The Champions League is back on CBS and Paramount+ and now it’s time for the drama to really kick off. Here are three storylines that I’ll be keeping an eye on during the coming weeks as the competition gets towards the business end:
Juventus make a deep run
It is the great cliche of the Champions League knockout draw that ties cast in one light in December can look remarkably different a few months later. That is not quite true of Juventus’ clash with Villarreal, which seemed likely to be a tight battle in late 2021 and is equally fiddly to predict a few months later. What has changed is how the winner of that round of 16 match would be viewed by those around them.
It was fair to question whether El Submarino Amarillo might enter these games with a new manager, even after Unai Emery had turned down Newcastle, such were his side’s struggles. Now they have just held Real Madrid goalless and are firmly in the mix for a top four berth in La Liga.
Meanwhile, Juventus are firmly in the mix for Champions League qualification next season, something that seemed an extremely unlikely scenario late last year, at least without them actually winning the tournament outright. Massimiliano Allegri’s men have lost just one game — the Super Cup to Inter Milan — since the one-two punch inflicted on them by Chelsea and Atalanta in late November and have risen steadily up the Serie A standings. They look a remarkably different team to the one that was laboring against Sassuolo and Venezia, probably not good enough to win the biggest prize in Europe but certainly dangerous enough to be taken seriously.
At the heart of their revival has been a defense that looks far more Juventus than the chaotic rearguard that started out the campaign. Whether partnered with Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt looks like the young defensive superstar that was wanted by all of Europe before he chose Turin. Behind the Dutch international Wojciech Szczesny at least looks like a serviceable starter after his early season howlers; since that Atalanta loss his save rate has ticked up by 10 percentage points to 81 per cent with just six goals conceded in 11 league and European matches. He still has the potential to veer drastically off script — see a near red card in Sunday’s draw with La Dea — but they are at least happening more infrequently.
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Perhaps that is explained by a defense that looks to be much more adept at keeping the ball away from Szczesny’s goal. In the 19 games leading up to the Atalanta loss opponents were averaging 11.8 shots per game, 3.3 of which were on target, and 1.1 expected goals (xG). Those numbers are hardly disastrous but this is Juventus, where excellence is the bare minimum. Now those numbers are creeping downwards, most notably an opponent xG which has been just 0.8 per game since November 28.
This may not be the starry side of years gone by but it looks like it could be effective, typified by a midfield with precious few Pogbas and Pirlos but plenty of changeable parts that can allow Allegri to tailor his approach to his opponent. Up top there is one proven match winner in Paulo Dybala, magnificently incisive when Chelsea were beaten in the group stages, and an intriguingly unknown commodity at the highest level. If Dusan Vlahovic is it — something which should not be taken for granted when so much of his back catalogue of goals came either against Serie A minnows or from the penalty spot — then this team has a lot of the ingredients required for success in the Champions League football.
After all, a stout defense and a little bit of cutting edge at the other end were among the primary ingredients in Chelsea winning the whole thing last season. That looks beyond Juventus, whose midfield is serviceable rather than N’Golo Kante, but their formula may well take them to the semifinals.
Riyad Mahrez gets the attention he deserves
For a player who scored three of the four goals that took Manchester City to the Champions League final, it was curious how little praise was garlanded on Riyad Mahrez by the wider public last season. The same has been true this year, where he has already set a new personal best for goals in a City campaign and came within one better game against Norwich of matching Sergio Aguero’s record for consecutive scoring matches for the club.
Perhaps it does not help his cause that his career has taken him from the neutral’s favorite player at the neutral’s favorite club (Leicester City) to another expensive cog in the Pep Guardiola machine. Playing for a team with a handful of serious opponents does mean that few of his 16 goals in all competitions this season actually feel significant. Certainly, his manager’s refusal to talk him up does Mahrez’s standing no favors.
Prior to Saturday’s win over Norwich, Guardiola was invited to say that this was the best version of Mahrez he had ever managed. Not quite. “No, last season was the best moment I found Riyad,” said the City boss. “He can do better this season to find the level of the last four, five, six months last season. He can do that.
“The quality of his finishing, the personality in the area, when it’s close, his technique, legs are not strong, but his feet It’s his technique and quality.” That technique might just be what makes him the most convincing candidate to deliver in clutch moments for City, just as he did against PSG last season. Certainly it is why he is trusted over everyone else to take penalties for the English champions, the soft spot in their devastating attack.
Mahrez certainly delivers in this competition. He seems to know how to pick his moments. His shots per 90 minutes fall slightly on the European stage, but that is made up for by a notable upswing in his non-penalty xG from 0.29 to 0.38. Similarly his assists, both expected and actual, take a step up when the Champions League music is ringing in his ears. Seven years on from departing Ligue 2, Mahrez ranks among the players you could most trust to swing a big game in City’s favorites. Perhaps this will be the year that gets noticed.
Ajax and Antony shine brightly and briefly
Here it comes, the moment we have been waiting for all season. Ajax in the round of 16, ready to storm the gates of European football’s moneyed elite, slaying the odd Goliath and catching the attention of an even bigger global audience, the sort who disregarded Group C due to the absence of any established super teams. They had best enjoy it while it lasts. As sure as night follows day so do European superpowers stripping the underdog for parts follows an impressive run into the latter stages by an unheralded side.
You can already see it happening. Right back Noussair Mazraoui has said there is just a “five percent” chance he will sign an extension to a contract that expires at the end of the season. Reserve goalkeeper Andre Onana, who would have been the starter if he had not been handed a nine month doping ban a year ago, is expected to join Inter Milan as a free agent in the summer. Nicolas Tagliafico wanted to join Barcelona on loan last month while the excellent young center back Jurrien Timber has been linked with Manchester City. Sebastien Haller might bear the scars of 18 months in the West Ham striker phantom zone, but he has 10 goals in six Champions League games, someone may well take a flier on him.
The jewel in the crown might just be Antony, and it is hard to see how Ajax keep hold of the 21 year old who so excelled in the group stages. Per 90 minutes his combined xG and xA, according to Opta data, was a gaudy 0.91. His actual return was even better, averaging a direct hand in a goal every 74 minutes. Against high quality opponents he put together a set of performances that rank him alongside Bruno Fernandes, Jack Grealish and Kingsley Coman among the competition’s best creators so far.
In a string of creative statistics — big chances created, take-ons, passes in the final third, assists — he ranked in the 85th percentile of players to have played more than 200 group stage minutes, often nearer the 95th. What made Antony stand out is he then did the same with his shooting numbers: open play shots on target, shooting goals added (a stat which looks at performance as compared to expected goals), actual goals. Liverpool know wide forwards who can create and score at volume. The fact they have been tracking the Sao Paulo youngster even before he moved to the Eredivisie is a ringing endorsement of his qualities.
He will surely have the platform to show them. As Barcelona can attest, Benfica are not an easy out but Ajax are strong favorites to reach the quarter finals for a reason. There they will probably get the mega club that has eluded them so far this season; if it is the right one there is no reason why Erik ten Hag’s shrewd, well-drilled and inventive side can’t claim another upset like Real Madrid and Juventus three years ago. If that is the case, expect yet more clubs ready to snap up whoever they can from this super team, starting with the brilliant young Brazilian on the right wing.
Bonus prediction: Manchester City win it all
I’m hiding this away from the main bold predictions because I could double the font, hit Ctrl+B and write it all in caps and it still would not be very bold. But what do you want me to say? This team is the best in Europe, one who has won all bar one of their games since the group stage ended and who has every manner of attacking weapon needed to sweep the competition. There are only two other teams who could realistically be said to be in the same tier as they are. Bayern Munich, however, seem more vulnerable to injuries in midfield while Liverpool have match winners everywhere but only one Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk.
One might argue that Ruben Dias occupies a similar place in City’s plans but aside from the Portuguese center back is there anyone on their list of players who they could not cope without? After all, they coped perfectly fine without Kevin De Bruyne in most games before Christmas.
There is a feeling of invincibility around City now, one articulated by Guardiola ahead of the round of 16 tie with Sporting: “The harmony right now is exceptional. Thanks to the captains and many reasons. It is exceptional.
“We know each other well. It’s been six seasons, we know each other perfectly. We accept the good things, the bad things, to fight and be part of that.”
Of course being the best team in Europe is no guarantee that you will end the season as its champions. Often it seems more like it precludes you from that eventuality. But when one team is this good picking another Champions League winner — especially one other than Liverpool and Bayern — is not bold. It is probably just setting yourself up for a fall.
Extra bonus prediction: Sebastian Haller wins golden boot
“Can I convince you to add a golden boot prediction into your bonus predictions?” asks the editor. I see what he’s doing here, cashing in on the SEO gold mine that is Champions League golden boot. Now all the more people will be able to tell me how wrong I was for thinking Juventus could make anything out of their season. This quiet little corner of the internet will be overflowing with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi fanboys gasping for ammunition in their never ending war with each other. Fine.
Anyway, remember what I was telling you earlier about Antony making all those chances? Guess who is on the end of them… and the even higher volume created by Dusan Tadic on the opposite flank. From West Ham flop to Europe’s scoring champion, Haller is going to add more goals to his tally, perhaps just about enough to hold off Lewandowski.
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