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FFS Talk: The UEFA Champions League Last 16 Preview Part 3

Posted by Steven Rao on

Welcome back to FFS Talk! Apologies for the late entry, so let’s cut to the chase; here’s the preview of tonight’s UEFA Champions League Last 16 clashes between Liverpool vs Bayern Munich, and Lyon vs Barcelona!

1st Leg: Anfield 19/02/19
2nd Leg: The Allianz Arena 13/03/19

A true heavyweight battle! 2 of The European Cup’s joint 3rd most successful ever teams; Liverpool and Bayern Munich; 2 of last season’s semi-finalists, go to war in what should be a spectacular match-up! Liverpool have only gone on from strength to strength from last season; engaged in an intense battle with Manchester City on the domestic front, while successfully navigating a group that also featured: Paris Saint Germain and Napoli during this season’s Group Stages. Bayern have had a largely disappointing season so far by their lofty standards; new manager Niko Kovac has had his future questioned on more than one occasion so far this season, and after a patchy Autumn period; the club find themselves 5 points behind Borussia Dortmund in the title race. If that wasn’t enough, they come into the game having had to see off Augsburg in a 3-2 thriller on Friday, while Liverpool will have enjoyed the benefit of 10 days rest by the time they kick off at Anfield on Tuesday night. The interesting caveat will be however, is how Jurgen Klopp’s side will perform in the role of favourites, especially against a side that has only failed to breach the Last 16 just once this decade.

Ahead of the new season, it was anticipated that Liverpool would be amongst the favourite for the Premier League title, and their 2018 form somehow saw them exceed the huge expectations placed upon them by going 20 games unbeaten in the league, to enter 2019 as league leaders. 2019 has naturally brought with it, its own set of challenges, as their first league defeat of the season came away against Manchester City on January 3rd, while back to back draws against Leicester City, and West Ham United, as well as a stunning elimination from the FA Cup, have left the critics questioning the burden placed upon the teams shoulders, as spectre’s of the past and the weight of a city begin to take heed. With that being said; they still remain joint top, with a game in hand no less, so their destiny still remains in their own hands. What has stood out about ‘the Reds’ this season, has been their defensive maturity; surrendering just 15 goals in 26 league games, making them the most solid of the defences in the league thus far; a rate of less than half of what they conceded at the same juncture last season! If that wasn’t enough, the club have again plundered 59 goals in 26 games! As I touched upon before, Liverpool managed to survive the ‘Group of Death’, qualifying at Napoli’s expense on the final match-day with a 1-0 win at home against the Neapolitans. There run to the Last 16 was defined by 2 things; a 100% winning record at Anfield, and a 100% losing record away from home, which will likely indicate what is to come over these 2 legs against the German giants…

The proverbial sword has been hanging over the Bayern Munich bed for some time now; the Guardiola-era failed to yield that elusive 6th Champions League title,  however the opus of his work in Bavaria only really came to the fore when he left the club in 2016, as the Ancelotti-era was ended prematurely in September 2017. The fairy Godfather of Bayern: Jupp Heynckes came in steered the ship, in fact, not only did he lead Bayern to a 6th straight Bundesliga title, he got them into the DFB-Pokal final, only for his team to be beaten by Frankfurt; who were managed by the now incumbent Bayern boss, Kovac, but also had Bayern within an ear shot of the Champions League final. Nearly a year on from that semi-final finish; the conclusion drawn is that their run was the exception, rather than the rule. James Rodriguez was the star capture last season, however his 2 year loan from Real Madrid looks set to terminate, when a year ago, it seemed Bayern were almost instantly ready to cash out early with the £32 million permanent transfer fee. Robert Lewandowski has accounted for 25 of the 76 goals scored by the club this season in all competitions, including 8 of their 15 Champions League goals. Speaking of the Champions League, they were matched with: Ajax, Benfica and AEK Athens in Group E, and although they progressed unbeaten in their 6 games, draws in both games with Ajax were not the most convincing, while their defeats against: Borussia Monchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund, and Bayer Leverkusen this season have seen them ship in 3 goals in each of those games. As far as 2019 is concerned however, Bayern are actually in the better form; winning 5 of their 6 outings in all competitions, while Liverpool can count just 3 wins out of their 7 played in all competitions since the turn of the year…

Historically, the two sides share the distinction of having played in all 4 of UEFA’s club competitions, however, the fixture has generally benefit the English side. Their first battles came in the 1970/71 UEFA Cup quarter-final, where Liverpool saw off Bayern 4-1 over 2 legs, before defeating Borussia Monchengladbach 3-2 in the final. A year later, Bayern got their revenge in the 2nd Round of the 1971/72 Cup Winners Cup; Bayern would get as far as the semi-final, before being defeated by eventual winners: Rangers. Nearly 10  years later, they would meet in the semi-final of the 1980/81 European Cup semi-final, where Liverpool would prevail on away goals, before defeating Real Madrid to lift the European Cup in Paris. Their last meeting would take place in the summer of 2001, where Liverpool, as UEFA Cup champions, defeated Bayern 3-2 in the UEFA Super Cup! Bayern would come from 3-0 down to narrow the gap to 3-2, but it would be futile as Gerard Houlier’s men won their 4th piece of silverware in the year of 2001. Jurgen Klopp will be determined to not only continue this prestigious record against ‘Die Rotten’, but also, go some way to eviscerating the memory of the painful 2013 UEFA Champions League final defeat he suffered at Bayern’s hands whilst managing Borussia Dortmund.

So with all of this in mind, what can we expect over the 2 legs? Anfield remains one of Europe’s greatest, if not the greatest, stronghold, when it comes to European competition; in fact, in 98 games played at Anfield this century, they have only lost 14 times; winning a staggering 70 times, claiming the scalps of: Real Madrid, Roma, Paris Saint Germain, Juventus, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to name just a few. If Liverpool ever needed their season galvanising, look no farther than a European night at Anfield against one of the world’s elite clubs! Granted, Bayern haven’t lost a leg in the last 16 since Arsenal upset them in the 2nd Leg of the round back in the 2012-13 season, however, Liverpool have not lost a European fixture at home since Real Madrid saw them off in November 2014,  I am expecting Liverpool to fly the flag (to take an old Championship Manager term) and exploit Bayern’s weak defence to come away with a 4-2 win in a classic Klopp’n’Roll performance. Like many of the teams in this competition, it seems as though the period of games between the 1st leg to the 2nd has season defining ramifications; and Liverpool will feel this more than most, as they have games with: Manchester United, Watford, Everton and Burnley to come before the trip to Germany. It is my opinion that they will be beaten at Old Trafford, however they will likely defeat both of Watford and Everton, before facing would could be 2 dropped points away to Burnley, and if by March 13th, Manchester City hold the advantage in the title race; the 2nd leg with Bayern will resound even more in its importance to their season…

Bayern will only have 3 games in which to bounce back from the 1st Leg setback, however in battles against: Hertha Berlin and Borussia Monchengladbach; they have the opportunity to overcome 2 of their early season losses, while Wolfsburg will offer just enough resistance to have Bayern ptimaly ready for the 2nd Leg on March 13th. Like Liverpool, Bayern boast an incredible home record at their home ground: the Allianz Arena. Since moving into the stadium ahead of the 2005-06 season, Bayern have won 56 of their 77 European home games, losing just 9 times! This decade, only Real Madrid, Arsenal and Manchester City have won at the Allianz in European competition, and with so much on the line, I am going to predict Bayern take a 2-0 lead, however Liverpool pull a key away goal back and ride their luck to a 2-1 defeat on the night, and a 5-4 aggregate progression, to become the first English side to eliminate Bayern in a 2 legged Champions League since Chelsea did in 2005, and condemn Bayern to their first Last 16 exit since the 2010-11 season!

1st Leg: Parc Olympique Lyonnais 19/02/19
2nd Leg: Camp Nou 13/03/19

When Lyon and Barcelona were matched up in the draw for the Last 16, many would have wrote this tie off as a no brainer in favour of Barcelona; however, this meeting between ‘Les Gonnes’ and ‘Los Cules’ has the potential to be quite an underrated affair, and given Lyon’s victories this season over Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City, coupled with Barca’s recent shock quarter final exit against Roma, and stop/start campaign this season; they would be wrong to take the challenge of Bruno Genesio’s side lightly…

With 12 goals scored, and 11 conceded; Lyon’s return to the Champions League knockout stages since the 2011/12 season was one of the more thrilling sub-plots of the Group Stages, as they wrangled with Shakhtar Donetsk for that second qualification berth. Drawn alongside the Ukrainian side, as well as Manchester City and Hoffenheim; it was always likely that City were going to top the group, however, given the equal footing of the other 3 outfits, it was anyone’s guess who would be joining them in the Last 16. Lyon began the competition in stunning fashion when they upset Pep Guardiola’s side 2-1 at the Etihad Arena on Match-Day 1, however that would their sole victory in the competition, as they would go on to draw each of the remaining 5 clashes in the Group Stages! Those draws would unfold in the following order: 2-2, 3-3, 2-2, 2-2 and 1-1, and not all in the same pattern of scoring either, no! Lyon were involved in a comeback from 2-0 down to collect a point at home against Shakhtar, a back and forth thriller away against Hoffenheim, to squandering a 2-0 lead at home to the German opposition! They would take the lead twice in the home game with Manchester City, before a somewhat ‘normal’ 1-1 draw in the Ukraine on match-day 6. On the domestic front, traction of wins has also been hard to come by, in fact, despite sitting in 3rd place in Ligue 1; they have never won more than 3 games in a row in the league, however, when this team is on, they are quite special, and hold the distinction of defeating Manchester City, and more impressive, was their February 3rd, come from behind victory against Paris Saint Germain, where they say off the Ligue 1 champions 2-1, inflicting their first (and only) league defeat of the season. Lyon began the decade by reaching the heady heights of the Champions League semi-final, where they fell against Bayern Munich. After winning 7 Ligue 1 titles in the noughties, and being recognised as one of the continents finest clubs, it appeared that the cycle peaked with that semi-final finish in 2010, given that the club have only gotten as far as the Last 16 in the Champions League since then, and although the club did reach the Europa League semi-final in 2017; their performance in the Champions League has left a lot to be desired.

In my opinion, not enough is made of how Lyon are able to stay competitive in spite of losing players season after season; players of the ilk of: Hugo Lloris, Anthony Martial, Alassane Plea, Samuel Umtiti, Corentin Tolisso, Alexandre Lacazette and Mariano Diaz have all departed the club in recent years. In spite of the departures, and poor European form in the 1st half of the decade, the club have made a smooth transition to their new stadium in 2016 and have consistently finished in the top 4 in each of the last 4 seasons. This fixture will give OL and their prized assets to prime themselves in the shop window; excellent players such as: Maxwel Cornet, Kenny Tete, Nabil Fekir, Leo Dubois, Memphis Depay, Bertrand Traore, Moussa Dembele, Houssem Aouar, Martin Terrier and Anthony Lopes.

Despite leading the way in La Liga by 7 points, having the 2nd Leg of a Copa del Rey semi-final against Real Madrid to look forward too, and after dominating their Champions League group, now have Lyon as opponents in the Last 16; the jury is still out on how successful Barcelona are going to be this season! In many ways, its been there, got the t-shirt for Ernesto Valverde’s side, given that they were in the same situation last season, all before spectacularly falling at the quarter final against Roma last April. We are now 6 months passed Lionel Messi’s impassioned speech where he vowed that the club would be heatseeking for that first Champions League title since 2015, so before we assess their future prospects, let’s look back at their progress in Europe thus far. Drawn in Group B with: Tottenham Hotspur, Inter Milan, and PSV Eindhoven; despite the quality of the opposition on paper, Barcelona were still expected to top the group, and they would do so with a fair amount of ease if truth is told. The campaign began with a 4-0 win at home against PSV, where Messi helped himself to a hat-trick, even more impressive however, was their 4-2 win away against Spurs on match-day 2. They would make it 3 wins from 3 when they defeated Inter Milan 2-0 on match-day 3. By the time they welcomed Tottenham to the Camp Nou on match-day 6, they had already qualified from the group; making the 1-1 draw that unfolded inconsequential as far as the 5x Champions League winners were concerned. Lionel Messi has embraced the club captaincy on a full time basis with the aplomb one would expect, and for an 11th straight season, he has netted 30 times, and while the list of plaudits only continues to grow for the Argentine; his importance to the side continues to be underlined, and the concern continues that if he were to suffer an absence at the critical stages of the season, would their whole season capitulate? In the league, the team are 8 points worse off than they were last season after 24 games, however in their defence, the vast majority of the sides in La Liga have performed worse after 24 games this season, than they did last season; what matters most however, is that they have the same 7 point advantage at the top of the league as they did at the same juncture in 2018.

Historically, these two clubs share a history of 6 meeting in the Champions League during the noughties; beginning in the first group stage of the 2001/02 season, with Barcelona winning both games. The next meeting would take place in the group stage of the 2007/08 season, where Barcelona romped to a 3-0 win at the Camp Nou; a game that Messi himself scored in! Before a 2-2 played at the Stade de Gerland. This brings us to their last and most recent meeting; ironically 10 years ago, and at the same juncture of the Last 16. The French side would have the misfortune of being in the way of Pep Guardiola’s hurricane of a debut season in charge of Barcelona; and after a 1-1 draw in France in the 1st Leg, Barcelona would run wild at the Camp Nou, winning the game 5-2 to reach the quarter final. So what is there to be expected on tomorrow when the 2 sides meet? After hosting last season’s Europa League final; this is the first ever Champions League knockout clash to take place at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, and who better to have come to your coming out party, then Messi and the boys? I see Lyon putting on a spirited showing, however Barcelona’s experience and quality will see them come away with a 2-1 win in the east of France. Despite the defeat, it shouldn’t do too much to affect Lyon on the home front, after all, no one is expecting Lyon to progress from this tie (with all due respective); rather, it will be the quality of their performance against arguably the best side in the world right now, that they will draw their value of the experience from.  Lyon will travel to Monte Carlo to meet a resurging Monaco, where I believe the spoils will likely be shared in a 2-2 draw, before claiming back to back wins against Toulouse and Strasbourg ahead of the 2nd Leg. Barcelona will endure a testing period between now and mid-April; following the 1st Leg, games with: Sevilla, Real Madrid (twice in a row), Lyon, Espanyol, Villarreal, and Atletico Madrid are all on the horizon. I expect draws to unfold in both games with Real Madrid, the cup fixture ending 2-2, and consequently, Barca reaching the Copa del Rey final, while wins against Sevilla and Rayo Vallecano should also come either side of the two Clasico matches, ahead of the 2nd Leg. The game between Lyon and Barcelona at the Camp Nou I think ends 3-0 in favour of Barcelona, as they reach the quarter final for the 12th straight season.  



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