The Champions League is back.
It’s the start of the knockout stage, with the headline match being the meeting between European football’s aristocrat — the 13-time winner Real Madrid — and an upstart in Paris Saint-Germain, which is looking to be continental champion for the first time. (More Football News)
A look at that match and the three other first-leg games in the last 16 this week:
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN VS. REAL MADRID
Paris Saint-Germain’s dream of winning a first Champions League title faces a potentially rude awakening against 13-time champion Real Madrid. PSG has struggled all season against teams that play quickly on the counterattack and Madrid is arguably the best around at swift transition play.
However, those attacks rely heavily on star forward Karim Benzema’s movement, touch and awareness. He is in the Madrid squad but doubtful to play as he works his way back from a hamstring injury that has kept him out since last month.
Madrid hasn’t reached the final since completing a straight hat trick of European Cups in 2018. Now Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti travels to face the side he once coached with only one win in four matches in all competitions.
Without Benzema it will be more difficult, and a backup option is resorting to perennially out-of-favor Gareth Bale. Once the world’s most expensive player, the forward only made his first appearance since August when starting in the 0-0 draw at Villarreal on Saturday.
But PSG is probably even more reliant on Kylian Mbappe than Madrid is on Benzema, and Mbappe’s injury-time winner on Friday against Rennes glossed over another laborious performance. Even without Benzema, Madrid has the edge in midfield with Luka Modric and Casemiro.
SPORTING VS. MANCHESTER CITY
A welcome draw — on paper, at least — and a fully fit and in-form squad, Manchester City is in great shape at the start of the knockout stage as the English club goes in search of that elusive Champions League title.
City’s only loss in all competitions since Oct. 30 — a run of 20 games — was 2-1 at Leipzig in the final match in the Champions League group stage, which meant little since Pep Guardiola’s team was already assured of advancing.
Indeed, more significant than the loss was the red card shown to Kyle Walker that will deprive Guardiola of his first-choice right back for both legs against Sporting and the first leg of the quarterfinals should City progress.
Joao Cancelo, rested like Kevin De Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte in the Premier League at the weekend, will fill in at right back with Oleksandr Zinchenko set to cover on the left. City, the beaten finalist last season, is heavy favorite against a Portuguese opponent which is making only its second appearance in the knockout stage, and first since 2008-09.
On that occasion, Sporting was humiliated 12-1 on aggregate by Bayern Munich. Sporting was in the competition’s group stage this season for the first time since 2017-18 and finished ahead of Borussia Dortmund to advance.
The Portuguese champions relinquished a two-goal lead in a heated 2-2 draw at domestic league leader Porto on Friday, staying six points off the top.
SALZBURG VS. BAYERN MUNICH
The importance of captain Manuel Neuer to Bayern Munich was illustrated in the Bavarian powerhouse’s shock loss to promoted Bochum in the Bundesliga on Saturday.
Neuer opted for surgery on a troublesome knee problem at this stage of the season on the premise that he can be fit again for the business end, including Champions League semifinals. Replacement goalkeeper Sven Ulreich has played twice in the Bundesliga, and Bayern has lost both games.
While the 33-year-old Ulreich has shown his prowess before, it’s clear that Bayern’s defenders don’t play with the same security when Neuer, the Germany goalkeeper, isn’t there. Salzburg came from behind to beat Rapid Vienna 2-1 on Friday.
Salzburg’s German forward Karim Adeyemi is reportedly a transfer target for Bayern’s Bundesliga rival Borussia Dortmund, but he will need to avoid a yellow card if he wants to make the second leg in Munich.
INTER MILAN VS. LIVERPOOL
The San Siro will be a familiar stadium for Liverpool. After all, the six-time European champions have already played there this season having been drawn with AC Milan in the group stage.
Liverpool beat Milan 2-1 away in December in the final group game to complete a clean sweep of six wins, becoming the first English team to do so. It bolsters Liverpool’s status as one of the favorites for a title the club last won in 2019, especially with Mohamed Salah back in its ranks after the African Cup of Nations.
Salah has scored 11 goals in his last 11 Champions League matches, and 23 goals in 27 games in all competitions this season. Inter is also a multiple European champion — the last of its three titles came in 2010 — but is playing in the last 16 for the first time since 2011-12.
The Italian team, engaged in a tight race for the Serie A title with Milan and Napoli, will be without Italy midfielder Nicolò Barella, who is suspended.
The remaining first legs are next week with Chelsea’s title defense resuming against Lille, Juventus at Villarreal, Manchester United away against Atletico Madrid and Benfica hosting Ajax.
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