Roberto Fermino dribbles past a defender. courtesy Irish Mirror

Champions League finishes knockout stage

European soccer experts Andrew Noland and Chris Lierly analyze the results of the most competitive soccer league on the planet.

Tue 2/12:
A.S. Roma 2-1 FC Porto

This game proved topsy-turvy in the Italian capital, with both managers electing to take the counter strategy.

The soccer looked confused tactically, which allowed Roma, despite having considerably less possession time, to utilize their superior talent to scrape by a win against Porto. The Primeira Liga leaders, unaccustomed to holding on to the ball, showed their inexperience with few chances on goal, except when veteran Adrian Lopez was finally able to pry away a goal in the 79th minute.

Roma youngster Nicolo Zaniolo struck twice just minutes before Adrian’s goals, but Roma still did not look clean against an inferior opponent. Last year’s semi-finalists need to walk into Portugal with more desire if they hope to book a ticket to the second round.

Manchester United F.C. 2-0 Paris Saint-Germain F.C.
Outside of the Liverpool-Bayern Munich clash, this was probably the most anticipated matchup of the round of 16. The Red Devils have looked dominant under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, but facing the Parisian giants was always going to be a larger-than-life showdown.

With Edinson Cavani and Neymar both injured, Kylian Mbappe started up front with Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria.

United started Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford as their attack. The game began with six yellow cards before the first goal was scored in the 53rd minute by PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe, but Kylian Mbappe, determined never to be left out when scoring goals is involved, followed up seven minutes later with another score to seal the game. This makes things hard for United, because they must now go into Les Parc des Princes and win by more than a two-goal margin.

Paris St. Germaine celebrates. courtesy Sky Sports

Wed 2/13:
Tottenham Hotspur F.C. 3-0 Borussia Dortmund

This match served as a testament to both the incredible talent of Heung-min Son and Tottenham’s resilience.

They played this match without the likes of Harry Kane or Dele Alli, but instead of giving in to the narrative that their injury-plagued squad is becoming a dumpster fire, the Spurs walked onto the pitch and matched their biggest victory in the Champions League.

Son, Jan Vertonghen and Fernando Llorente each contributed a goal for Tottenham. BVB have not been without their injury issues: having both Paco Alcácer and Marco Reus out, their leading scorers, is not a situation any manager wants to deal with.

Still, both teams walked into this game as the targets of soccer media’s never-ending search for the late season choke-squad and it was Tottenham which emerged triumphant, only needing a win in Germany to move onto the next stage.

AFC Ajax 1:2 Real Madrid C.F.
This game proved the most controversial of the first week, with a VAR (Video Assistant Referee) review calling back an Ajax goal and Real Madrid star center-back Sergio Ramos openly admitting to provoking a yellow card in the waning minutes to miss the next game (therefore resting and resetting his yellow card limit).

Ajax superstars Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie De Jong played beautifully on the defensive end of the pitch, but the offensive front for the Dutch giants failed to capitalize in the opposing third. Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech evened the score in the 75th minute, but Karim Benzema’s uncharacteristic goalscoring run continued, and Marco Asensio’s strike in the dying minutes of the game sealed the win for Los Blancos.

Even with the win, Real Madrid looked poor in a theoretically lopsided matchup.

They need to fear the second leg in the Spanish capital even if Sergio Ramos decided not to take the game seriously. Solari’s tactics still look incoherent. The locker room tension is reportedly palpable due to Solari’s refusal to play Marcelo and Isco. These issues add up to Madrid looking like outsiders in the later stages of this competition; they should walk away with a win at the Santiago Bernabeu, but Ajax demonstrated that Solari needs to fix his side’s issues before they face better teams.

Tue 2/19:
Olympique Lyonnais 0:0 FC Barcelona

Unlike the other match in this time slot, this game only served to reveal the weaknesses of Barcelona. Although Bruno Genesio did attempt to counter Valverde’s pseudo-possession style soccer, neither side could get anything going.

Near misses dominated the highlights, including what should have been a dead ringer from Lionel Messi and a miraculous save by Marc Andre ter Stegen against Lyon’s Martin Terrier. Barcelona looked exposed on the defensive front and will need to shore up some weaknesses by pushing their midfield back in the next clash at Camp Nou.

Another unfortunate fact for Barcelona is that they cannot advance unless Messi has a good day: no one else on the team seems capable of scoring unless the Argentinian legend puts a touch on it. Lyon will likely play back and try to continue the counterattack.

If the Catalan defensive line does not step up, Ousmane Dembele, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho continue to disappear in crucial moments, and if Valverde continues to make irrational substitutions, Barcelona are doomed in the latter stages.

They might also find themselves bowing out in the first knockout stage for the second year in a row.

Liverpool 0-0 FC Bayern Munich
The second game of this matchday to end in a zero-zero draw, the clash at Anfield between these two historic clubs was a much more exciting contest than the scoreline indicates. Liverpool opened the game trying to exploit the same tactical error that gave Schalke an early 1-0 lead against the Bavarians a few weeks back in domestic play. That attempt failed, but the game consisted of numerous well-put-together attacking motions from both sides. If it were not Mane sailing a shot wide in the penalty area, then it was Gnabry or Coman having their crosses deflected out by one of Liverpool’s superb defenders.

Calling a game a “defensive battle” usually means it was boring, but this matchup saw both of these elites defenses beat attack after attack. However, the loss of Joshua Kimmich in the next leg due to a yellow cardth means that Liverpool will likely look to expose a now-weakened left wing.

Wed 2/20:
Atlético Madrid F.C. 2-0 Juventus F.C.

Massimiliano Allegri, instead of pressing with a coherent attack, decided to subvert expectations and attempt to out-Atlético Atlético Madrid. Juventus opened up with a confusing first half by trying to play Atlético’s Diego Simeone’s compact, counter-attacking strategy against the man himself.

The halftime talk only produced more confusion for Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri as Atlético decided to play “Juventus football” and play on the attack.

The Spanish side were rewarded with two goals in five minutes by Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin, and the Italian giants left the site of this year’s Champions League Final with a slim chance of returning to the stadium this year.

Not winning the sport’s most illustrious tournament, even with Serie A in hand, will designate this season a failure in the eyes of the Turin team’s board and fans, especially with the acquisition of Cristiano “Five Times” Ronaldo. Madrid just need to play their conventional soccer, but the loss of Diego Costa to another yellow card might prove devastating if Juventus can remedy their errors in the second leg.

FC Schalke 04 2:3 Manchester City F.C.
This game was easily one of the most thrilling games of the entire first leg, which is not saying a lot because it felt like every manager was playing not to lose in this set of matches. Sergio Aguero started City’s scoring off, and really, that could have been where it all turned into a slug fest for the Citizens. Instead, Schalke ended up scoring two goals off penalties to take a half-time lead of 2-1.

Things only got worse for City when Nicolás Otamendi, a veteran of their backline, got sent off for receiving his second yellow card. Then the comeback began. Former Schalke player Leroy Sane scored an incredible free kick to put City level, and then Raheem Sterling’s finish put them ahead in the 90th minute.

This situation means that Pep Guardiola’s men will most likely end up in the next round of the UCL, which is more surprising than it should be.

Post Author: Andrew Noland