PREVIEW: Champions League

Lewis Tizard takes a look at the biggest talking points from this week’s Champions League matches.

FC Basel vs Manchester City

One could argue that this tie sees the best team in Europe this season facing the weakest team left in the competition. Man City have been nothing short of sensational this season, reflected by their huge lead at the top of the Premier League and presence in all four possible competitions. The money spent by Pep Guardiola may be a key part of this success, but make no mistake, the Spaniard is a manager of tremendous ability, and his players have backed up his tactical prowess on the pitch week in week out. City nearly produced the perfect group stage with their only blip in Group F coming in a defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk, while Basel were runners-up in Group A, their 12-point tally including a home win over Manchester United. The Swiss side have been weakened though by the January sales of Manuel Akanji and Renato Steffen to Dortmund and Wolfsburg respectively, and will rely heavily on Dimitri Oberlin to provide the goals. Hence it is extremely difficult to predict anything other than Man City gaining a first-leg win over Raphaël Wicky’s side, especially given the form of Sergio Agüero and Kevin De Bruyne. The only slight worry for the visitors could be Basel’s record against English sides at St. Jacob-Park, having won six of the 14 games.

Juventus vs Spurs

Spurs might consider themselves rather unfortunate to have topped a group featuring Real Madrid and Dortmund, only to then be rewarded with a draw against last season’s runners-up Juventus in the next round. However, the big games are what the Champions League is all about, and in that respect the north London club are certainly getting their money’s worth. Harry Kane is playing as well as he ever has and his confidence will be sky-high following his derby winner on Saturday. However, the likes of Dele Alli, Heung-Min Son and Christian Eriksen will have to offer him plenty of support if Mauricio Pochettino’s men are to score against a Juventus side who have conceded just once in their last 16 matches in all competitions. A fully integrated and in-form Medhi Benatia has been key to all these clean sheets, but at the other end of the pitch the Italian team may struggle, having only scored seven times in the group stage and could potentially have Paulo Dybala miss the first-leg through a thigh injury. Aside from Kane’s shootout with Gonzalo Higuaín, the midfield will also be a key area of battle with Mousa Dembélé doing his best to disrupt the creativity of Miralem Pjanic. Spurs would surely see a draw as a great result to take back to Wembley for the return encounter.

Porto vs Liverpool

The fab four has become the tremendous three, and even then Sadio Mane has been in disappointing form of late. But no matter as Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah are on fire and are easily the first two names on the team sheet at the moment. Virgil Van Dijk has already looked imposing and solid in a Liverpool shirt and even Loris Karius is playing well. Jürgen Klopp’s side were the second highest scorers in the group stage with 23 goals, only behind PSG, and will need to keep on scoring if they want to defeat a Porto side who haven’t lost a League match all season. Vincent Aboubakar will be the main threat to the visitors having scored five goals in the group stage, while Sérgio Conceição possesses two quality fullbacks in Alex Telles and Ricardo Pereira. Liverpool have shown some improved character and resilience of late and are starting to learn how to win and see out games in a professional manner – a vital characteristic to any side hoping to go deep in the competition. The Reds have such a rich history with the Champions League and its previous form, and will be hoping to be in a strong position when the tie arrives at a bouncing Anfield for the second-leg.

Chelsea vs Barcelona

This fixture has seen some memorable moments over the years, from Andrés Iniesta’s last-gasp winner and Didier Drogba’s “It’s a disgrace” in 2009, to Fernando Torres’ progression-sealing and Gary Neville-screaming goal in 2012, and of course not forgetting that Ronaldinho goal in 2005. But as of right now the two teams find themselves in contrasting positions. Barcelona sit comfortably at the top of La Liga having, like Porto, not lost in the League all season and Lionel Messi shows no signs of slowing down his brilliance any time soon. While manager Ernesto Valverde has rejuvenated the Spanish giants, Antonio Conte finds himself under extreme pressure and criticism following recent back to back league defeats to Bournemouth and Watford, and big-money summer signings like Tiémoué Bakayoko having an absolute stinker of a season. The club just doesn’t seem to be run efficiently, with sporadic short-term success hugely prioritised over long-term development. There will be a lot of weight on the shoulders of Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard to trouble Barca’s defence, and even if they get past that, Marc-André ter Stegen has been in fine form. Being at home could well force Chelsea into trying to get on the front foot, which may only open the floodgates for the visitors’ wizardry.

Sevilla vs Manchester United

A trip to the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium could well be a tricky test for Jose Mourinho’s team, but a closer look at Sevilla’s form does indicate some inconsistency in the side. Two recent wins against Atletico Madrid, but also a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Eibar. Sevilla scored 12 goals in their group stage matches, but also conceded 12, and this is something that Alexis Sanchez and co will certainly look to exploit. But despite United’s attack seemingly holding all the pieces to destroy teams, it has recently been quite the opposite due to Anthony Martial being played out of position to accommodate Sanchez and Paul Pogba being forced into a more defensive role. A change to a 4-3-3 formation is the logical way forward for United, especially for an away Champions League game, but Mourinho often doesn’t see it so clearly. He often is so caught up with the tactical sides of things that he doesn’t allow his players to break the shackles and attack. There must of course still be some regard for tactical nous though, given Sevilla’s pedigree in Europe and ability to really drum up an atmosphere at home. Even at 3-0 down they can hurt you, just ask Liverpool.

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