progress to the quarter final by way of a 5-1 aggregate score line.

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