As 2019 comes to a close, with it brings a dull 2 month stretch of purely domestic club football in Europe. No more Wednesday night games in the rain under the lights, no more violin driven anthems that make hairs stand up on the back of your neck, no more games of two teams you don’t really care about, but you know the game will be a fun one for neutrals everywhere…for two months. February 18th and 19th will be two circled dates on all football fans calendars, with all eyes on the first leg of some mouth watering matches.
Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool
The matchup we never knew we wanted until we saw the two drawn together. Obviously, Liverpool are defending champions, and are looking good to repeat as Europe’s top club, but the Spanish side won’t roll over easily. Madrid have only conceded 8 goals in 17 games, the fewest in La Liga, and 5 goals in their 6 champions league fixtures, tied for 3rd fewest in the competition. However, Madrid are facing a rather full plate come February, facing 2nd place and city rivals Real, then fellow round of 16 side Valencia, before two meetings with defending European Champions Liverpool, and a matchup with Sevilla, who currently sit 3rd in La Liga. Madrid are also one semi final win vs Barcelona away from playing in the Supercopa final, which would likely fall somewhere in that time period. Diego Simeone’s side will be put to the test and will also be fighting the battle of attrition, and factors such as squad rotation and health will play a larger role than usual. On the other side of the ball, Liverpool gladly welcome all challengers who try to dethrone Klopp and his Merseyside army. The last time Liverpool were in the Wanda Metropolitano, they were raising the Champions League trophy back in June, and Klopp undoubtedly is confident in his side to go in and get the job done. And rightfully so, unbeaten in the Premier League, no major injuries or problems in the dressing room, the Reds are cruising along like one big well oiled German engineered machine. The fast and exciting wing play of Salah and Mane will be an interesting matchup against the more traditional outside midfield roles payed by Koke and Saul, who slow down the game and drive players into midfield where their creative abilities are limited. However, it should be a very exciting clash of two different styles of play over the course of 180 minutes (or more).
Borussia Dortmund vs PSG
A clash of two of the most “almost there” teams in Europe. Dortmund, a side that despite selling numerous of their biggest names over the better part of the last decade, have found consistency in getting past the group stage. 3 Round of 16 and 3 quarter final exits since they lost the final to Bayern in 2013, Dortmund have always been a team to watch, but never fear. Losing twice in the group stage, 2–0 to Inter and 3–1 to group winners Barcelona, the Germans only managed to tally up 8 goals, tied for lowest of all teams that advanced to the knockout stage. Head coach Lucien Favre favours an attacking mindset, given the opponent, with a 3–4–3 becoming a common sight for his line ups. However up against an attacking powerhouse in PSG, he might think twice about having three at the back. While the front three of Sancho, Reus and Hazard is appealing to watch, this matchup will be won in their defensive third, by their outside midfielders. Nico Schulz has been a great addition to the side since his transfer from Hoffenheim in May, and fits the bill perfectly of a wing back who knows how to lock down players, and is smart enough to know when to join an attack. He will have his hands full with PSG’s ever growing list of talented attackers. Led by marksmen such as Icardi and Mbappe, Paris were treated to 17 goals, helping them to reach the second best goal differential in the group stage this year. However, while the list of Neymar, Mbappe, Icardi, Cavani, Draxler and more is eye catching to say the least, it was the teams defence that really stood out in the first 6 games of the competition. Only 2 goals conceded, both to the hands of Karim Benzema in a thrilling 2–2 tie, left teams pondering how they were going to get past that line of defense, without throwing too many men forward and exposing their own defence. This game will be a great chess match of two sides who both are trying to prove they genuinely belong in Europe’s elite.
Atalanta vs Valencia
Atalanta’s win on the last match day against Shaktar Donetsk was a classic “win and in” game. A strong second half helped the Italians win 3–0, and squeak their way into second in the group. The fact that they advanced still kind of confuses me, given that they lost their first 3 matches by a combined score of 11–2. Losing by 4 to both Manchester City and Dinamo Zagreb. But a hard earned second effort against City ended in a 1–1 tie, and a composed 2–0 against Zagreb set up the aforementioned game against Shaktar Donetsk. Looking forward, this matchup is probably the best possible outcome for head coach Gasperini’s side, with Valencia going through a bit of a rough patch. Winning Group H on a frantic last day effort against Ajax, the Spanish side never really found their form in the group stage, tumbling their way to an unconvincing triumph over group members Chelsea, Ajax and Lille. Despite only losing one game, their 11 points was tied for lowest out of all the group winners, and their 7–6–4 record has them sitting at 8th in La Liga. With Rodrigo and Gameiro leading the lines, Valencia seem to be stuck in that circle of mediocrity, hovering between really having a run at the Europa league and just a team to fill up the lower spots in the round of 16 of the Champions League. Having not advanced past the round of 16 since 2007, this is a golden opportunity for the spaniards to make an impression on Europe and prove that they deserved to win their group, and that they are a team to not underestimate moving forward in the competition.
Tottenham vs RB Leipzig
With last years memorable and historic Champions League run still fresh in the memories of their supporters, Tottenham are in a weird position heading into the group stage. New manager Jose Mourinho turned a lacklustre Tottenham side into a rejuvenated squad, and cruised to second place in their group. But, similarly to Athletico, their 2 fixtures against an organized and compact Leipzig side falls at a rather inconvenient time for the North Londoners. In an 8 game stretch, they host Manchester City, play Leipzig twice, are away at Chelsea, and host Wolves and Manchester United. Spurs talented side can compete and hold their own in all of these games, but the relentless pressure of a pivotal time in the season in numerous competitions for Tottenham is something to keep an eye on. In terms of their matchup with Leipzig, the two sides play a very similar style of football, so it will likely come down to talent and desire. Attacking through the middle with brute force, with the option of silky flair and pace down the wings, all lead by a tactician who meticulously plots gamelans specific to each opponent better than any other manager, is a enticing mixture, but one that Leipzig is able to handle. Leipzig have been this season’s least surprising surprise, as they sit atop the Bundesliga standings and winning their group, topping Lyon, Benfica and Zenit. Timo Werner is in fantastic form and is quickly becoming one of the hottest transfer targets for the upcoming January window. 16 goals in 15 league games is a conversion rate that has caught the eye of numerous larger European teams, and should he still be at the club come this fixture, he will be an important man that Tottenham’s midfield and defence will have to watch very closely.
Chelsea vs Bayern Munich
In a rematch of the 2012 final, this will again be a matchup of 2 teams that are close in talent with similar playing styles. Chelsea’s strong but breakable defence is going to be in tough with Robert Lewandowski in and around the 18 yard box. Lewandowski is the tournament’s top goal scorer so far, with goals in 6 games, he’s averaging more than a goal per half (based off of minutes played). It’s not just the strike force however, their midfield has an impressive ability to expand at ridiculous speeds, forcing a counter attack with the likes of Coutinho, Gnarby, and Perisic being able to run the ball 40 yards at a time. The greatest factor that the Germans have going for them is their organization, without question. Their ability to get 11 men behind the ball on defence, and looking so in sync as a wave of red and white comes forward with the ball on offence, it overwhelms a lot of midfields, and with the defence marking up with Lewandowski, you can take your pick of the other talents for who will finish off the goal. That midfield matchup favours Bayern, with Chelsea struggling to really find an identity under Frank Lampard. Despite just 2 wins in their last 7 in all competitions, including losses to Bournemouth, Everton and West Ham, Chelsea still sit 4th in the Premier League. Only Watford have gained less points than Chelsea over the last 5 games, which says a lot about the Blues since Watford is last in the league. However a Chelsea team now and a Chelsea team after transfer window could be completely different, with Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich not afraid to splash some serious cash in January, especially to “celebrate” the lifting of the transfer ban. But in terms of the squad Lampard is currently working with, his revolving wheel of midfielders (Kante, Kovacic, Mount, Jorginho) really needs to be sorted out or else it could be a long 2 games, and on that note, a long season for the West Londoners.
Napoli vs Barcelona
It has been 4 competitions since Barcelona last reached European glory, and a pair of draws and some unsettling victories over their group rivals gave the catalonians top spot in group F. Obviously, thier free flowing, fast paced attacking football is flashy, and it’s done them well so far this season. Topping both their Champions League group, as well as La Liga (just), Barcelona are proving that they are still an absolute behemoth, to be feared by all, rivaled by none. However since thier 3–1 victory over Juventus in Berlin in 2015, three quater final exits and a heartbreaking blown 3 goal lead against Liverpool have Barcelona seeing red in the knockout stages, and they start 2020 off with a tough test against Napoli. The Italian’s were undefeated in the group stage, including a 2–0 win against defending champions Liverpool. The slow play of the central midfield pairing of Allan and Ruiz almost forces opponents into the middle. Once the ball is won back, they unleash a dangerous counter attack, featuring Mertens, Callejon, Insigne, and the deadly finishing and aerial ability of Polish striker Milik. Their fierce, almost positionless attack almost mirrors that of Barcelona, however, it is very difficult to immitate the playing style of Messi and company, and this should be a fantastic, end to end goal fest.
Lyon vs Juventus
After squeezing out a second place finish in arguably the most competitive group, Lyon face another tall task as they prepare to do battle with the Old Lady. Filled with players that are actually still pretty decent, and when you hear their name you go “oh yea, him”. Memphis Depay comes to mind, along with Moussa Dembele, Bertrand Traore, and Rafael. Despite just beating out Zenit and Benfica, Lyon’s league play has been another story, calling 8th place home in Ligue 1, but do just sit 6 points outside a champions league place, so expect a lot of movement in the french division. As for Juventus, they are seeking thier first win since 1996, and their roster is more than capable of doing so. On that ’96 team, legends like Deschamps, Vialli and Del Piero lead the lines for the italian squad, but their replacements 24 years later aren’t half bad either. a back four that initmidates all competition, a Juventus staple. As well as Matuidi and Pjanic holding down the fort in midfield, allowing goal scoring machines Dybala and Ronaldo all the space they want to put the game beyond reach. Lyon will have a tough time containing the two marksmen, and sending too many men and wasting too much energy could allow full backs like Sandro and Cuardrado to leap forward and empty their tanks in a foot race they know they will win. In order to advance to the next round, Lyon have to play smart football, becuase if they stary too far from the tactics that coach Garcia drew up for them, holes will appear in their defense, or even worse, the midfield. If they lose the battle in midfield they can kiss this fixture goodbye, but the longer Juventus are contained, the more frustrared and mistake prone they become. Patience is key for Lyon, urgency and aggressiveness is the deciding factor for Juventus.
Real Madrid vs Manchester City
Well this is the matchup we all wanted, the Goliath vs Goliath matchup, the fixture that the lights shine brightest on. 2 sides that spend ludicrous amounts of money to get the biggest names representing one of the biggest clubs in each of their respective countries. Right the way through the two rosters we see even competition, Ederson and Courtois, Aguero and Benzema, Sterling and Hazard, De Bruyne and Modric, I could go on forever. Morale of the story is, this one is going to be good, this one is going to be juicy, this one is going to leave you waiting like a fool for two months before you get to watch the spectacle. Real Madrid, have been crowned champions of europe14 times, 14 times more that City have. And they are poised (as always) to add another to their tally. Tied for 1st in La Liga, and despite coming second to PSG (a worthy adversary), are still one of the favourites to take the whole thing in Istanbul. Almost every position available on the field is one of the best at thier specific roles, and if not, coach Zidane is not afraid to change the system. Over the last 2 years, Isco has transitioned from a creative, nifty CAM to a winger, dazzling defenders like a previous left wing who left about two years ago… The spaniard is just one example of many of Zidane bending players to fit his mold, and his young bench (Jovic, Vinicius Jr. , Casemiro) will keep Los Blancos in contention for euripean glory for years to come. Squaring off against Zidane in the coaches dug outs will be Pep Guardiola, the spanish tactiton who has undoubtedly taken Manchester City to the next level. Himself, and the budget he has had to bring in players of course. I’m not slandering Pep’s name or his abilities, if anything I’m applauding his recruitment skills. And it’s those skills that have landed him one of the most talented squads that english football has ever seen. While Manchester is competeing with Leicester for second place in the premier, Pep is chasing the one trophy that has eluded him (while in England). Winning the tournament with Bayern as well as Barcelona, Pep is hoping, and confident that his squad is more than capable of taking the crown. In order to do that, he needs to elevate every players game on that field, because if for a second they take their foot off the gas, well, do I even need to say any more?