There was a bit of awe and reverence in Andy Gray’s voice, when the co-commentator said back in February 2006 that ‘I get the feeling when he learns the game a bit more he’ll be unplayable at times’. With 18 minutes left at Stamford Bridge, Gray had just seen an 18-year-old Lionel Messi curl an effort against the woodwork. Messi was the star of that game in West London, and, coupled with his role in the controversial dismissal of Asier Del Horno, the Argentine started to embody the features of Barcelona: style, swagger, elegance, hatred from Chelsea.

Not that it’s easy to hate Leo though. 12 years on from that night, he has become unplayable almost all the time, and is talked about in the breaths of the greatest players of all time. But once thing he couldn’t quite manage, as daft and irrelevant as it seems (and is, in truth) was score against Chelsea. He’s had brushes with the Blues since that fateful game, the return leg of that tie saw him hobble off injured, the following season they met again, as did in 2009, and, more recently, in 2012, when Messi belted that penalty onto the bar in the semi-final, and is said to have cried in the dressing room after Barca got knocked out.

So, you would excuse the Argentine captain if he felt a little desperate to exorcise some ghosts in the latest chapter of the Chelsea-Barcelona story, as they met this week for the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie. But if there was any sense of desperation felt, Messi certainly didn’t show it, the calm and elegance he oozed on the ball was second to none, and key to Barcelona’s chances.

And it was just as well that there was calm in the Catalan ranks, as Chelsea pushed them to the tethers of patience, gave them little room to fashion out, put in an impressive show of fortitude, and hit the post twice before the end of the first half, both from Willian. Antonio Conte watched as his side impressive shackled Barcelona, made them content with pedestrian possession, and hit a shaky Barca defence on the break. And the visitors barely knew what hit them just after the hour mark, as after a short Chelsea saw the ball fall to the feet of Willian, the Brazilian was third time lucky as his shot rolled past Marc Andre Ter-Stegen and into the net, much to Conte and the crowd’s delirium; for the seventh UEFA Champions League Barcelona had played at the Bridge, they had failed to keep a clean sheet.

Ernesto Valverde’s side looked bereft of ideas, drops of the shoulder from Messi became necessary as spaces were snuffed out. But it would be Chelsea who would aid and abet Barca’s route back into the game; Andreas Christensen’s wayward pass meant should Andres Iniesta get to the ball before Cesar Azpilicueta, room would open up, and so it proved, Iniesta got there first, a pull-back later and Messi slotted the ball past Thibaut Courtois, his first ever goal against Chelsea (which joins goals against Gigi Buffon and goals English on the list of inconsequential stats he has banished).

Much of Barcelona’s games this season have seen them not necessarily play well but get results, and here it was no different, despite a leggy and rather jaded showing, they still go to the second leg with a tiny advantage.

Credit to Chelsea, though, for making Barcelona look commonplace and jaded. They might not have gotten the desired advantage from the first leg, but they did enough to make sure the result isn’t quite seen as a disadvantage.

Elsewhere:

  • Once again, Manchester United were in a game thanks to the brilliance of David de Gea in goal. With less than three minutes left before half time in Seville, the Spanish goalkeeper pulled off top drawer saves to deny Steven Nzonzi and Luis Muriel, as the first leg of this tie finished goalless. On one hand, Vincenzo Montella will no doubt see belief in his side ahead of the return leg in Manchester as a result of their display; on the other, they’re not likely to get as many chances as they did at home, and might end up ruing what might have been for the second year running.
  • In the most overlooked tie of the last 16, it was an entertaining encounter between Shakhtar Donetsk and Roma in Ukraine. It was the Italians who led an end-to-end first half, thanks to a goal from the in-form Cengiz Under, but after sitting rather deep in the second period and inviting Shakhtar on, they paid the price, as the Miners turned the game around, thanks to a well-taken goal by Facundo Ferreyra and a brilliantly taken free-kick from Fred. Advantage Paulo Fonseca and his team, in a game where it wasn’t the best in which to be an unused substitute.
  • Besiktas defend well and attack threateningly at Bayern Munich. Besiktas get reduced to 10 men midway through the first half; then concede a deflating goal on the cusp of halftime. In the end it was a stroll for Bayern, a 5-0 win, and a run, for Robert Lewandowski, of 16 goals in 16 Champions League games. Stupendous.

Results

Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona

Sevilla 0-0 Manchester United

Shakhtar Donetsk 2-1 Roma

Bayern Munich 5-0 Besiktas

 

Published in International Watch

It doesn’t really seem like Chelsea’s thing to be straightforward, does it? The constant case of managerial bickering, supposed squad unrest, either winning the league with a bang or surrendering it with a whimper, the Blues just can’t do things quietly.

And this season is barely any different, as despite sitting in the top four in the Premier League, all hasn’t been anywhere close to well at Stamford Bridge, from Antonio Conte’s unceasing complaints over players, as well as assurances on his own future, to the horror start to 2018. The Blues only won one game under 90 minutes in January (Newcastle in the FA Cup Fourth Round), a month which they ended with that jaw-dropping defeat at home to Bournemouth, before entering February with another heavy loss, this time at Watford. Form has improved since, two straight wins, scoring seven times without reply, but that doesn’t prevent them from being overwhelming outsiders in their Champions League knockout tie.

Upcoming European opponents Barcelona have equalled their La Liga record of playing 31 games unbeaten, have lost just once since August (in the Spanish Cup, and they even won the return leg in that one), and have only conceded once in six European games this season. From talk of a seemingly unavoidable crisis at the start of the season, Ernesto Valverde’s side are competing on all fronts, and perhaps are favourites on all fronts. ‘On one hand you know this team is one of the best in the world- maybe they are favourites to win this competition’ says Conte. But Chelsea are accustomed to games where the odds have seemed against them, where they’ve been billed as underdogs, yet managed to triumph, the victory against Barcelona in this competition in 2012 a huge case in point. ‘On the other hand we must be excited because we have a great opportunity to play a massive game against a really strong team and to show which is our level’ Conte adds.

Conte is under no illusions of the difficulty with which his side are faced, the Italian recognises a strong side with arguably the best player in the world, and has said his team will need a ‘perfect game’ to stand a chance against Barcelona. But the former Juventus boss, who also has managerial previous in triumphing against the odds, believes the Blaugrana are not infallible, and those back-to-back domestic wins will have put them in good stead. ‘Hopefully we can give a good image of what we can do and do a good performance’ says Blues midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who had a three-year spell at Barcelona. Fabregas and Pedro are currently Chelsea players who were members of the Barca side knocked out by Chelsea in 2012, and the latter says images of that loss still haunt the Catalans, something the Blues might be hoping gives them an advantage, even much of that squad from six years ago are no longer around.

Over the years the likes of Bayern Munich, Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain have joined Barca in witnessing the sting of a Chelsea fightback, and another might just be brewing. Once again, the odds are stacked against the Blues; almost how they like it.

Fixtures

Chelsea v Barcelona

Bayern Munich v Besiktas

Sevilla v Manchester United

Shakhtar Donetsk v Roma

Published in International Watch

In the end it petered out. A game that started so ferociously in Turin and with Tottenham on the verge of early capitulation ended in a rather drawn-out fashion, and with Spurs having delivered another solid statement against an elite European side.

Mauricio Pochettino and his side had already beaten Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in this season’s Champions League, but this was probably a much harder, they were up against a Juventus side that had won 10 games in row, conceded only once in 16 games (none in 2018), and had won 50 of their last 55 home games in all competitions, fortress-like. Spurs knew they had to be wary, but after only two minutes they seemed careless, caught napping from a free-kick, as Miralem Pjanic played in Gonzalo Higuain, whose wonderful shot on the turn sent the home fans into early cacophony. But if 1-0 down after 200 seconds seemed bad, then two down after eight minutes was just as horrible, Ben Davies with a reckless challenge on Federico Bernadeschi, and Higuain’s resulting penalty found the net via the gloves of Hugo Lloris.

Spurs were suddenly in trouble, their impressive form before this game, as well as their group stage performances, seemed long in the memory; but they weren’t about to lie down, as they took charge and put Juve on the back foot, only a wonderful Mehdi Benatia interception prevented Christian Eriksen from playing in Harry Kane. And when Eriksen did find Kane afterwards, the latter’s point-blank headers was beaten away by Gigi Buffon.

Spurs’ attacking forays, mixed with a tinge of desperation, were always likely to leave them vulnerable at the back, and so it proved, although Higuain could only fire a shot just narrowly wide after a Bianconeri break. Spurs had ridden their luck, and would claw themselves back in the game- and the tie- with less than 10 minutes of the first half left; Eriksen caught Giorgio Chiellini in possession, then Dele Alli slipped in Kane, who rounded Buffon and filled an empty net. Now the deficit had been halved, and Spurs had an away goal to boot, but when Serge Aurier recklessly tripped Douglas Costa in the box for a second Juve penalty, all seemed lost. Except it wasn’t. Higuain blasted the kick from 12 yards onto the bar, referee Felix Brych blew his whistle, and half time came.

Pochettino spoke on the need for Spurs to remain calm after the game, and they were calm during, as they had to bide their time in the second period in their search for an equaliser. It came in the 72nd minute, Eriksen’s low free-kick bamboozling Buffon, who didn’t quite get a strong enough hand, and had to watch the ball find its way into the bottom corner. The action seemed to die down after this, Lloris making a couple of saves from Bernadeschi the biggest highlight, and Pochettino made his three changes all inside the final 10 minutes, proof of him being content, at least, with the draw.

The Spurs manager did describe things in the dressing room as a little angry after the game, but Spurs had a mounted a superb fightback here, the first side to score against Juventus in over 21 hours of football, and erased a seemingly unassailable two-goal deficit.

They’ll have undoubted optimism for the second leg in three weeks’ time, not to mention an advantage, however slim.

Elsewhere:

  • Marcelo couldn’t help himself, as he slid towards Zinedine Zidane in the Real Madrid dugout with less than five minutes to play, the left-back whose fall earlier in the game seemed to have alarm bells ringing, health-wise. Those bells were definitely in sync, when, in the 34th minute, Adrien Rabiot got on to a Neymar flick to put Paris Saint-Germain in front. Real did respond before halftime, Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a penalty after Toni Kroos had been fouled by Giovani Lo Celso. Ronaldo added his- and Real’s- second with eight minutes left, bundling home after a cross from substitute Marco Asensio, and Asensio was at it again moments after, another cross, another goal, this time from Marcelo as Real ensured they’ll take a 3-1 lead to Paris. As Unai Emery watched on with a grim face, it wasn’t hard to tell that his job is likely to depend on what happens three weeks from now.
  • For the first 28 minutes, Basel proved to be something of a match for Manchester City, then Ilkay Gundogan headed them in front, and for the final 72, it just seemed like torture for the Swiss champions. 0-4 loss at home; they did give a decent account themselves overall, but put it this way: when Taulant Xhaka (brother of Arsenal’s Granit) reached the yellow cards limit after being booked for upending Kevin de Bruyne in the 37th minute, it was clear that that was his last game of this Champions League season.
  • It’s also, barring a Quidditch-like Golden Snitch capture of a second leg, the end of the road for Porto, as they were taken apart on home soil by Liverpool, whose fab three were on song again; Sadio Mane bagging a hatrick, while Roberto Firmino and Mohammed Salah were just as impressive. At some point, their attacking dominance will stop being news.

Results

Juventus 2-2 Tottenham

Basel 0-4 Manchester City

Real Madrid 3-1 PSG

Porto 0-5 Liverpool

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

So, this is it then. On the night of February the 14th, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain will take to the Bernabeu, in a game that might just define both team’s season.

For PSG, the date might hold a few memories, as it was exactly a year ago to that date that they supposedly announced their long overdue arrival with a 4-0 trouncing of Barcelona. But it’s the return leg of that tie that will live long in the memory, as PSG were incredibly on the end of the greatest ever European comeback, which meant they still await their first semi-final appearance since the Qatari owners took charge.

This looked like being the season where their path to it would be rather straightforward, after smashing the transfer record for Neymar, as well as snapping the most sought-after teenager in Kylian Mbappe, Le Parisiens topped Group B, beating Bayern Munich on the way; but their reward for it is a tie with the European Champions.

Los Blancos themselves have a lot riding on this tie, in fact they have their entire season on it. Despite the high expectations at the start of a season where they seemed sure-fire to build a dynasty, Zinedine Zidane and his side have been hugely underwhelming. Out of the La Liga title race, and left to scrap for a Champions League spot, as well getting eliminated from the Spanish Cup at home to Leganes, the continent remains their only potential for success this season.

And it is on the continent where Real have put their best foot forward, aside from the Matchday Four defeat to Tottenham, Real have won four of the other five games, scoring 17 times. They had an impressive 5-2 win over Real Sociedad at the weekend to set the tone for this game, but if their season is anything to go by, that only sets them up for another disappointing result.

It’s a tie that’s likely to determine the fate of both managers, with one so far ahead on the domestic front, and the other so far behind, that it barely matters what happens back home. On the day renowned for the show of love all around, there’ll be little room for sentiment.

Fixtures

Real Madrid v PSG

Porto v Liverpool

Juventus v Tottenham

Basel v Manchester City

Published in International Watch

Follow Us