It’s that time again folks. The superpowers of the European footballing world are gearing up after their two-month long slumber: we’re into the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. It’s a far cry from the last gasps of the group stages, all the way back in the distant days of December when European games filled the relative dearth of midweek football. Now that we have decisive FA cup upsets and pivotal latter-stage League games crowding the schedules, it can be hard to make time for the more continental strain of the Beautiful Game. With that in mind, here’s a bit of a refresher for the upcoming clashes.
On February 24th, Serie A champions Juventus play Borussia Dortmund, while Man City face up to Catalan Crusaders Barcelona. Of all the eight match-ups, this former could very well be the one to watch. Dortmund’s spectacularly awful start to their season has been well documented, but they have finally pulled themselves up from the bootstraps, and out of the Bundesliga’s relegation zone. Last Friday’s clash with bottom of the Bundesliga Stuttgart saw them come away with the three points. This came off of the back of their last match, triumphing 4-2 against Mainz, with a stupendous display by Marco Reus stealing the show. It won’t hurt that their star player has just extended his contract for the next four years. Massimiliano Allegri saw his Juventus come out on top in a 2-1 win in their last Serie A game against Atalanta. Their 3-1 drubbing of Milan on the 7th of February will certainly help buoy a team who are 10 points clear at the top. Juventus are a team who love their possession, whereas Dortmund are certainly amenable to sitting back and waiting for the chance to counter. It should be a corker.
The clash between the Mancunians in blue and Barcelona’s all-star attack seems a little less in the balance, however. Despite City’s 4-1 defeat of Stoke, due to yet another superfluous display by Sergio Aguero, Manchester’s “noisy neighbours” only narrowly avoided defeat to Hull a week prior, with gaffer Manuel Pellegrini declaring that his expensively-assembled team had displayed “a lack of ideas”. Saturday’s 5-nil whitewashing of Newcastle at home will no doubt erase that performance from their mind. What cannot be ignored is City’s record of awful results on the European stage, and Pellegrini’s boys only managed to scrape through their group. Barcelona, it seems, can’t hit a run of consistent form, sitting in 2nd in La Liga behind rivals Madrid. After a wobbly start under Luis Enrique they seemed to be easing themselves back into the beautiful playing style they’ve long been purveyors of. Last week’s game in La Liga saw them smash Levante 5-0, courtesy of a delicious Neymar chip, an ingenious Suarez overhead kick, and a record breaking Messi hat trick. You certainly wouldn’t bet against a front three like that. Yet this front three consistently failed to deliver in Saturday’s home game against Malaga. They were beaten 1-0, and Neymar should have seen red for some questionable tackles and a dive. City’s new signing Wilfried Bony, who was picked for City’s European roster ahead of Stevan Jovetic, remains an unknown quantity up front after joining from Swansea. He did not yet look settled when brought on against Newcastle.
February 25th sees Arsenal come up against Monaco, and Bayer Leverkusen face Atletico Madrid. Monaco come into the tie having topped their group, and seem to be hitting a purple run of form. After a loss, a win, and a draw against second placed Lyon in their last three games, they sit at 4th in Ligue 1. The Gunners meanwhile have returned to the sort of top 4 consistency we expect from them, their 2-1 loss in the North London derby notwithstanding. They’ve seen out wins against Middlesbrough, Leicester, Crystal Palace, and a 5-0 thrashing of Villa to top off this confidence-boosting spell. Although Wenger cautioned that their Chilean stalwart Alexis Sanchez was “not himself” in the Leicester win, he seemed back to fighting form in the FA Cup win against Boro. Despite throwing away a 3-0 lead against Anderlecht, Arsenal finished second in their group, on equal points with Dortmund, which most of their fans will perceive to be a blessing considering the resulting draw with Monaco. Unless Berbatov and his Riviera contingent are in the mood to cause an upset, this is probably the easiest tie of the week to call.
The Spanish-German tie is far harder to predict, although one would fancy Diego Simeone’s men to edge it over two legs. Leverkusen, for a team of their history, sit uneasily at 6th in their league – a full 22 points behind the all-conquering Bayern Munich. They put in a solid shift against Augsburg, who sit in 5th only two points above them, holding them to two points away from home. Although they lost their game the week prior against second-placed Wolfsburg, it was a thrilling 5-4 clash from which both teams can come out with their heads held high. Atletico continue their meteoric rise up the decidedly unbalanced La Liga, only 7 points adrift in third. Atletico’s comprehensive 4-0 defeat of their Madrid rivals will certainly only fuel their burning desire to right the wrong of their loss to Real in last year’s Champions League final. Their 3-0 win at home against Almeria, with Griezmann netting a brace, certainly puts smiles on their fan’s faces. That said, their capitulation against Celta de Vigo the week before – which saw them crumble in a 2-0 loss – certainly throws at least a shadow of doubt over this upcoming clash.
So prepare to recline into your cushiest chair, with your favourite strain of European cuisine at the ready, and watch Britain’s finest export represented by Europe’s greatest talent.