Set your DVRs, plan your late long lunches, etc. The Champions League is back. If you’re a follower of European club football, you’re excited as we are. If not, but you plan to watch the World Cup this summer, this is the competition you need to watch to get ready.
First, a brief combinatorial primer on the format: between tomorrow and May 24, a total of 29 (16+8+4+1) matches will winnow the field of the final 16 to a single European club champion. The first 16 matches make up the Round of 16: 2 matches (home and away) for each of 8 matchups. The first 8 of those matches are this week and next week: 2 this Tuesday (Man City-Barcelona and Bayer Leverkusen-PSG), 2 more this Wednesday (Arsenal-Bayern Munich and AC Milan-Atlético Madrid), ditto next Tuesday (Zenit St. Petersburg-Borussia Dortmund and Olympiacos-Manchester United) and Wednesday (Galatasaray-Chelsea and Schalke-Real Madrid).
Below are our previews of this week’s four first leg matches, with a focus on which players to watch on each team (and a particular focus on players that will feature prominently at the World Cup this summer). Check back in later this week for post-match thoughts on these games, and early next week for previews of next week’s four matchups.
Other than perhaps Manchester City vs. Barcelona, the first four knockout stage matches of this week begin as a two-day Event of the Underdog Hosts, with Bayer Leverkusen, Arsenal and AC Milan seeking to take home leg victories into tough second legs against powerhouses Paris St.-Germain, Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid, respectively. (Save the dates for the second leg fixtures of this week’s matches: March 11-12 ). Each will hold hopes of good results, but each will be left ruing having failed to finish first in their groups, thus having to face powerful group winners who rose to the top elsewhere.
Tuesday, Feb 18 (all matches kickoff at the customary 2:45pET)
The week’s marquee matchup, actually the prime tie of the Round of 16, one that Barcelona’s first-year Argentine manager Tata Martino has said would be worthy of a final. Indeed, it is the only tie of the Round that pits two tournament contenders against each other. There are plenty of subplots, the main one being whether a Barcelona side that had been the defining and dominant club side of our recent epoch (2008-2012, say) can regain that form against a City side that is trying to implement the Barcelona blueprint in order to build a European superclub.
Barcelona’s vaunted precision attack is firing on all cylinders again, in particular after welcoming Lionel Messi back into the starting lineup, and back towards his fearful top form, after close to a year of struggling with various injuries. Martino will probably select Pedro and Alexis Sanchez to flank Messi front three, with the stalwart midfielders Xavi and Iniesta tiki-taka’ing behind them in central midfield, and the controversial but effective Sergio Busquets in the holding role. (A remarkable fact, illustrating perhaps the key to Barcelona’s blueprint: their starting midfield in the 2008 Champions League final, against Manchester United in Rome, consisted of the same three-headed midfield hydra playing behind Messi.)
But another member of Barça’s starting XI from that Champions League-winning side is perhaps the key player on the other side. Yaya Touré spent 3 seasons patrolling the deep midfield for Barcelona, before Pep Guardiola installed Sergio Busquets in that position, making the Ivorian giant expendable. He’s transformed his game in Manchester, becoming a rampaging goal-scoring/creating force, a rare combination of speed, power, and technical ability. And City manager Manuel Pellegrini (like his Barcelona counterpart, South American (Chilean), and in his first year at the club) apparently won’t ask Yaya to stay home today, in the way that other teams have sat back and parked the bus to try to deny Messi et al space to attack. Via a Guardian blog post titled “Manchester City will not clip Yaya Touré’s wings to combat Lionel Messi“:
If there has been one common theme running through Manuel Pellegrini’s pre-match quotes, it is that the modern-day, free-scoring City bend for nobody these days. They were, he said, the “biggest team” in Manchester now and the most important thing was to carry on playing as they have all season, keeping the ball, pressing the opposition and backing their own ability to beat anyone. Messi was mentioned almost as an afterthought. “He’s the top player in the world,” Pellegrini said. “He’s very important but I don’t think Barcelona is just Messi.”
His team were “not going to think just about defending; what we do with the ball is the most important thing. It’s very important when we get the ball Barcelona chase us. They can get tired chasing us.”
Pellegrini, in other words, wants to beat Barcelona at their own game and, if nothing else, you have to admire his boldness. Yet it does leave a question about whether City might be playing into Barcelona’s hands, if it also means Messi has the space to be at his most devastating. “It’s a problem,” Yaya Touré said. “For me he is the best. OK, Cristiano Ronaldo won the last Ballon d’Or but Ronaldo’s unlucky to find himself in the Messi era, and this era is about Messi. If Messi hadn’t had that injury, which kept him sidelined for a month, I think he would have won it again.”
Another manager might ask Touré to help nullify that threat by curtailing those surging runs from his starting position as a defensive midfielder. José Mourinho sometimes used Pepe in this role at Real Madrid, specifically to patrol Messi’s favourite part of the pitch. But Pellegrini shook his head. “Yaya plays the way I want him to play,” he said matter-of-factly. “I want him to be free.”
(For a deeper dive on Pellegrini’s tactical approach to today’s match, see this in FourFourTwo: “Michael Cox assesses the tactical evolution of City’s Chilean chief – and suggests why changes will likely be made against Barcelona..”)
Unfortunately Man City will be without their own Argentine star striker Sergio (Kun) Agüero in the lineup, who had been nearly unstoppable this season, other than when injuries have stopped him from playing. But even outside of Agüero, goals have not been in short supply for the Sky Blues this term. Yaya Touré, the physical Álvaro Negredo, the mercurial Edin Džeko, the Montenegrin Stevan Jovetić, the magical David Silva, the speedy (and sexy, for some) Jesús Navas, and the recently returned Samir Nasri all pose attacking threat, especially in the cozy confines of the Etihad. Yaya, Negredo, Silva, and Navas have some added incentive to impress–the African Footballer of the Year (3 times running!) against his former club; the other three against Barcelona’s raft of Spanish national team compatriots (and competitors for playing time this summer in Brazil). And Pellegrini will be looking to show he has fashioned a City side that compete in the Champions League with the best. Moreover, this is a Barcelona side he’s intimately familiar with, having managed in La Liga for the past 10 years, for clubs that generally had success but were never quite able to manage Barcelona’s sustained dominance (5 excellent seasons with Villareal, including one season where they remarkably finished 2nd, 10pts ahead of Barcelona; followed by one frustrating season at Real Madrid in 2009-2010, and then 3 relatively successful seasons at Malaga prior to his move to Manchester).
With all the attacking talents on the pitch, one would think this will be a high scoring affair. City have leaked goals at home all season, coping by simply outscoring domestic opposition in abundance, while defense is without a doubt Barcelona’s Achilles heel. City’s Belgian captain Vincent Kompany and their Brazilian holding midfielder Fernandinho will have their hands full trying to organize their side to deal with Barcelona’s intricate attack.
The key to the match may be how aggressively Tata Martino sets up his side on the road. Will Dani Alves and Jordi Alba play high up the pitch and join in Barça attack, as they usually do? Or for fear of City’s oft-lethal counterattack, will they sit further back, so that Barcelona’s back 4 actually plays as a back 4? City’s impressive away win in Munich in December against Bayern will give them some confidence against the Catalonian giants. Conversely, Chelsea’s away win at the Etihad a few weeks back could give Martino a few ideas of how to snuff out City’s flow, as un-Barcelona as that might seem to be.
Probably in last place among the four 1st week matches in terms of “must-see”-ness, since the conventional wisdom is that PSG will roll over Bayer and into the Elite Eight. Leverkusen will have to find a way to fend off Ibrahimović, Lavezzi, Pastore and the rest of the highly-remunerated Parisian mercenary squad, while also trying to squeak one or more past a crack defense of Thiago Silva, Alex, Maxwell, van der Wiel and/or Marquinhos–no easy feat. PSG rolled through the group stage, albeit in a relatively weak Group C, with five wins and one draw from their six matches. On the other hand, Leverkusen edged out Shakhtar Donetsk for second place in Group A. They did go to eastern Ukraine and grind out a scoreless draw, while beating Shakhtar convincingly when the Ukrainians game to the BayArena, and they beat a disappointing Real Sociedad side twice. But the lasting impression from the group stage is two thumpings at the hands of a Manchester United side that has been revealed to be less than elite: a 4-2 loss at Old Trafford, and a shocking 5-0 loss at home.
The Parisians are stacked, flush as they are with Qatari cash which has been liberally splashed to assemble an expensive all-star squad with gobs of club and international experience. Like the elite clubs they hope to compete against in the coming year, nearly their entire starting XI consists of recognizable players who have played for top club and country sides (see here for their entire squad list):
Their star is no doubt kung-fu fighting hat-trick specialist Zlatan Ibrahimović (#10), even after adding similarly built (and similarly prolific) Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani (#9) this past summer. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re a Bayer Leverkusen supporter), Cavani has been ruled out of Tuesday’s match due to a thigh injury.
Other key players to watch include los dos Thiagos: central defender Thiago Silva (#2), who is captain for both club and country (Brazil) and central midfielder Thiago Motta (#8), who was also born in Brazil but plays internationally for Italy. Although the latter is somewhat overshadowed in this squad, tactical guru Michael Cox recently picked him out as an elite player, and in some ways a key for PSG:
He was born and raised in Brazil but moved to Barcelona at the age of 17, before reaching his peak in Italy. He enjoyed life in Serie A so much that he changed his footballing nationality and became an Italian international, possible because of heritage from grandparents on both sides of his family. Therefore, his football DNA is mixed: Brazilian, Spanish and Italian — not a bad combination. If you trust the stereotypes, that is a country famed for attacking, a country famed for passing and a country famed for defending. Motta should be an all-round footballer.
That might explain why he’s such an adaptable midfielder. Although widely acknowledged as a holding midfielder, the position he currently occupies at PSG, at the international level Cesare Prandelli has used him at the top of a midfield diamond, starting the pressure from high up the pitch. He is, in many ways, a true all-rounder.
It would be tough to argue that Motta was a better individual than Edinson Cavani or Thiago Silva, but looking at Laurent Blanc’s options across the pitch, Motta is one player he really can’t lose. Given past events, Motta might not appreciate the comparison, but he’s essentially become PSG’s version of Busquets.
The list of PSG players to watch doesn’t stop there. Up front there’s the Argentine pitbull of a winger Ezequiel Lavezzi, who played alongside Cavani at Napoli for a few seasons. In the midfield, there’s plenty of young talent to play alongside the experience of Thiago Motta–Blaise Matuidi (#14, France), Javier Pastore (#27, Argentina), Marco Verratti (#24, Italy). In the January transfer window they added another talented midfielder in Yohan Cabaye (#4, France).
The defense too has some recognizable names, including a trio of Brazilians Alex (#13), Maxwell (#17), and Marquinhos (#5). Alex and Maxwell are a bit on the older side, but experienced on the biggest stages, having played in recent year for Chelsea and Barcelona, respectively. Marquinhos, on the other hand, is yet another young talent to watch: PSG paid Roma an astonishing transfer fee for him last summer, and he was on a Guardian Football listicle from a few weeks ago of “The next 10 big things: Europe’s top youngsters and stars of the future”:
Marcos Aoás Corrêa will only be 20 this summer, by which point he could be forming part of the defence entrusted with helping Brazil to win their home World Cup. He has the temperament to remain undaunted, the talent to succeed, and could benefit from playing alongside his club team-mate, Thiago Silva, with whom he enjoys a solid understanding at wealthy Paris Saint-Germain – who paid nearly £30m to sign him from Roma last year. Marquinhos calls Silva “my model, my idol. He represents so much for me and for the team.”
(And the list of PSG players we might see at the World Cup this summer doesn’t end there–also among their defensive options are Dutch right back Gregory van der Wiel)
As for the home side, the task is not impossible but certainly looks unlikely. Former Liverpool captain and current Leverkusen manager Sami Hyppia will have to hope from goals via main man striker Stefan Kießling and his front-line mates Sidney Sam and young Korean international Son Heung-Min. In the midfield, look for captain Simon Rolfes and vice-captain Lars Bender (not to be confused with twin brother Sven, who plays for rival Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund–we won’t see him til next week’s Champions League action). For more on today’s match from the German perspective, see this preview on the very good BundesligaFanatic site.
Wednesday, Feb 19:
Arsenal vs Bayern Munich (US TV: Fox Sports 2 & Fox Deportes)
AC Milan vs. Atlético Madrid (US TV: Fox Soccer Plus; rebroadcast at 5pmET on FS2)
We’ve broken off the previews of these two posts into a separate post–give us another pageview here.