New Year, Same Champions League

There is a blank page in the history books of the Champions League that teams hope to make their mark on. Here are our predictions for which teams will make their mark on the round of 16 and move onto the next stage of the competition.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

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By Jenny Chen

As Álvaro Odriozola ran down the right wing onto Luka Modrić’s pass, he took one touch to set himself and scan the box before playing the ball in the air to young Brazilian winger Rodrygo. The 18-year-old volleyed the ball into the bottom left corner beyond the Club Brugge keeper’s outstretched arm. This was Rodrygo’s fourth Champions League goal, having moved to Madrid from Brazil over the summer. He has established himself as one of this year’s emerging Champions League stars. These new stars will hope to continue their upward trajectory as the competition moves onto the round of 16. There is a blank page in the history books of the Champions League that teams hope to make their mark on. Here are our predictions for which teams will make their mark on the round of 16 and move onto the next stage of the competition.

Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea

For Bayern Munich fans, this rematch has been nine years in the making. Ever since Didier Drogba broke Bavarian hearts with a last-minute header in the 2012 Champions League Final in Munich to send the game into overtime, he left a lasting nightmare that Bayern fans have had to deal with this entire decade. For Chelsea, this is a chance to once again solidify themselves on the European stage as a Champions League powerhouse having underperformed in the world’s most prized club competition since they lifted the cup in Munich.

Both squads go into the round of 16 with two new coaches on the Champions League stage, with Bayern coach Hansi Flick filling in for the recently sacked Niko Kovač and Chelsea being led by club legend Frank Lampard. Lampard’s squad has struggled to find a consistent and reliable source of goals throughout their league and European campaign besides young striker Tammy Abraham. Chelsea’s main hurdle will be overcoming Bayern’s possession-based style of play with the likes of Thiago Alcântara and Leon Goretzka controlling the midfield, while world-class fullback Joshua Kimmich and promising youngster Alphonso Davies look to stretch Chelsea thin by spreading them out to the wings. However, Frank Lampard’s number one point of emphasis will be to do what no other team has done thus far: neutralize Bayern’s number nine, Robert Lewandowski. The Polish international, who many consider to be the best striker in the world, has 19 goals in 17 matches in the German league, in addition to his 10 goals in six matches in the Champions League. This will also be a true test for Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta-led back line and young keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Bayern, however, have to be wary of Chelsea’s counterattack. Chelsea’s big transfer for young American winger Christian Pulisic might be the key to any hopes they have in the tie, Pulisic having had great success in the German league and against Bayern prior to his move to London. Chelsea should look to press hard against Bayern in the home leg at Stamford Bridge with Pulisic as the centerpiece of their creative attacking play, hoping the likes of Abraham and Willian can provide support on the front lines. However, they must be wary of conceding that all-important away goal at home, as they do not want to find themselves on the back foot needing a goal in the hostile Allianz Arena.

Ultimately, Chelsea do not have the offensive firepower or organization to match a Lewandowski-led German superpower that has been unstoppable in their European campaign so far, smashing Chelsea’s London contemporaries 7-2 in London. Look for Bayern to secure at least a tie at Stamford Bridge and ultimately bury their demons from 2012 back home at the Allianz.

Liverpool vs. Atlético Madrid

In the round of 16’s marquee matchup, will we see Europe’s most threatening and exciting offensive team go against Europe’s most organized defense? Liverpool have all but wrapped up the English Premier League, defeating the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham. But their most impressive win had to be their embarrassment of defending English champions Manchester City. Never before had a Pep Guardiola side seemed so vulnerable and clueless. Jurgen Klopp’s team pressed the City players into making mistakes and were lightning quick and devastating on the counter. Guardiola and his side simply had no answer to the sheer pace and tempo Liverpool played with.

Liverpool’s success going forward is based on a solid foundation at the back. Virgil van Dijk is considered by many to be the best center back in the world, having been dribbled by only once in the past calendar year. His presence allows fullbacks Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, now considered the best fullback pairing in the world, to kickstart the offense on the flanks. This press aided by the ability to press and hold the ball in midfield provided by captain Jordan Henderson allows for the creative ability and talent of one of Europe’s most lethal front three to work in full effect. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, and Roberto Firmino, coming off of a Club World Cup Win and great form in the Premier League, will look to fully utilize their movement of the ball and telepathic chemistry to put together moments of magic reminiscent of those we've seen over the last few seasons.

Athlético’s path to success will have to come through their midfield. They will have to rely on players like Saúl, Koke, and Thomas to keep possession in the midfield in order to slow down Liverpool’s pace of play and neutralize their consistent pressing. If they fail to do so, though Atlético Madrid has shown the ability to bend but not break throughout the season, the consistent pressure by Liverpool’s front three and relentless crosses in the box by their fullbacks have proven to break down even the most stubborn defenses by pure volume of attacking chances. Beyond holding the ball in the midfield, veteran Spanish striker Álvaro Morata and promising Portugese youngster João Félix will have to be clinical in front of goal, as chances against that van Dijk-led defense come at a premium. Lastly, they will have to keep a clean sheet at home. Liverpool scoring goals at home is almost inevitable, so it is essential that Atlético bend but do not break to the offensive willpower in front of the Kop End at Anfield in Liverpool. If they do so, they must keep a clean sheet at home as the difficulty to go punch-for-punch with the reds will prove paramount against van Dijk and Alisson Becker.

Liverpool go into this tie as favorites, but in the past decade, Atlético Madrid have had success playing spoiler to many teams on their path to two Champions League Final appearances. However, Liverpool’s limitless arsenal of offensive firepower and current form will drag them through to the next round against a stout Atlético defense. In the end, it might come down to a late goal, one that Jurgen Klopp has become famous for orchestrating last season against Barcelona and multiple times this year in the Premiership.

Borussia Dortmund vs. Paris Saint Germain

All PSG fans will be wondering if this will finally be their year. The Parisian club has become notorious for spending record-breaking sums of money to buy world-class players, all in an attempt to capture that Champions League trophy. Ever since the club went into Qatari ownership, it has brought in world-class talent from across the world, but none more prominent that their two record-breaking transfers of Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappé. The Brazilian and Frenchman currently seem to be at the height of their power at such young ages. Neymar already cemented himself as one of the world’s best with Barcelona, and Mbappé at the age of 21 is already making a case for being a top five player in the world; his sheer pace and instinctive finishing ability have drawn comparisons to French legend Thierry Henry. Thus, there should be no excuses if PSG do what they do best and underperform against Dortmund.

Dortmund find themselves in a recognizable spot as the underdogs. But like usual, they are a young and hungry team capable of embarrassing any side on their day. The experience and world-class talent of German winger Marco Reus coupled with the young and exciting play of British forward Jadon Sancho alone is enough to surprise and pick-apart defenses on the counter attack. They’re supported by Spanish striker Paco Alcácer, who has shown the ability to finish when his team desperately needs him, and the on loan fullback Achraf Hakimi. This core will have to take advantage of every counter-attacking opportunity PSG gives them if they are to pull off the upset, and they have the speed and ability to do so.

On paper, the Parisians should blow the German club out of the water with all the talent they have dispersed across the field, having not mentioned the likes of Ángel Di María, Marco Verratti, and Mauro Icardi. This squad has already toppled Real Madrid without Neymar or Mbappe. However, PSG have historically been known to lose focus and lack the mental fortitude needed to close out European ties, their famous collapse against Barcelona three years ago still haunting PSG fans everywhere. If PSG are to win this fixture as they should, they must show the ability to keep their heads while going forward and have the defensive resilience to not get caught out by Dortmound’s dangerous counterattack.

Tottenham vs. RB Leipzig

In all reality, neither of these teams will be making it far into this year’s Champions League based solely on their lack of experience and form compared to the rest of the teams left in the competition. However, the plethora of young attacking talent on both teams from Heung-min Son to Timo Werner, have the potential to make this one of the most exciting matchups of the round. Leipzig’s plan will be simple: stay on the press and let their speedy attackers make the most of mistakes Tottenham makes at the back. Leipzig currently sit atop the Bundesliga above European giants Bayern Munich and have mesmerized fans with their goal-scoring threat. They also have the most goals scored in the Bundesliga, with 48 compared to Bayern’s 46. They will be relying heavily on Werner, Sabitzer, and Forsberg to test the inconsistent Tottenham backline.

Tottenham are coming off a Champions League final appearance last year but have proven to be rather inconsistent in both Europe and the Premier League, the 7-2 scoreline at home against Bayern Munich being the glaring red mark on their record. Fans and pundits also were skeptical of the team’s success this year after sacking manager Mauricio Pochettino, who had the most success at the club in recent history. Since then they have hired the “chosen one”: José Mourinho. Mourinho developed a reputation for being one of the greatest managers of the modern era, having won domestic league titles with Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Real Madrid, in addition to two Champions League trophies he won with FC Porto and Inter Milan. However, his most recent stint with Manchester United had many question his leadership and professionalism. It is too early to judge Mourinho’s effect on the London club, but he will have to miraculously turn around this team that has failed to perform against top-level competition in England and Europe. Leipzig are the team in form and should be favored in this fixture. Only heroics of Tottenham’s marquee forwards Harry Kane and Son can carry this disparaged Tottenham team over the line against an exciting young Leipzig squad.

Atalanta vs. Valencia

Atalanta shocked the world by qualifying for the Champions League last season with their modest squad. Perhaps even more surprising is that Atalanta managed to move past the group stages after their dramatic last-day victory helped them scrape through. Besides some disappointed Shakhtar Donetsk fans, few soccer fans will be disappointed to see Atalanta playing. Their fast-paced style of play has taken Italy (and now Europe) by storm, and Atalanta have been a very entertaining team to watch. They’ve managed to maintain their style of play even without their main striker Duvan Zapata, who picked up an injury, Atalanta are still the top scorers in Italy this season. They have more depth than they had last year, and it’s translated to results this year. With Zapata expected to be back in time for this fixture, Atalanta will be happy with their chances in this tie.

However, Valencia are no pushovers. They also showed grit and spirit to make it this far after a difficult start to their season following the sacking of their previous manager, Marcelino García Toral. He was a popular figure among the players and fans, so the transition under Albert Celades has been difficult. Despite their domestic form, they have been stellar in the Champions League, topping a very strong group. They’re starting to get their groove back in the nick of time, and on their day, they can beat anyone.

Still, Atalanta should edge this one. It can go both ways, but Atalanta have the attacking prowess to unlock most teams, and they’re improving defensively. Atalanta win this one, but it won’t be a walk in the park.

Lyon vs. Juventus

There are two central characters in this tie: Cristiano Ronaldo and Memphis Depay. When both are fit and in form, they can beat any team on their own. Sadly, only one will be fit for this fixture after Depay ruptured his ACL, effectively ending his season. Juventus were likely not very worried about a Lyon upset, but the Depay injury makes their job easier. Hopefully, Lyon can pull something off because who doesn’t love a good underdog story, but realistically, Juventus will win this easily.

Napoli vs. Barcelona

Napoli’s owners made the confusing and slightly worrying decision of sacking their legendary manager Carlo Ancelotti despite Ancelotti leading them to the round of 16. His experience and tactical prowess will be a big miss. Even more worrying is that he has been replaced with Gennaro Gattuso, who was not successful during his last job as AC Milan manager. Napoli continue to struggle in Serie A under their new management, and they look like no match for Barcelona.

However, Barcelona’s managerial setup isn’t much better, with many Barcelona fans preferring a sack of potatoes to their (very) sleepy manager Ernesto Valverde. Valverde has been criticized for his decision-making that has cost Barcelona crucial points in La Liga in Spain. After a slow start in La Liga, Barcelona’s hero Lionel Messi returned from injury to save the sinking ship that was Barcelona. They currently top La Liga on goal difference, and Antoine Griezmann has begun to pay back the money Barcelona paid for him. Barcelona fans will be happy that they didn’t get a more difficult draw as they continue to work toward their best form.

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City

When this draw was made, soccer fans around the world except for Real Madrid and Manchester City fans gave a cheer. This is a battle of two teams that are favorites to reach the final, but only one will advance, making for a very exciting matchup. Real Madrid came into this season with a clear goal in mind: winning everything after a disappointing season the year before. They signed proven players like Eden Hazard and Luka Jović as well as young talents like Rodrygo and Ferland Mendy in hopes of achieving that. Despite showing glimpses of their class, Madrid have yet to hit their top form, which is both assuring and frustrating for their fans. Injuries as well as poor performance have been the culprit, but Madrid will hope to leave those things in 2019. With Eden Hazard set to return for injury, they will have a great chance to advance.

Manchester City continue their hunt for their first Champions League trophy. They are favorites every year and have disappointed so far. Their best performance in the competition was back in 2016 when they reached the semifinals before falling to Real Madrid, who went on to win the whole thing. This is a revenge match for City, but the chips are stacked against them. They have been plagued by injuries, with Leroy Sané and Aymeric Laporte suffering long-term injuries. Laporte's injury has been particularly damaging with City conceding goals for fun in the Premier League. With these big injuries, this will be a big test of City manager Guardiola, who goes up against Madrid’s manager Zinedine Zidane for the first time. He has the opportunity to prove that he doesn’t need the big-name players to beat the best teams. City have one advantage, though. They are far from challenging Liverpool for the Premier League, giving them the opportunity to focus their efforts on the Champions League. Real Madrid can’t afford to do the same with the title race much more competitive in Spain. Real Madrid’s depth will be put to the test as they attempt to juggle both competitions, but they should still pull off a close win.