“Who does [Lionel] Messi play for”

“Barcelona”

“So they are the favourites for the Champions League”

 

Guardiola’s response to a reporter after he was asked if his team were now front-runners for the UEFA Champions League trophy following their record-shattering 18th consecutive league victory even though was probably intended to take the pressure off his immensely talented squad who have not only taken the English Premier League by storm but also won 5 of their 6 UCL group games and  had a ‘relatively’ easy draw to play Basel in the Round of 16. Guardiola’s comments, whatever the intent, are not very far from the truth.

 

More important than the form the Catalan giants is their pedigree in the competition. To be more specific how much this competition values pedigree. The last maiden winners of the competition were Chelsea in 2012 and before them was Borussia Dortmund in 1997. After the Chelsea win in 2012, the next 5 editions have been won by Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid (3 times) despite the best efforts of Atlético Madrid and Juventus who have lost 2 finals each. These clubs have in recent times been very heavily involved in contesting for the Champions League and are almost always considered favourites to win.

 

This season has however not gone to script. Atlético Madrid who made the semi-finals just last season failed to beat Azerbaijani outfit, Qarabag in either of the two games played against them and as a result finished 3rd in their group and were knocked down to the Europa League. Indeed of the 8 teams that have played in the Champions League semi-finals in the last 5 seasons, 3 have already been eliminated.

 

Last year’s Champions, Real Madrid have been in atrocious form this season by their lofty standards, and have been on a charity mission in La Liga. Gifting away points to other teams. Their 0-3 home reverse against their least favourite opponents, Barcelona perhaps being the lowest point of their season so far. Even though UEFA Champions League has often been a solace for Real Madrid’s atrocious form in the past, this season is not looking so encouraging for Los Merengues who were second best for the bulk of their 2 legged ties against Tottenham in the group stage. They are in the worst possible shape to face PSG who have been irresistible in both the Ligue 1 and the UCL with a forward line so hot that it could cut through steel. But we know Los Merengue save their best form for the UEFA Champions League and it would be unwise to belittle the 12-time champions of Europe.

Juventus who lost out on the big prize last year against Madrid face an in-form Tottenham who topped their group with a resounding win over Los Blancos at the Wembley Stadium. A win that is sure to instill confidence in the only North London Club in the competition this year. With master marksman Harry Jane leading the line, the feeling around Wembley is that Spurs can be a real dark horse in the competition and cause some more major upsets starting with the giants from Turin who will be without enigmatic playmaker Paulo Dybala at least for the first leg. Juve will no doubt count on their sturdy defense which kept 9 clean sheets in last year’s competition (including 5 in the knockout stages) to keep out Tottenham’s young guns and continue their current 6-game unbeaten run against English opposition.

Guardiola and his City side have been superb in the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League and have played themselves into being considered favourites for this season’s trophy. They’ll be glad to have Fabian Delph and David Silva back in contention for their trip to Basel. The Swiss side finished behind City’s noisy neighbors from the red half of Manchester in the group stages, beating them 1-0 at the St Jakob-park in November. A similar result will delight Raphaël Wicky’s and his wards as they look to qualify for the quarterfinals for the first time in the UEFA Champions League era. City who have lost 3 of their last 4 Round of 16 games will hope they can push past their opponents with the firepower of players like Kun Aguero, David Silva, and Kevin De Bruyne.

Porto welcome Liverpool to the Estadio do Dragão in what is sure to be an electric fixture featuring 2 very exciting sides. The Portuguese finished runners-up in Group G to Beşiktaş and have never beaten Liverpool in their 4 European meetings. It is also worth noting that they have never lost at home to the English 5 time European Champions. Liverpool’s loss of Philippe Coutinho has hardly been noticed this year, with Mo Salah leading the Red’s steady Premier League climb. Their 4-3 defeat of previously unbeaten Manchester City put the Merseyside outfit’s best and worst qualities on display and they will be hoping they can recreate the attacking verve and little else from that match. Emre Can’s absence due to suspension will be a big blow for them, but the return to full fitness of Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana should give them something to smile about.

It’s no fluke that Bayern’s return to form has come during the reappointment of their treble-winning coach Juup Heynckes. The wonderful work he’s done with the squad drawing plaudits even from Robert Lewandowski who admitted “we can definitely win the Bundesliga, DFB Cup, and Champions League, It’s not that long ago since Jupp Heynckes took charge, but when I think about how he works with us in training, I think we can achieve a lot.” High praise indeed considering how critical he was of Heynckes predecessor, Carlo Ancelotti. The Bavarians host Beşiktaş who topped their Group comprising of Porto, RB Leipzig and 2016/2017 semifinalists AS Monaco. No mean feat for the reigning Turkish Champions who have gone about quietly recruiting some top individuals like Pepe and Quaresma. They, however, lost Group stage top scorer Cenk Tosun in the winter transfer window and it will be interesting to see how they cope without the big man upfront against a resurgent Bayern.

Shakhtar Donetsk’s Match Day 6 win over Manchester City not only condemned the Mancunians to their first defeat in all competitions this season but also ensured they finished second in the group, knocking out the much fancied Napoli. Their reward for their hard work? A meeting with another Italian Giant, this time from Rome. The Giallorossi finished top of Group C after humbling Chelsea 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico. Roma enjoyed a good spell between 2006 and 2008 in the Round of 16, qualifying against Olympique Lyon and Real Madrid, but since then, they have lost all their 3 Round of 16 ties including a 6-2 aggregate hammering at the hands of Shakhtar in 2011. Shakhtar will be without Captain Darijo Srna but can look forward to more dazzling displays from their latest Brazilian import Bernard. Roma’s hopes are firmly in the hands of striker Edin Dzeko who was their top scorer in the group phase.

Sevilla’s stirring comeback from 3-0 against Liverpool was the catalyst for them qualifying for the Round of 16. They have since traded the manager who masterminded their Group stage qualification, Eduardo Berizzo for former AC Milan manager Vincenzo Montella, but they have struggled for form with only 3 league wins in their last 10 games and are not in the best form for Manchester United’s visit. Mourinho’s men may have snuck into the competition via the back door, but they have taken the UCL by storm winning their group with ease, winning 5 of the 6 matches they played while scoring 12 goals and conceding 3. Sevilla have never been beyond the Round of 16 and they will hope this could be their time, but a Manchester United team looking to return to the table of Europe’s elite would be the last team they would have wanted to face.

The last time Barcelona beat Chelsea in a single fixture was February 2006 but Chelsea have also been knocked out 2 of the last 3 times these sides have met in the UEFA Champions League. Such is the nature of this hybrid tie, 4 draws in the last 6 games with a win apiece. It is one of Europe’s most frequent and most hotly contested ties. 5 time Ballon d’Or winner Leo Messi‘s much-publicized hoodoo against Chelsea will be just one of the major motivations for the Blaugrana as they look to avenge their 2012 Semi final ousting at the hands of the Londoners. Barcelona’s comeback against PSG might have been the highlight of their UCL campaign last season, but they would want to avoid such a first leg scenario again this year. They have been a lot better defensively this season and top the charts for clean sheets.

With 2 of last year’s semi-finalists already out of the competition and the other 2 finishing second in their groups, even at the risk of breaking the UCL‘s existing codex, it could be time for some of the lesser-heralded teams like PSG, the 2 Mancunian clubs or even Roma to stake a rare claim for the big-eared trophy.

 

Article By: Ayoola Kelechi, @Ayoola_Kelechi

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