As the UEFA Champions League reaches its knockout stages, the stakes have become higher and the margins slimmer. Teams are readily opting for efficiency at the expense of aesthetics, conservatism at the expense of expansiveness.
Last week’s matches had one very obvious theme: close-shave victories. Three 1-0 wins, with only Benfica winning by more than one goal. Of course, this means that it is all to play for in a fortnight.
The remaining matches of this round will go down this midweek. Might we expect another set of keenly-fought games? Or will teams seek to get the job done early?
Liverpool vs Real Madrid
These two teams must be getting tired of playing each other almost every other season. Well, Real Madrid might yet be looking forward to this encounter after winning their last two European titles at their rival’s expense. Indeed, the Reds have not defeated this opponent in six matches.
And yet, Jürgen Klopp will be confident after somehow managing to arrest the slump of the past few weeks. Two impressive Premier League victories, two clean sheets, and the return from injury of some of his starters spell plenty of positives.
Against the champions, Liverpool must get off the blocks. Klopp’s men have been slow starters in recent weeks, something they cannot afford against a devastating attack like that of the La Liga champions.
One key battle on which many will have their sights set is the Vinicius vs Trent Alexander-Arnold battle. The Brazilian forward, since the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, has been a different demon, consistently tearing apart every comer. Klopp might do well to overload that aspect of the pitch.
At the other end, Mohamed Salah will fancy his chances against David Alaba. Stefan Bajcetic has been impressive since Thiago Alcantara’s injury. The young midfielder will have his work cut out against the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
The clear objective for Liverpool will be to press high, regain possession in dangerous positions, and pounce effectively.
However, Real Madrid have been down this road too many times. Regardless of the performance, they are never really dead until it is technically over.
Ancelotti will hope for the same mentality that has spurred them on to win titles season after season. Karim Benzema will once again be key to what the Los Blancos do going forward.
Frankfurt vs Napoli
This fixture holds plenty of promise, with both sides in exceptional form and having the most clinical forwards in Europe. Of course, an overall look at the quality of these teams will place the Serie A leaders just ahead.
Frankfurt are the Europa League champions. Oliver Glasner will hope to impress this on their mentality as they take on their Italian counterparts.
While the Bundesliga outfit is just as expressive, the Austrian manager might be quick to impose some measure of conservatism. Evan N’Dicka and Tuta will need to keep their communication channels open for the entire duration against one of the hottest strikers in the world, Victor Osimhen.
The Nigerian has scored 18 goals in 19 league matches, including his last seven, and his partnership with Kvicha Kvaratskhelia has continued to flourish.
Glasner will also count on the experience of Mario Gotze and Jesper Lindstrom to wrestle possession in midfield.
Kolo Muani needs no introduction, especially after his feat at the World Cup. Even more, the French forward has scored six goals in his last seven matches for the German team.
For Luciano Spalletti, his team’s ability to find each other in tight spaces and quickly will be key to how they perform. Zambo Anguissa and Piotr Zielinski will need to be perfect in midfield.
Osimhen will be ready to pounce at every turn, and his form will give him the confidence to shoot on sight.
These teams are dark horses that will be keen to upset the competition’s order and push their luck as far as possible.
Prediction: over 2.5 goals
RB Leipzig vs Manchester City
RB Leipzig were brilliant in the group stages, even against Real Madrid. They have also churned out some fantastic results in the Bundesliga, which leaves them only five points behind the leaders, Bayern Munich.
However, they face a tough test against last season’s Champions League finalists, Manchester City. Yet, the German side might be even more hopeful, especially seeing the Citizens’ inconsistencies since the start of the year. Pep Guardiola’s men have failed to win four of their last five away matches.
While Rose’s men will have a tough task in controlling the midfield, Dominik Szoboszlai and Nico Forzberg will fight and scrap for every ball.
Leipzig are also boosted by the return of Christopher Nkunku, who will likely start from the bench. Still, the combination of Andre Silva and Timo Werner will fancy its chances against City’s vulnerable defence.
Guardiola will be desperate to put behind them last weekend’s poor outing against Nottingham Forest. Erling Haaland will also hope to atone for his horrible misses against a team he is familiar with.
Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan will look to establish control while finding the Norwegian forward with quick passes.
On the balance of quality, Manchester City are favourites to win this game.
Prediction: Manchester City win
Inter vs Porto
Inter could not have hoped for an easier opponent, especially after finishing second to Bayern Munich in the group stages. They face Porto, who had to dig deep in the latter stages to progress in first place.
Simeone Inzaghi’s men, while in second place in the league, are 15 points behind the leaders. Hence, it feels very logical to give everything in this Champions League game.
The Italian boss will trust his 3-5-2 formation to deliver the goods. Denzel Dumfries and Federico Dimarco will get the freedom to dominate the flanks from their wing-back positions. Marcelo Brozovic, Nico Barella, and Hakan Calhanoglu will hope to dictate the pace of the game from midfield.
After Romelu Lukaku’s fine finish against Udinese at the weekend, he should get the nod alongside Lautaro Martinez. And if they are able to find anything close to their usual telepathic partnership, then it may be a long night for Pepe and David Carmo in the Porto defence.
Porto will be willing to have a crack at this, following their 22-game unbeaten streak. Sergio Conceicao will count on Marco Grujic in midfield, but even more importantly, Mehdi Taremi in offense. Zaidu Sanusi will also be one of their willing offensive outlets from left-back.
This match is very close to call. In effect, goals might come at a premium.
Predictions: under 3.5 goals