It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if you even know the game at all, yet it leaves you speechless and remembering why you fell in love with it in the first place. Surely something of this sort, even by football’s ludicrous track record, wasn’t plausible. Just over a year ago, Barcelona had pulled off the seemingly impossible, coming back from a 4-0 first leg loss, thanks to three goals in the dying embers of the game, but that looked like a one-time thing, and when, this year, Luis Suarez was strolling off in celebration for the Catalans, his first Champions League goal since that astonishing comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, in the first leg to cap off a 4-1 win, they seemed uncatchable. It meant Roma had to score three times without reply, surely that wouldn’t happen.

Even when they got off to the perfect start, when Edin Dzeko got in behind Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique to put the ball past Marc-Andre Ter-Stegen and put Roma in front on the night after six minutes, even then it surely wouldn’t happen. But the Giallorossi wouldn’t be deterred by the stature of their opponents, nor the scale of the mountainous task that lay ahead. Even if we lost the first leg, we were confident with the way we had played and it showed tonight’, said skipper Daniele De Rossi. And you couldn’t argue with that statement, on evidence of the performance, Roma pushed Barcelona back, made them create very little, and were rather unlucky to only have had one goal to their name at halftime, Patrick Schick sent a header wide, while Dzeko’s was tipped over by Ter-Stegen.

The second period took the same form as the first, Roma on the front foot, with Barcelona creating next to nothing. But the visitors have been in positions like this more than once this season, where it looks like they’re almost incapable of fashioning out any opportunity, but then spring up with something out of nothing, and perhaps that was why there was little cause for alarm, on both the part of the players, fans and the manager, they have weathered many a storm this season, and not long ago, they pulled a rabbit out of the hat with two late goals in a league game against Sevilla.

But their patience became anxiety midway through the second half, when Pique brought down Dzeko in the box, and was booked for his trouble. Up stepped De Rossi, who had the misfortune of opening the scoring for Barcelona via an own goal in the first leg, and he made no mistake at the right end. Now it was 2-0 on the night, 3-4 on aggregate, Roma needed just one more. Dare they believe? Could they pull this off? On came Cengiz Under in place off Schick, as they sensed memorable night. And with nine minutes left, the moment came. From a corner, Kostas Manolas, another who had an own goal to his name in the first leg, peeled off to the near post, and his header found the bottom corner.

Cue disbelief, from Manolas’ face, to the rest of his teammates, down to his manager Eusebio Di Francesco, and the fans, both sets of them. Now Barcelona had to do something, astonishingly, they hadn’t done all day; attack. On they poured forward, but there would be no saving grace, not from Lionel Messi, who always found them a way to get them out of jail. Not from Luis Suarez, who was frustrated. Not from Pique, who came forward from defence. Nor from Ousmane Dembele, who was thrown on in a fit bearing semblance to desperation.

Barcelona had managed to escape from the claws of defeat on a number of occasions this season, but there would be no feat of escapology here. They had wriggled past Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus and Atletico Madrid this season without losing. It would be against Roma that they faltered, that they threw a Hail Mary but there would be no catch. Who writes these scripts?

Thriller at the Bernabeu

'...as Real Madrid close the book on Juventus once more'. Events at the Santiago Bernabeu would render that first leg headline from this writer on this tie rather daft. Juve had a three-goal deficit to overturn, Gazzetta Della Sport's headline before the game was 'Mission Impossible', with the 'possible' in the second part of the second word highlighted, while Marca ran 1429 simulations, with 1405 seeing Real progress. The odd 24 looked on, when by halftime they were two to the good, Mario Mandzukic with two headers. It became three-nil to the Bianconeri on the night, and three-all on aggregate, when Keylor Navas spilled Douglas Costa's cross, and Blaise Matuidi was on hand to poke it in. Then with the game on a knife edge, and extra time seemingly on the cards, Cristiano Ronaldo laid on a header towards Lucas Vazquez. A challenge from Mehdi Benatia later, Real had a penalty, Gigi Buffon was sent off for a push on the ref, and some five minutes were exhausted in an ensuing kerfuffle. Not that it mattered to Ronaldo, who buried the resulting spot kick with aplomb. For the eighth season in row, Los Blancos will be in a Champions League semi, while as Buffon walked off late on, one had to wonder: was that his Zinedine Zidane circa 2006 moment?

Elsewhere

  • For a moment it seemed plausible, Fernandinho pounced on Virgil van Dijk’s loose ball, then the ball fell to Gabriel Jesus via the boot of Raheem Sterling, and Manchester City were a goal up inside two minutes. One third of the way to the comeback, and for the entire first half, they had Liverpool pinned in their own half, Bernardo Silva hit the post, Leroy Sane was denied by the linesman’s flag, Pep Guardiola was sent to the stands, but it would be only 1-0 on the night at halftime. And there was always the worry for City over Liverpool’s potent attack, and their rather meek defence, and when Ederson’s parry from Sadio Mane’s feet fell to Mohammed Salah, the game was up. A lob over Nicolas Otamendi, and into the top corner, and City’s task became too Herculean. Liverpool still had enough time to rub salt on City wounds, Roberto Firmino pouncing on yet another Otamendi error this week. 5-1 on aggregate, Liverpool coasted through to the last four, and on the evidence of this quarter-final- and the season at large- no one would be keen to face them.

Results

Roma 3 (4)-(4) 0 Barcelona

Roma progress on away goals

Manchester City 1 (1)-(5) 2 Liverpool

Bayern Munich 0 (2)-(1) 1 Sevilla

Real Madrid 1 (4)-(3) 3 Juventus

Published in International Watch

Pardon if the eulogy seems a bit like drooling. 65 minutes gone, Ronaldo moves to the corner at the left end of the Juventus stadium, raises his hands in a gesture that could well say ‘crown me king’ and the entire stadium obliges, with applause rendering from all ends of it. He had just put Real Madrid two up at the home of Juve, the home of the side who rarely knows what it feels like to lose at home (once in 73 games before this), let alone lose so convincingly.

It was Ronaldo who bagged a double in Real’s 4-1 humbling of this same side in last season’s final, the campaign when he began his evolution towards being a pure goal-getting centre-forward, and he’s showing little signs of letting up in that department. Between kick-off and the time Ronaldo added that second goal, aside from substitute Lucas Vazquez, he had touched the ball the least of all players, yet no one would be ready to point out such stat on a man who had 36 goals in 35 games in all competitions prior to this game, and two minutes into it, 37 in 36.

Isco found space on the left, and his low cross was poked home by the Portuguese skipper (thanks in no small part to Karim Benzema, it should be said), the 10th successive UEFA Champions League game that he had scored in, and Los Blancos had the perfect start. It wasn’t just that they had found the net early in Turin, it was that they bossed the opening minutes in Turin, pressing the home side and denying them any room, moving the ball around with authority, and, but for the crossbar, would have gone two up through Toni Kroos.

Juventus knew they had to react and get on the front foot, and after a while, they did manage to, pushing Real back, causing a threat with their quick one-two passes around the edge of the area and the movement of their full-backs, and they did come mighty close when Keylor Navas had to react quickly to deny Gonzalo Higuain. By halftime, it was 1-0, Sergio Ramos had denied Andrea Barzagli what seemed like a certain equaliser, Higuain had made a few runs in behind to create openings, and Paulo Dybala had been booked for simulation.

Juve’s start to the second half was much more comfortable then they did the first, the home fans were founding their voice, and when Ramos got booked for a foul on Dybala, ruling out of the second leg, the crowd started believing they could get past Real, especially when the resulting free-kick was deflected just past Navas’ goal. Then came the 65th minute.

From a long ball forward, some miscommunication between Gigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini, almost unheard of, gave Ronaldo a semblance of a chance; he pulled back to Vazquez, whose shot was saved by Buffon and the danger seemed to have been averted. Except it wasn’t; Daniel Carvajal dinked a cross, and Ronaldo tried an overhead kick, which he brilliantly pulled off, and then came the moments that signified that act of genius. From the crowd applauding, to his manager Zinedine Zidane marvelling at the sight of what he just witnessed, but perhaps the most striking was the ball itself. As it found its way into the bottom corner, with a helpless Buffon watching, the ball decided against bouncing, didn’t even move as it hit the net, it just stayed in that bottom corner, almost like it had been decreed by Ronaldo to stay put. As legendary Real Madrid goal scorers Raul and Emilio Butragueno looked on, they’d be forgiven if they were discussing the man who’s broken all the records they set.

Not that the game was over, though. There was still time for Dybala to be sent off for a reckless high-boot challenge, still time for Marcelo to add a third, created by Ronaldo of course, time for Mateo Kovacic to also rattle Buffon’s bar, and time for Ronaldo to miss two chances as he searched for a hatrick. As the clock ticked down Juve poured forward in search of a glimmer of hope, but like in Cardiff, it was both academic and non-forthcoming.

The deed was done, and Ronaldo had left his mark. Doesn’t he always.

Elsewhere

  • Jurgen Klopp couldn’t even channel his usually hyper-active self, as there was probably a bit of disbelief in his eyes. It’s not uncommon that Liverpool would race into a 3-0 lead after 31 minutes at Anfield, particularly with their front three; that they were doing it against Manchester City, top of the Premier League by a landslide, and probably the best team in Europe right now was something else. Mohammed Salah was among the scorers, as usual, and Reds fans will hope his injury that saw him get taken off isn’t lasting one, although he did return to the bench later. More importantly, Liverpool have a foot and a half into their first Champions League semi-final for 10 years.
  • And as for Bayern Munich and Barcelona, why bother to score when the opposition can just do it for you?

Results

Juventus 0-3 Real Madrid

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City

Sevilla 1-2 Bayern Munich

Barcelona 4-1 Roma

Published in International Watch

And so they meet again. By the end of the second week of April, Real Madrid and Juventus would have met seven times in the past five years, such is the pedigree between this sides in this competition. 14 meetings in 22 years between both sides, trophies have been decided, and prestigious managers and players previously turned up for both teams, quite an illustrious past.

More importantly, by the end of the second week of April, one of Real Madrid or Juventus would be out of the Champions League, would be left stewing and ousted from a competition that has come to define them, and watch as the other sets off to be 180 minutes away from the final. 10 months on from that show-piece in Cardiff, when Real ruthlessly outclassed Juve to a 4-1 win, both sides jostle for a slot in the last four. ‘The Cardiff match was a very important lesson to grow and improve’ said Juve manager Max Allegri. ‘We could have managed the ball better in the second half and we have to be faster and deal with it in a more serene way’.

It’s no question that that loss in the Welsh capital has served as a bit of a lesson for the Old Lady, whose drop off in that game was so obvious and costly. Now it’s about maintaining focus and concentration, a trait that has served them so well in the past. ‘We have to be focused, concentrated and committed because every player on the field in great’ Allegri added. ‘We really need to be in the match psychologically as well’.

And psychologically, what would the game do for Juve? Giorgio Chiellini has said the focus is not on revenge, while goalkeeper and captain Gigi Buffon has talked about how facing Real ‘again doesn’t fill us with joy’. He may have pointed that he was referring to the quality in the side, as well that of the likes of other quarter-finalists in Manchester City and Bayern Munich among others, but you can be forgiven for thinking whether his mind was cast back to the past once again. And the past is always going to be reflected in a game of such teams, whose paths have been crossed often. Aside from that final last season, they met a round earlier in 2015, when Alvaro Morata, sold to Juve by Real, ousted his boyhood club.

They have had group stage meetings as well- Real won one and drew the other in 2013, while Juve did the double over them five years before- but their stories have been in the knockout stages, the extra-time win by Juventus in 2005, where Ronaldo (the other one) got sent off for Real and Marcelo Zalayeta grabbed the winner, Juve’s progress to the final at the hands of Los Blancos two years before, with Buffon saving a Luis Figo penalty, Predrag Mijatovic grabbing the winner for Real in the final in Amsterdam in 1998, and Juve knocking the Spaniards out on their way to glory in 1996. Not that either side seems to be placing too much thought to previous events.

Buffon has talked about how he doesn’t reflect on the previous meetings, while Zinedine Zidane, Real’s manager, who played for both sides, believes it’s ‘a completely different situation’ from last year. It might well be true, but the need from both sides is barely any different. Neither is the reality that one of them will fall at the end.

 

Fixtures

Juventus v Real Madrid

Liverpool v Manchester City

Barcelona v Roma

Sevilla v Bayern Munich

Published in International Watch

Three minutes. That’s all it took. Ousmane Dembele’s pass ricocheted to Luis Suarez, who played in Lionel Messi, and the latter’s shot found its way in through the legs of Thibaut Courtois.

That’s that, surely. Chelsea, who needed a goal to stand any chance of progressing, set up to defend, and had failed in that regard after only 180 seconds. Except that wasn’t that, the Blues weren’t quite ready to lay down, and that early goal conceded seemed to galvanise them to action. Suddenly, it was a more positive approach from Antonio Conte’s side, Willian and Eden Hazard were running at the Barca defence, the wing backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso were getting much further forward, and Barcelona looked vulnerable.

Despite being behind, Conte would have had a tinge of satisfaction at his side’s display, but there would be nothing satisfactory about what happened midway through the half. Not from Messi’s point of view, though, as the Argentine stole the ball from Cesc Fabregas, evaded Andreas Christensen’s lunge, and Cesar Azpilicueta’s stretch, then found Dembele, whose shot found its way into the top corner despite the fingertips of Courtois.

Now extra time was no longer a possibility, Chelsea needed two goals, and just over an hour to get both, at a ground where Barcelona have only conceded eight times in this competition in four years. But it wasn’t for the lack of trying, only a few blocks at the back denied Chelsea, while Ngolo Kante dragged an effort wide, then Marcos Alonso tested Marc Andre Ter-Stegen, before hitting the post on the cusp of halftime with a free-kick.

If Chelsea ended the first half on the front foot, it was nothing compared to how they began the second. Barcelona were barely able to leave their half, let alone keep the ball, and you sensed if Chelsea got one back the mood around the stadium would surely change. Then when Alonso went down under Gerard Pique’s challenge in the box, it looked like that opportunity for a first goal would come, but referee Damir Skomina was having none of it, and Olivier Giroud saw yellow for his trouble.

Chelsea still wouldn’t be deterred, and it took another Pique challenge on Alonso, this time undeniably fair, to prevent a sight of goal. And therein lied the problem for the Blues; for all their show of determination, their spirit and boldness, they hardly tested Ter-Stegen in the Barca goal, and when the hosts broke forward around the hour mark- Suarez finding Messi, who had the beating of Courtois through his legs once again- the game was up.

By then Barcelona had taken off Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, through injury, while Conte brought on Alvaro Morata and Davide Zappacosta. It was to little avail for Chelsea, they did hit the bar in stoppage time through Antonio Rudiger, but Conte’s show of resignation came earlier with the withdrawal of Hazard for Pedro.

There are worse ways to lose, but this was a lesson on how to win.

Elsewhere:

Speaking of lessons, Manchester United received one on Wednesday on the benefits of attacking. For some 175 minutes of their entire tie with Sevilla, Jose Mourinho’s side were, well, a Jose Mourinho side. The football was insipid, and they rode their luck for most of the time. But by the 77th minute of the second leg, they were two down at home, both at the hands of Sevilla substitute Wissam Ben Yedder, and, as a result of a goalless first leg, needed to score three times. Romelu Lukaku got one back, but that was it. After failing against Fenerbahce, CSKA Moscow and Leicester City, Los Rojilblancos' first ever success at the last 16 of this competition was celebrated at Old Trafford.

Results

Manchester United 1(1)-(2)2 Sevilla 

Barcelona 3(4)-(1)0 Chelsea

Roma 1(2)-(2)0 Shakhtar Donetsk (Roma go through on away goals)

Besiktas 1(1)-(8)3 Bayern Munich 

Published in International Watch

Former Arsenal striker and now Skysports pundit has said that Alexis Sanchez arrival at Manchester United was having a negative impact on the team’s formation.

The Chilean winger Joined United in a swap deal that saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan moved to The Emirates, and the winger is said to be earning over £400,000 weekly – making him the highest paid player in the English league.

Since the sensational move to the Theatre of Dreams in January, Sanchez has played 838 minutes scoring just one goal.

And after an abysmal night at Old Trafford on Tuesday night which saw United lost 2-1 in a Champions League Round 16 tie to Sevilla, Charlie Nicholas claims Sanchez, who lost the ball on twenty occasions (making it a total of 247 since he joined Man U), has unsettled the four-time European Champions.

Nicholas told skysports "At the start of the season, Manchester United had a fluency to them. Paul Pogba played high up with Jesse Lingard behind him and Romelu Lukaku on his game.

"All of a sudden Sanchez comes, Marcus Rashford gets dropped out and Anthony Martial gets moved over. All of a sudden the whole team is getting squeezed to fit Sanchez in.

"Sanchez, at the moment, does not deserve to be in the team. It's too individual. He is giving the ball away too often

"I'm sure a lot of Manchester United fans must be looking and saying 'when is he going to do something for us?'

"He looks as though he is trying hard, but this is Manchester United and you've got to deliver on a game-by-game basis and he is not."

Nicholas added that Jose’s United that won two trophies last season were disappointing against Sevilla and looked like a team that would end the season without a silverware.

"They did not justify being anywhere close to the last eight of the Champions League. They are not going to get the title and now have got the FA Cup to play for.

"Jose rescued an average Manchester United last season to get them into the Champions League with two trophies. Now he is staring down the barrel of winning zero, he added.

 

Published in International Watch

 

As the final whistle went at the Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday, Sevilla definitely knew their fate, at least what it wouldn’t be. The whistle had confirmed a 2-0 home loss to Valencia, the team directly above them in fourth place, and the result means Los Rojilblancos now lie 11 points off the top four, which means they have to worry less about those above them, but more over those below.

With their Champions League hopes via the league route all but in the dust, and the Copa del Rey not coming up for a while, Tuesday’s trip to Old Trafford carries a giant wand of importance. Sevilla’s hopes of Champions League football next season now surely hinges on them winning this one, which is just about as easy as finishing in the top four in La Liga itself, but without much to really play at this time, the prospect of a first Champions League quarter final appearance will serve as some form of motivation.

Vincenzo Montella’s side were no doubt impressive in the first leg at home to Manchester United, but will, also undoubtedly, rue the missed chances and the inability to take advantage of their dominance as the game petered out to a goalless draw. And that’s being the story of Sevilla’s Champions League campaigns in the knockout phase, first legs that bring cause for optimism and no disadvantage, then everything implodes in the return fixture and they’re left to rue what might have been. Such was case in 2008, when they were ousted at the hands of Fenerbahce, in 2010 when CSKA Moscow managed to qualify at their expense, and most recently, 12 months ago, with Leicester dumping them out at this stage. The only difference, and perhaps cause for optimism, is that unlike those years, they are certainly not the favourites, neither are they the side that the spotlight will fall on. 

With the league title already a lost cause, this game, alongside the FA Cup game with Brighton next weekend, reads for the word ‘pivotal’ in United’s season. Jose Mourinho has already described this week as ‘die or live’, playing down the weekend victory over Liverpool and placing priority on what follows. ‘Seville and Brighton are more important games than Liverpool’, said the United manager. ‘We have eight more (league) games and 24 points to play for. But Seville and Brighton are die or live games so the next are much more important than this one’.

And there’s no playing down the importance of this game for United, get ousted here and they face the prospect of a trophyless campaign, and more pressure rests on the cup tie with Brighton; they haven’t gotten as far as the last eight of Europe’s elite competition in four years. But Mourinho is something of an expert in two-legged ties, and there’ll no doubt be a touch of confidence in the team, particularly after that Liverpool win. ‘To get the kind of result we did (against Liverpool) shows what kind of team we are and if we can get past Sevilla, it puts us in a good position and then we have the FA Cup’ said Jesse Lingard.

For both teams, the league, despite its sense of priority, is the least to play for this term, as things stand, and whatever happens at the Theatre of Dreams will go a long way to shaping the rest of their seasons.

Elsewhere:

  • In terms of importance, it’s also a weekend of magnitude for Antonio Conte and Chelsea, with the return leg of the finely-poised Barcelona tie and an FA Cup quarter final with Leicester City coming up this week. Conte has already stated he’s willing to consult players on tactics ahead of the game at the Nou Camp, an act no doubt triggered by Eden Hazard’s frustrations at his ineffectual ‘false nine’ role. For Barcelona, it’ll be a welcome return for Lionel Messi, who missed the weekend win at Malaga due to the birth of his son. The Catalan club have reached the last eight of the Champions League in each of the past 10 seasons.
  • There’s been some talk of Eusebio Di Francesco’s job being a bit under threat, so his Roma team’s win against Torino on Friday must have been a welcome tonic. They sit third in Serie A, but on the European front they have a massive second leg to play with Shakhtar Donetsk. The Giallorossi were impressive in the first half of the first leg, but faded in the second, on their way to a 2-1 defeat; they haven’t made it to the quarters in a decade.

Fixtures

Manchester United v Sevilla

Roma v Shakhtar Donetsk

Besiktas v Bayern Munich

Barcelona v Chelsea

Published in International Watch

SpotkickNG

 

As the most memorable aspect of February rolls around (sit down, Valentine’s Day), spotkick’s trusted pick up their crystal balls and cast their predictions on which teams will remain when 16 gets trimmed to eight in the Champions League:

Ola Fadahunsi 

Man City vs Basel

City have been one of the best sides in Europe this season; the tie with Basel should be a banana peel.

City, duh! 

Juventus vs Tottenham

Spurs made a good statement by topping Madrid in the group stage but Juventus' experience in Europe should see them above the North London side.

Juve to knock out Spurs

Porto vs Liverpool

The oddity here is Liverpool qualifying if history is anything to go by. But I will still stick with the Merseyside Red.

Liverpool for me

Real Madrid vs PSG 

Madrid are going into this tie with little or nothing to lose as many have written them off - thus putting enormous pressure on PSG. I doubt PSG's ability to contain this pressure even with their star-studded side led by Neymar: last year's exit to Barcelona at this stage is a perfect example.

I still think Real will qualify.

Chelsea vs Barcelona

The Blues' strength playing Barca over the years has been how solid they've been at the back but this year’s tie will be different - as Barca's strongest household has been their back line and when you sync that with what Messi and Suarez can offer upfront, Chelsea will bow out in style.

Barcelona to progress

Sevilla vs Manchester United

Consistency has been a problem for the two sides but i think United have more than enough to deal with whatever Sevilla would be throwing at them.

United to go through. 

Shakhtar Donetsk vs Roma

An even tie. Against all odds, Roma made it pass group stage - topping both Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, but if you've been a follower of the UCL for years, you'll know how dangerous Shaktar can be in games like this. As a lover of history, I'll give it to Shakhtar

 

Kunle Ajao

Juventus v Tottenham

Spurs have delivered much better than expected in this season’s competition, after underperforming in the previous campaign. They topped a group that comprised Dortmund and Real Madrid, and their 3-1 win over the latter was mighty impressive. Juve, though, have pedigree in this competition, and have been finalists for two of the last three seasons. They’ve been here and done it before more times than their opponents at this stage. With both sides possessing formidable defences and midfields as well, it might well boil down to which striker, in Harry Kane and Gonzalo Higuain, will have a better day.

Juventus to just about sneak through. 

Basel v Manchester City

There’s no doubt who the overwhelming favourite is for this one, Man City have looked impeccable most times this season. Basel were impressive in qualifying from Group A, beating Manchester United on the way, but have lost Manuel Akanji and Renato Steffen to the Bundesliga. They might spring a surprise, but this looks a hard ask.

Barring a shock, City to go through 

Real Madrid v PSG

The tie of the round, the game that is most likely to determine the future of both managers. For Paris Saint-Germain, it’s finally a chance to prove they can roll with the elite after all the years of spending, especially with last year’s capitulation to Barcelona still in the memory. Real Madrid, meanwhile, have their whole season riding on this.

PSG to make the last eight for me

Porto v Liverpool

This tie seems finely poised, pitting two teams who’ll equally fancy their chances of progress. Liverpool’s front three, despite the departure of Philippe Coutinho, has been one to envy, even if Sadio Mane’s form has dipped recently. Their defence still leaves much to ponder, though, and Porto will look to capitalise on any slackness. But Liverpool’s best form of defending has been attacking, and it has worked so far.

Will be no straightforward task, but Liverpool should progress

Bayern Munich v Besiktas

No prizes for guessing the favourite here, Bayern haven't quite looked the same since Jupp Heynckes took over from Carlo Ancelotti, with only one defeat in all competitions since September. Besiktas do have an experienced, if not ageing, squad which helped finish top of Group G, but that also owed a big part to Cenk Tosun, whose January departure is a big blow.

The odds look overwhelmingly on Bayern Munich

Chelsea v Barcelona

This seems like the most ill-timed meeting of them all, Chelsea’s form having dropped massively, and not helped by Antonio Conte’s constant complaints over transfer dealings. Barcelona have lost just once since that supposedly-crushing Super Cup defeat in August. Philippe Coutinho is cup-tied, but Ernesto Valverde’s side are still favourites in this tie, if not the whole competition.

Barcelona to make progress here.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Roma

Roma were impressive in finishing top of a group that involved Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. But they haven’t been at their best lately in Serie A, and have slipped well out of the title race. Shakhtar are just as impressive a side, and have previous when it comes to the two teams meeting at this stage, they beat the Giallorossi in the last 16 in 2011.

Roma to qualify, just about. 

Sevilla v Manchester United

Sevilla are still searching for that first Champions League quarter-final appearance. They came close in 2008 (losing to Fenerbahce) and last season (eliminated by Leicester), but this looks like the hardest task of all. Jose Mourinho is a master at negotiating ties like this, and only the most courageous would bet against United going through, particularly with this being perhaps their most likely chance of silverware.

Manchester United to progress

 

Shehu Idris

Basel v Manchester City 

Does this actually need a prediction. Better luck next time Basel. A full scale hurricane is coming Basel's way, perhaps they shouldn't even bother showing up for both legs but, in Ed Sheeran's voice, "What do I know?". 

Juventus vs Tottenham

This is like a classic ole battle between an old, experienced and embittered war veteran and a young, greenhorn who's shown that his youthful exuberance can bleed giants to death if allowed. I'm tilting towards the green-necks from North London they should handle the Old Lady pretty easily. 

Porto vs Liverpool

This should be easy for Jürgen Klopp's men, they'll do it on both legs and if by deeds of their typical Liverpool-ism they don't, take this prediction as a tongue-in-cheek bluff. 

Real Madrid vs PSG

We'll plumb this pseudo-big club money sack with over-pampered players who're only there because of the jiggling coins it has in coffer. Real Madrid to progress, yes of course. 

Bayern Munich vs Besiktas

It’s hard for anyone to not see Bayern progressing here 

Chelsea vs Barcelona

Chelsea are but a sorry shadow of their true selves currently, with their coach a 'Noob Saibot' of his usually maniac, football-loving self and against a Barcelona side that haven't lost in the league this season and have Lionel Messi? May God have mercy on them. Barcelona to progress. 

Sevilla vs Manchester United

Sevilla struggled under Eduardo Berrizo, are still struggling under Vincenzo Montella, plus this season has been what they projected it will be. Manchester United will help see to that. United to ease pass them. 

Shakhtar Donetsk vs Roma

Who are these ones? Me, I'm tired ooo. Anyway, Roma to progress.

 

So, according to we at spotkick.com, the potential quarter finalists are:

Barcelona 

Manchester City 

Manchester United 

Roma

Real Madrid 

Juventus 

Bayern Munich 

Liverpool

Keep in mind, keyword, ‘potential’,  there’s not many things as humbling as seeing a seemingly genius and iron-clad prediction go all kinds of wrong.

 

Feel free to disagree with us in the comments section.

Published in International Watch

10 Memorable UEFA Champions League Last 16 Ties

Thursday, 08 February 2018 17:02

Claps hands Tony Stark style circa ending of Iron Man 3 (Just go with it, okay!), it’s February. Yup, the second month of the year, when we enter crunch time in the football season. When managers who haven’t been sacked announce that they’ll leave at the end of the season, and when UEFA Champions League football returns.

The time when, as ITV commentator Clive Tydesley said, ‘the Champions League becomes the European Cup again’, as the knockout football takes centre stage. And there have been some rather tasty ties in the first knockout round over the years, so, with one eye on next week’s resumption, here’s 10 of the classic match-ups in this round:

Porto v Manchester United (2004)

Rather fitting that we begin with the tie in which Tydesley gives his ‘European cup’ quote, as Manchester United, having toped their group with little fuss, met in the last 16, a Porto team that narrowly escaped the group phase, and their up and coming manager Jose Mourinho (the good old days then) had a chance to pit his wits against the mighty Red Devils and Sir Alex Ferguson.

It was no gain saying United were favourites, and midway through the first period Quinton Fortune would give them the lead. But two goals from Fortune’s fellow South African Benni McCarthy, one in the first period, and the other in the second, meant Porto would take a 2-1 lead to Old Trafford in a fortnight, a game where United would be without captain Roy Keane, who was sent off at the Dragao, much to Fergie’s incandescence.

United were still favourites to go through nevertheless, and in the first half of the second leg, Paul Scholes would give them the lead, and the midfielder was unlucky to see the offside wrongly deny him a second. It stayed at 1-0 for most of the game, United as it stood would go through on away goals, until the last minute, when Dmitry Alenichev was fouled just outside the United box. McCarthy’s free-kick was pushed away by Tim Howard, but Costinha was on hand to turn home the equaliser, sparking Mourinho’s famous touchline run at Old Trafford. Porto would go on to win the tournament, and some 14 years later, Mourinho is now the home manager at the Theatre of Dreams.

Chelsea v Barcelona (2005)

Well, Mourinho again. Clive Tydesley again. After his European triumph (or triumphs) with Porto, Jose left for Chelsea, where he got tagged the ‘Special One’. The Blues were top of the Premiership and flying, while Barcelona were also ahead of the rest in La Liga when both sides clashed at the Camp Nou in the first leg. Chelsea took the lead through a Juliano Belletti own goal, an advantage they would take to halftime. But things took a big swing in the second period, when Didier Drogba was sent off for his lunge on Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes. The hosts pressed home their numerical advantage, as two goals in five from Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o meant they would go into the second leg ahead.

But the Blaugrana would be caught unawares and left shell-shocked after 19 minutes of the return leg, as Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damien Duff all got on the score sheet to give Chelsea a three-goal lead on the night (4-2 on aggregate). Barcelona were left reeling, and in need of a lifeline, which they got after Paulo Ferreira’s handball in the Chelsea box enabled Ronaldinho to score a penalty, one which Petr Cech came close to saving. But Cech could do nothing about what happened just before halftime, as an outrageous Ronaldinho toe-poke from the edge of the box put the scoreline at 3-2, and Barcelona ahead on away goals. Chances would fly at both ends in the second half, Eto’o guilty of missing one, while Joe Cole also fluffed his lines for Chelsea. But the Blues would get back in the aggregate lead with 12 minutes left, John Terry heading home Lampard’s corner to put them within touching distance of the last eight. Barcelona sought another reply, but found none, and for the first time since the competition was renamed, no Spanish side would be in the quarter finals. For Chelsea, it was delight, as Mourinho joined the players’ celebrations after the final whistle, as Clive Tydesley declared that who could stop the Blues from European glory. The answer came in semi-finals, in the form of a familiar face in Liverpool.

Werder Bremen v Juventus (2006)

Werder Bremen had made history in the group stages, as they became the first side to lose their first three games and still qualify for the knockout phase, and in this round of 16 tie they struck first, Christian Schulz giving them the lead at home Juventus. But the Old Lady turned things around, and goals from Pavel Nedved and David Trezeguet had them leading with eight minutes left. Bremen, though, showed the resolve they demonstrated in their group, and late strikes from Tim Borowski and Johan Micoud gave them a first leg advantage.

That advantage was doubled 13 minutes into the second leg, Micoud again the scorer, as Bremen started to dream of the last eight. Trezeguet grabbed an equaliser in the 65th minute, but Fabio Capello’s side needed one more to go through. It didn’t seem forthcoming, Juve seemed stuck and on the verge of elimination, until Bremen’s goalie Tim Wiese caught a corner in the 88th minute, and his histrionic roll led to the ball slipping out of his hands and into the path of a grateful Emerson, who rolled the ball into an unguarded net, and rolled the Bianconeri into the next round, much to Wiese’s horror.

Real Madrid v Bayern Munich (2007)

It was the resumption of the international rivalry between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, as they were pitted together for the fourth time in seven years. Real had triumphed in two of the previous three, and were in mood to lay off here, Raul giving Los Blancos the lead after just 10 minutes. That lasted only 13 minutes, however, as Lucio’s header pulled Bayern Munich level, but Real would take a 3-1 lead into halftime, Raul adding his second before Ruud van Nistelrooy got on the score sheet himself. Bayern looked in real trouble in the tie, but gave themselves a huge lifeline with two minutes left, Mark van Bommel’s shot handing the Bavarians two away goals in a one-goal loss.

And they took advantage quite literally as the second leg begun, an error from Roberto Carlos led to Roy Makaay scoring the fastest ever Champions League goal, and Real were chasing the game from the off. Bayern added another not long after the hour mark, Lucio repeating his first leg trick to give Los Blancos a mountain to climb. Van Nistelrooy would pull one back from the penalty spot in the 83rd minute, but they would have a goal disallowed after, Sergio Ramos the guilty party, as they bowed out of the competition at this stage for the third year running.

Fenerbahce v Sevilla (2008)

It was uncharted territory for Fenerbahce in 2008, as Sari Kanaryalar, under Brazilian manager Zico, negotiated a group involving Inter Milan, PSV and CSKA Moscow for a berth in the last 16. The Turks had been making an impression in the competition, and against Sevilla, backed by a raucous Sukru Sarakoglu crowd, took a 17th-minute lead through Mateja Kezman. Sevilla had also been impressive themselves, beating Arsenal to top spot in Group H, and levelled just six minutes after through Edu Dracena’s own goal. Fenerbahce went again and retook the lead, Diego Lugano’s thumping header just before the hour mark sending the home crowd to cacophony once again, but once again Sevilla wouldn’t lie down, and Julien Escude dragged them level again, 10 minutes after Lugano’s moment. The hosts, though, ensured they would finish with a first leg advantage, as substitute Semih Senturk grabbed a winner three minutes from time.

The second leg was just as action-packed, and less than 10 minutes had been played when Sevilla scored twice, a brilliant Dani Alves free-kick and a Seydou Keita thunderbolt put them on course for the last eight, then Frederic Kanoute added a third for the hosts, after Deivid pulled one back for Fenerbahce. But Fenerbahce and Deivid weren’t about to throw in the towel, and the Brazilian scored his and his side’s second with 10 minutes left, to force extra-time.

No goals came in the extra half-hour of football, which meant the tie would be decided by penalties. The first kicks of both sides- Kanoute and Wederson- were successful, but next weren’t, as Escude and Edu both missed. Ivica Dragutinovic and Mehmet Aurelio both scored to make it 2-2 in the shootout with three played each, but Sevilla’s next takers would fail, as Enzo Maresca and Alves were both denied by Volkan Demirel, either side of Kezman scoring, to send the Turks into their first ever Champions League quarter-final.

Real Madrid v Liverpool (2009)

Real Madrid had lost in four successive last 16 ties coming into this, they hadn’t had the best season so far, already dismissing Bernd Schuster and hired Juande Ramos, and for some reason, signed Julien Faubert on loan from West Ham (old, but still shockingly gold). Liverpool, meanwhile, had reached at least the semis in three of the last four seasons, and were locked in a title race in the Premier League. The Reds took a deserved 1-0 win in the first leg, thanks to a late header from Yossi Benayoun, and were in the driving as Real came to Anfield for the return.

Back in Merseyside, Liverpool went guns blazing, and by halftime they were two up (three on aggregate), Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard (from the penalty spot) putting them within touching distance of the next round. Gerrard added another with a lovely side-foot finish just a minute after the break, before Andrea Dossena put the gloss on the win. 4-0 on the night, 5-0 on aggregate, yet it was proof of how much more it could have been to recognise that Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas had a very good game.

Milan v Barcelona (2013)

When the draw for this tie was made, it looked a no-brainer, Milan had been less than impressive all season, and had the deficiency of Zenit St. Petersburg to thank for making it this far, while Barcelona had lost just twice all season before this first leg. But the Rossoneri produced a performance worthy of the tales of Catenaccio, defending superbly and took the lead just after halftime through Kevin Prince Boateng, and that lead was doubled late on by Sulley Muntari to give Milan a first leg advantage.

Barcelona knew they had a job on their hands in the second leg, no team had ever lost a first leg by two goals without scoring and qualified. But they got off to the perfect start at the Camp Nou, thanks to none other Lionel Messi, and the deficit was halved after four minutes. Barcelona rode their luck towards the end of the half, as M’baye Niang broke free one-on-one with Victor Valdes, only to hit the post, and right away, straight down the other end, Messi added a second, and the scores were level on aggregate with three-quarters of the tie played. Barcelona began the second period as they did the first, and David Villa made it 3-0 on the night, and 3-2 on aggregate, before Jordi Alba added a fourth in stoppage time to seal the tie. History was made, and a precedent was sent for some four years later.

Sevilla v Leicester (2017)

Leicester had defied football logic to win the Premier League in 2016, and transferred their fairy-tale powers to Europe, to advance to the first knockout phase of this competition last season. Opponents Sevilla were seeking a first quarter-final appearance and dominated the first leg, Pablo Sarabia and Joaquin Correa scoring to put them in control. But the Rojilblancos had missed a penalty much earlier in the game, and late on Jamie Vardy pulled one back for Leicester, an away goal to take back to the King Power.

By the second leg three weeks after, Leicester were lining up with a new manager, Claudio Ranieri had been sacked after the first leg loss, and was replaced by assistant Craig Shakespeare. The Foxes had won their first two domestic games under the new manager, and took the lead here through skipper Wes Morgan. Leicester were now level in the tie, and ahead on away goals, but they would take an outright lead in the second half, through Marc Albrighton. Sevilla, despite being reduced to 10 men after Samir Nasri saw red, had a chance to level on aggregate after Franco Vazquez was fouled in the box by Kasper Schmeichel, but, like the first leg, the penalty was spurned, Steven Nzonzi the guilty party this time, his week effort saved by Schmeichel, and Leicester held on for a heroic win, and a place in the Champions League quarter finals, less than 10 years playing in the English Third Division.

Manchester City v Monaco (2017)

There weren’t many ties as anticipated as this one when the draw was made back in December 2016, as it pitted Manchester City, a side with a manager that prides on attacking football, against Monaco, a youthful storming through the French first division and had amassed 100 goals by February 2017.  It was City who made the early inroads in the tie, and took the lead through Raheem Sterling, but goals from Radamel Falcao and teenage forward Kylian Mbappe ensured Monaco would go into the break in the lead. Falcao missed a penalty at the start of the second half, but made amends with an impudent chip, not long after Sergio Aguero had pulled City level. Aguero would restore parity once more with a well-taken volley, before goals from John Stones and Leroy Sane gave City a 5-3 first leg win.

Prior to the second leg, city manager Pep Guardiola had emphasised Monaco’s attacking prowess, and therefore the need for his side to score at Stade Louis II, and so named an attacking line-up. It didn’t quite work out for the visitors though, and by the half-hour they were deservedly two down, Mbappe and Fabinho with the goals that put Monaco ahead in the tie. City improved in the second half, and with 20 minutes left, Sane pounced on Danijel Subasic’s save from Sterling to make 2-1 to Monaco on the night, but 6-5 to City on aggregate. City were back in the driving seat, but Monaco weren’t done yet, and from Thomas Lemar’s free-kick, Tiemoue Bakayoko got in front of Aleksandar Kolarov to guide in the header. There would be no more goals, as Monaco went through on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate scoreline, on their way to an impressive semi-final achievement.

PSG v Barcelona (2017)

Of course. Perhaps the greatest ever Champions League last 16 tie, one that’s still fresh in the mind, and will live long in the memory. Both sides had been having under-par campaigns, and were on course to relinquish their domestic titles, but PSG were in a more questionable state, and Barcelona were still regarded as favourites for the European title. On the evidence of the first leg though, it was nothing like that, Le Parisiens had a night to remember on Valentine’s, outplaying, outthinking and outmuscling Barcelona, by halftime goals from Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler had them 2-0 up. They would add two more after the break, Di Maria getting his second, and Edinson Cavani wrapping things up. Surely the tie was over.

There was still a second leg to be played, but Barcelona had a lot of ground to make up, and no team had ever erased a four-goal first leg deficit. But they got off to a flyer, Luis Suarez pouncing on some uncertainty from PSG goalie Kevin Trapp to put Barca ahead on the night, and by halftime they were halfway to the comeback, Layvin Kurzawa’s own goal making it 2-0 on the night. Luis Enrique’s side began the second half as they did the first, and following a Thomas Meunier ‘foul’ on Neymar (yes, this column is still bitter and thinks it wasn’t one), Lionel Messi stepped up to make it 4-3 on aggregate. Barcelona had the wind in their sails, but things would take a different shape soon after, as Cavani made it 3-1 on the night, 5-3 on aggregate, and had Barca needing three more goals. The home crowd were deflated, and only some profligacy from Di Maria and Cavani prevented PSG adding more goals, the tie seemed over. But in the 88th minute, Neymar curled home a free-kick, then Luis Suarez was supposedly fouled by Marquinhos (again, still bitter), and Neymar converted the penalty in stoppage time. Now it was 5-5 on aggregate, but PSG were ahead on away goals, until the last minute, when Neymar’s cross into the box was turned home by Sergi Roberto, sparking mayhem across the pitch, the dugout, stands, commentary boxes and broadcast studios as well. Barcelona had done the impossible and erased a four-goal deficit. It was the kind of turnaround that makes one think their names were already written on the title for 2017, not to be knocked out in the next round by Juventus, although it was the latter that happened. 

Published in International Watch