Welcoming back the Champions League

In four of Europe’s top five soccer leagues, the title races are virtually decided. Manchester City has dominated the Premier League and lead by 13 points at time of publication (USA Today, “Man United collapse allows City to go points clear in EPL,” 12.23.2017). In Spain, the little magician Lionel Messi has Barcelona riding high, 11 points clear (The Sun, “Barcelona may be 11 points clear”, 1.22.2018). In Germany, Bayern Munich are 18 points clear (Chicago Tribune, “Bundesliga Recap”, 2.03.2018). In France, Paris Saint Germain also lead by double digits. Only Italy still features a tight race at the top. But do not fear, soccer fans, the Champions League is back.

The Champions League, congregating the best teams and players from across Europe, always brings a certain magic. What soccer fan doesn’t get chills when they hear the famous Champions League anthem? This year, the lack of competition in the domestic leagues makes the return of the Champions League all the more a welcoming sight.

The round of 16, to be contested across two legs beginning Feb. 13, is filled this year with especially mouthwatering matchups and storylines. The marquee matchup is Real Madrid vs. PSG. It is a contest between two giants, a game worthy of the competition’s final, featuring some of the sport’s brightest stars.

As delectable is the matchup between Madrid’s Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema and Ramos and Paris’ Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani and company, the real drama may transpire off the pitch. Massive clubs have massive expectations. Losses at this early stage have serious consequences.

The Parisians, on one hand, are built with the Champions League, and only the Champions League, in mind. The Qatari ownership group didn’t spend a hundred king’s ransoms to bring Neymar to Paris just to score the fifth and sixth goals against Toulouse. To win matches like this, against the world’s best, is the true goal. Yet PSG have fallen short in years past, famously to Barcelona at this same stage. Another failure may spell the rolling of heads in Paris.

For Real Madrid the implications of a loss could be similar. After winning the treble last year, Los Blancos are suffering through an abysmal league campaign. To add to their league misery, local minnows Leganes ousted el Real from the Copa del Rey. Given standards in the Spanish capital, manager and club legend Zinedine Zidane might see the door should his side fall to the Parisian side, despite the accomplishments of last season.

Beyond the colossal clash between Madrid and PSG, the upsurge of English teams in the Champions League makes this year’s knockout stage especially enticing. Between 2005 and 2012 at least one English side made every Champions League finals bar one. However since Chelsea’s improbable run to glory in 2012, only two English teams have managed to reach the semi-finals.

Analysts both amateur and professional offer explanations for the recent impotence of Premier League teams in Europe: they play too many games, there’s too much competition domestically, they’re not developing talent well, so on and so forth.

Yet five English teams have reached the knockout stage this year, the first time five teams from a single country have accomplished this. And they’ve done so in confidence-inspiring fashion, with Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham all claiming top spot in their respective groups. Will this English upsurge carry on into the quarterfinals? American audiences, loyal disproportionately to Premier League clubs, sure hope so.

The chief English contender, Manchester City, should comfortably dispatch with Basel. Running away with the Premier League, City are deep, play an attractive, attack style and have Pep Guardiola. Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, their already star-studded roster just boosted by the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, will expect to advance beyond Sevilla. Fourth-place Liverpool, too, will feel confident going into their matchup with Porto.

The other two English sides face tougher challenges. A clash with perennial Champions League contender Juventus looms for Tottenham. Yet Spurs, having battled Real Madrid impressively in Group H play, seem up to challenging il Bianconeri, who have so far this season lacked the defensive stability they’d become known for.

In fact, it’s reigning Premier League champion Chelsea who look most likely to bow out of European competition. Finishing second to Roma in Group C could prove fatal to the London side, as it landed them a date with Barcelona. Chelsea’s history against Barcelona is encouraging; fans will remember Fernando Torres’ goal to send the Blues through to the final in 2012, and marvel that Messi has never scored against Chelsea.

But history means little in sport. Messi and Barcelona haven’t lost a league game all season and recently added Philippe Coutinho to their potent attack. While Barcelona soars, Chelsea sputters. Although they remain in the top four, the month of January saw a string of soul-sucking goalless draws, a Carabao Cup exit, and to cap it all off, a disconcerting 3-0 defeat to Bournemouth (BBC, Chelsea 0-3 AFC Bournemouth, 1.31.2018). To completely count out an Antonio Conte side with talent like Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kanté is unwise. But amidst the team’s struggles and the club’s drama, an in-form Barcelona over two legs looks a very tall order.

Bringing together PSG, Madrid, Barca, Chelsea, and 12 other European heavyweights, the round of 16—and its aftermath—promise plenty of fireworks.

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