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FFS Talk: The UEFA Champions League Last 16 Preview Part 4

Posted by Steven Rao on

I apologise, we’re late again! Not so bad though; nonetheless, here is the breakdown for the final 2 Last 16 fixtures between: Atletico Madrid and Juventus and Schalke and Manchester City!

1st Leg: Wanda Metropolitano 20/02/19
2nd Leg: The Allianz Stadium 12/03/19


When the draw for the Last 16 was made in mid-December, there were some thrilling match-ups: Manchester United vs Paris Saint Germain, Tottenham Hotspur vs Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool vs Bayern Munich; however, the pick of the litter has to be this meeting between Atletico Madrid and Juventus! As far as this decade is concerned, as far as consistency is concerned; after Barcelona and Real Madrid, you have the next 3 best teams to have participated in this competition (Bayern Munich being the other), in fact, these two sides make 2 of the last 3 beaten finalists since Real Madrid began their hegemony of the European Cup in 2014, with 2 losing appearances in the final apiece occurring between 2014-2017. It is my opinion, that the winner of this tie, will go on to win the competition in May; with the finale taking place at Atleti’s home of the Wanda Metropolitano, and Juventus possessing the most complete squad in the competition; it really is the irresistible force colliding with the immovable object!

Since returning to the Champions League in the 2013-14 season; only Real Madrid have disposed of Atletico Madrid in the knockout stages; defying them in 2 finals (2014 & 2016), and then eliminating them in the quarter final in 2015, and the semi final in 2017. You can only imagine the surprise when they were deposed of in last season’s group stage when Chelsea and Roma progressed at their expense! In spite of that aberration, Atleti’ would turn the situation into a positive, and win the Europa League, before securing a first ever European victory over Real Madrid in the 2018 UEFA Super Cup, when they stunned the 13x European Cup winners 4-2 at the start of the season. The club were universally lauded for winning the Europa League and finishing 2nd in La Liga in spite of a transfer embargo that meant new signings: Vitolo and Diego Costa, could only join the club in January 2018. A busy summer in the transfer window looked to be an immediate pay off with the Super Cup triumph, however some 6 months after winning the Super Cup for a 3rd time this decade, there is a small feeling of disappointment regarding how the season has panned out. Firstly, the lack of goals, or rather, someone to help Antoine Griezmann’s burden, is again working against the team, despite having a formidable front line consisting of Griezmann, Diego Costa, Alvaro Morata and Nikola Kalinic; Griezmann has scored 18 of the clubs 56 goals scored in all competitions, while Kalinic and Costa combined, only have 8. The lack of potency in front of goal has then manifest in the form of frustrating draws; had they converted 4 of their 8 La Liga draws into wins, they’d be top of the league; the most frustrating of which was likely the 1-1 draw against Barcelona on November 24th when a late Ousmane Dembele equaliser ensured that the spoils were shared that night. A return of just 34 goals after 24 league games tells its own story and will likely be pointed to as the reason why the club will end up finishing no higher than 2nd again this season. There was always the sentiment however that this was to be the year that the Champions League was to be grasped and seized; and why not? The final on June 1st will be played at the fantastic Wanda Metropolitano, their thorn on the European side: Real Madrid have lost Cristiano Ronaldo, and although second best in La Liga, the club own a stunning knockout rate in the UCL of Barcelona! A modest Group A saw them squared up with: Borussia Dortmund, Monaco and Club Brugge, however a stunning 4-0 defeat away against Dortmund had all but condemned them to a 2nd place finish, and their reward? A Last 16 face off against Juventus; Cristiano Ronaldo’s new employer!

April 3rd and April 11th 2018: 2 dates that shaped Juventus’ destiny: The former of those dates was the 1st Leg of the Champions League quarter final against Real Madrid last season, where they brutally beaten 3-0 at home by their conquerors of the 2017 final; almost as significant as the result itself that night, was the wondergoal scored by Ronaldo to give Real a 2-0 lead, and the standing ovation that followed that moment of acrobatic courageous brilliance… 8 days later, one of the most emotional fixtures in the competitions history unfolded, as Juventus went 3-0 up at the Santiago Bernabeu, only for Real to win a contentious 93rd minute penalty, that Ronaldo duly converted to cruelly eliminate Juve 4-3.  3 months later, Ronaldo would join Juventus in a stunning €100 million deal; a move that the player says was in large part due to the ovation he received for scoring ‘that goal’ on March 3rd. While stalwarts such as: Gianluigi Buffon, Stephan Lichsteiner, Kwadwo Asamoah, Gonzalo Higuain and Claudio Marchisio were let go of in the summer; Leonardo Bonucci was resigned from AC Milan, while Joao Cancelo and Emre Can also arrived from Valencia, and Liverpool respectively, not to mention, the permanent acquisition of Douglas Costa from Bayern Munich, the message was clear from the powers that be in Turin; they were coming for the Champions League! A Group H draw matched them up against: Young Boys, Valencia, and Manchester United in an intriguing group. Only a Ronaldo sending off on match-day 1 dampened what was a brilliant 2-0 win away to Valencia, before coming to Old Trafford and beating Manchester United 1-0 to take control of the group. Only their own complacency saw them somehow fall to a late, bizarre 2-1 defeat at home to United, and by the time they cantered to an away defeat in Switzerland against Young Boys, they had already reached the Last 16, little however, would they know that the prize for finishing atop of their group would be the short straw of the teams in Pot B; namely Atletico Madrid! Unlike Atletico Madrid however, Juventus have been nothing short of clinical and masterful in Serie A, and remain the only unbeaten side in European league football; racking up a record setting 21 victories, and just 3 draws in their 24 games played to hold a seemingly unassailable 14 point advantage at the time of writing.

The reading would suggest then that this game is a lot farther proportioned than originally suggested, however the last time these 2 sides met, was during the 2014-15 Champions League Group Stages, where Atletico Madrid won the home clash 1-0, before a goalless draw played out in Turin. In a series of ironies, firstly, Mario Mandzukic represented Atletico that season, while Alvaro Morata wore the Juventus jersey, and at the knockout stages, Real Madrid would eliminate Atletico, before Juventus eliminated Real in the semi-final! In the years that followed, both teams would suffer knockout stage and final defeats to Real Madrid; Atletico in the 2016 final and semi final in 2017, and then Juventus in the 2017 final, and aforementioned quarter final in 2018. For as strong Juve are, they notoriously under-performed in their finale defeats in 2015 and 2017, while only Real Madrid have ever defeated Atletico in the 8 one off European showcase fixtures they have played this decade. While you may question the talent pool that the Europa League yields, Juventus will have painful memories of that competition in 2014, when the opportunity to play the final in their stadium that year hung in the balance; they would fall to an upset semi-final elimination by Benfica; the same season that Atletico Madrid were first beaten by Real Madrid in the Champions League final. With so much dovetailing recent history with one another, it seems that a knockout clash between the two sides at the climax of the decade was all but fate…

What is also most fascinating is the resuming battle between Anotoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo; you will be hard pressed to find 2 more, in-form players in 2019 than their club’s respective #7’s, with Ronaldo scoring 6 times this year, while Griezmann has 7 strikes to his name since the turn of the year, and it likely fall upon the shoulders of these 2 men to provide the difference in this finely balanced tie. The first leg emanating from the Spanish capital, I believe will end 1-1, with Atletico taking a lead, likely through Griezmann, before Ronaldo equalises for Juve’ to take his tally to 22 goals in 31 games against the ‘Rojiblancos’. Incidentally, the last time the 2 players played against one another, was the 1-1 draw in the Madrid derby last April, where both players scored their team’s solitary goal that afternoon. With the advantage going to Juventus following their away goal, they will return to Serie A duty, and the league title could be all but wrapped up as they play: Bologna, Napoli, and Udinese ahead of the visit of Atletico Madrid on March 12th. 6 points are a given against Bologna and Udinese, and given their upward trajectory, I’d hedge my bets that they prevail in Naples too, keep alive their unbeaten domestic campaign, and have them best placed for the Champions League second leg.

Never a side to be perturbed; Atletico Madrid will have enough confidence in their squad that they can get a positive result in Turin to reach the quarter final, however tricky ties against Villarreal, and Real Sociedad could compromise their 2nd place position in La Liga, while the visit of Leganes on March 9th should be a formality. History has not been kind to the Spanish side away against Juventus, in fact, in 4 visits to Piedmont, they have not scored once! That I expect will change however, following what will be another 1-1 draw in regulatory time, where I have a feeling that Diego Godin, and Mario Mandzukic will score for their respective outfits. Down the stretch however, I see Juventus edging the contest to nab a goal in extra time to all but deflate the wounded Atletico, before netting a 3rd for good measure, to eventually win 3-1 on the night, and 4-2 over 2 legs.

1st Leg: Veltins Arena 20/02/19
2nd Leg: The Etihad Arena 12/03/19

In the 8th and final contest of this season’s Last 16 preview; Germany and England match up for the 3rd time, as Premier League champions: Manchester City take on Schalke! What should have been a compelling match-up, has now become arguably the most lopsided tie of the entire draw…

Schalke were last season’s Bundesliga runners-up; securing the best league finish since the 2009-10 season, where they also finished runners-up to Bayern Munich. The following season, although they would reach the Champions League semi-final; they would stumble to a 14th place finish in the league, ironically, the exact place they sit currently in the BuLi! Losing star man: Leon Goretzka to Bayern was always going to be bitter pill to swallow, as was the departure of the highly rated: Thilo Kehrer, however could have foreseen such a fall from grace domestically for Domeico Tedesco’s side. Goals have been the biggest issue for the side from the Ruhr region; they have scored just 25 goals in the league, and their top scorer in all competitions is Nabil Bentaleb with 6 goals; that tells its story in and amongst itself. A disastrous start to the campaign saw them lose their opening 5 league games, and not only have they failed ever win more than twice in a row in the league this season, they are presently 4 league games in a row without victory; something which makes their DFB-Pokal form, where they are in the semi-finals, and their Champions League form all the more perplexing. Drawn in Group D with: FC Porto, Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow; they successfully navigated the group winning 3 (half of the total of their 6 BuLi wins this season!) and losing just once; albeit scoring just 6 goals along the way. Their match-day 1 draw with FC Porto was also the only game in which the Portuguese champions dropped points in this season’s Group Stage, however not even that solid body of work in Europe is likely enough to give Manchester City cause for concern…

Manchester City’s record setting Premier League title win last season, saw them become the joint most successful Premier League winning side this decade; joining Chelsea on 3 crowns apiece. It was a season that redefined the English top flight, with almost every team record that was there to be broken, being broken! If there was one blemish, then no doubt, it was their disappointing quarter final exit at the hands of Liverpool, where they were blitzed in the first leg, 3-0 at Anfield, before feeling hard done by in the second leg, where they were stunned 2-1 at home. While they have fallen only just slightly from the incredible standard they set last season in England; they still remain amongst the very tip of the spear of club’s right now. Moreover, their form in 2019 has been nothing short of scary; in their 12 games played this year, they have won 11 times; scoring 46 times and conceding just 4! Moreover, they ended Liverpool’s unbeaten league run, and after trailing them by 7 points at the end of 2018, they are now back at the summit of the division, albeit, by goal difference and with an extra game played. After their early baptisms of fire in this competition, City have now reached the Last 16 in each of the last 6 seasons, however, only the quarter final in 2 of those seasons before this one. Their group stage draw saw them joined by: Lyon, Hoffenheim and Shakhtar Donetsk; and despite losing on match-day 1 at home to Lyon; they comfortably reached the Last 16 with a game to spare, racking up 16 goals along the way.

The last time Schalke played in Manchester was in that aforementioned 2010-11 season, where they reached the semi-final, before falling against Manchester United, however their history with Manchester City extends as recently as a decade ago, when City, in their first season of the Mansour-era, defeated the German side 2-0 in a UEFA Cup group stage clash. The last time Schalke featured in the Champions League was in the 2014-15 season, where they crashed out at this stage against Real Madrid, albeit, in one of the classic knock-out fixtures in this competition’s recent history, when they beat Real 4-3 at the Bernabeu, only to crash out 5-4 on aggregate. Schalke also upset Inter Milan in 2011 to reach that year’s semi-final, however any such occurrence over these 2 games is improbable to say the least. I wouldn’t be surprised to see City continue in their rich vein of scoring and have the tie all but wrapped within the first 45 minutes; not too dissimilarly to the way in which they had FC Basel 3-0 down away in Switzerland within half an hour last season at the same juncture. I am going to suggest that City win this one 3-1, before some big assignments wait domestically. Coming up on Sunday, they defend their Carabao Cup title against Chelsea, and while you’d expect Chelsea to not succumb to another 6-0 hiding from ‘The Cityzens’, you have to figure that Pep Guardiola’s men will leave Wembley with their trophy still in hand. Very winnable games against: West Ham United, Bournemouth and Watford then lie in wait in the league, and after 9 points collected from those 3 games, they then welcome Schalke to the Etihad Arena. Schalke will have key contests against fellow mid-table sides: Mainz, Dusseldorf and Werder Bremen, and given their shaky form, I’d be surprised if any more than 4 points are collected in those games, before making the journey to Manchester. It will likely not be a more painful visit than the 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford yielded some 8 years ago, I still expect Man City to prevail 2-0 at home with a heavily altered side, and reach the Last 16 by way of a 5-1 aggregate scoreline.


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