Champions League round of 16

Following the conclusion of the Champions League group stage last week, the draw for the round of 16 has been made official, and there are a number of tasty matchups to evaluate. Teams from the same nation are not able to be drawn against one another at this stage of the competition, so as a result, we have the pleasure of witnessing many titanic clashes between reigning league champions, as well as a few underdog sides looking to make a big splash in the Champions League for the first time. Matches won’t resume until February after the World Cup comes to an end, but personally, I cannot help but begin to speculate a bit early. With that in mind, I’d like to take a look at the most interesting matchups and give my take on how they will play out.   

Where else to start but with the replay of last season’s final, Liverpool vs. Real Madrid. Jurgen Klopp’s struggling Liverpool side haven’t been the same since that fateful night in Paris. They began their group stage campaign with a brutal 4-0 away thrashing at the hands of Napoli, which ended up being the defining result in group A as despite winning their last five matches, including a win against the Neapolitans on matchday six, the goal difference swing from that first game saw Liverpool only finish second in the first phase. Meanwhile, Carlo Ancelotti’s side look as imperious as ever in Europe this season. They waltzed through a fairly easy group including the likes of Celtic, Shakhtar Donetsk, and RB Leipzig, topping the group on 13 points.  

At least at the time of writing, this tie looks to be going only one way, and that is with the victory heading back to the Spanish capital. Liverpool have no semblance of midfield stability at the moment, with aging players like Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcantara still receiving most of the minutes despite not looking up to pace at the highest level anymore. On the other side of the field will be even older stars in the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos who, unlike the Liverpudlians, are aging like fine wine and look as potent as ever this season. Current form aside even, Madrid simply has Liverpool’s number it would seem, beating them in both the 2018 and 2022 Champions League finals. This one will go similarly.  

Keeping the heavy hitters coming, two titans of the European game will clash early on in the bracket this season in Bayern Munich vs. PSG. This matchup is really a case of unstoppable force meets immovable object. Bayern Munich once again look to be an absolute juggernaut once again, as they finished the group phase with 18 points from a possible 18, in the group of death no less. Meanwhile, PSG also failed to lose a match in the group, but still somehow succumbed to a second place as after two draws with group winners Benfica, the Portuguese side jumped the Parisians on the final matchday on goal difference thanks to a thrilling 6-1 win away to Maccabi Haifa. As a result, we get this treat of a match as soon as February.  

In the rematch of the 2020 final, I think PSG will exact revenge and get by Bayern this time around. Their form in Europe is a bit deceiving in my opinion, as despite the victories, they simply don’t look to be the same team they were with Robert Lewandowski up front. Ever since the Pole left, they have been shakier in front of goal. They also play a very high line, which will allow opportunities for Mbappe, Messi, and Neymar to exploit the space in behind, something they have done relentlessly all season. PSG will scrape by simply by outscoring the Germans, but only just.    

Unlike the major clashes I’ve listed so far, the tie in AC Milan vs. Tottenham Hotspur is intriguing not solely because of the amount of talent on the pitch, but also because the personal and tactical battles promise to bring plenty of drama. There are several narratives here: Antonio Conte returns to San Siro as a manager for the first time since leading Milan’s rivals Inter to the title in 2021, England international teammates Harry Kane of Spurs and Fikayo Tomori go head-to-head, and the end-to-end play will be fantastically entertaining as both teams love to play on the counterattack. There promises to be plenty of entertainment, and I’m looking forward to it.  

On current form, Milan have to be the favorites. They are sitting second in Series A, and have made the round of 16 for the first time in a decade, so San Siro will be rocking in its return to the Champions League knockout stage. Spurs on the other hand have lost three in a row in the league, and only barely scraped through what should have been a fairly easy group with a last minute winner from Pierre-Emile Hojberg against Marseille. Harry Kane is scoring goals for fun once again, but Hugo Lloris can’t seem to stop them going in at the other end and Heung-Min Son has been hopelessly out of form all season with the exception of one hat trick against Leicester in October. Spurs also look hopeless defensively on the flanks, especially on the right where Emerson Royale is all but guaranteed to be made to look a fool by Rafael Leao. With Giroud scoring at a high rate for Milan as well, I can only see them taking this one.