Champions League: Into the Knockout Stage

Ben Ffrench and William Stewart look ahead to a Champions League Knockout Stage with five English Teams in the mix.

 

After a very entertaining group stage of this year’s Champions League, for the first time ever, five English teams will be in the last 16 of the competition. A very interesting draw throws up some highly anticipated fixtures to be played in February and March 2018. Can an English team win it in Kiev next year? In this article we assess each team’s chances. (Each English team’s second round knockout opponents are in brackets).

Liverpool (Porto)

Mohamed_Salah_2017

Liverpool have one of the best attacks in European football. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho have all been playing sensational football this year. However, Liverpool’s problems lie in defence and the likes of Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno have been far from convincing this year. Liverpool’s group didn’t really pose any major problems and Liverpool eased past Maribor and Spartak Moscow, scoring seven goals against each. Sevilla asked more questions of Liverpool and the fact that Liverpool let a three goal lead slip against Sevilla raises real questions about Liverpool’s chances against stronger teams in the knockout stages. They will certainly score goals against any team they play but a poor defence could be their downfall. Liverpool have been drawn against Porto, Champions League winners in 2004 under José Mourinho, and this will not be an easy tie. Porto have dangerous attacking players in Vincent Aboubakar and Yacine Brahimi but Liverpool can perhaps take comfort in the fact that Porto too have a very leaky defence who conceded ten goals in the group stage. I predict Liverpool will come out on top in this tie and progress to the quarter finals but this will not be an easy set of fixtures for Liverpool by any means.

Liverpool have one of the best attacks in European football

Man Utd (Sevilla)

Jesse_Lingard_(cropped)

Manchester United have been heavily criticised this season for a boring style of football, often playing defensively against the bigger teams. They came top of their group which contained Basel, CSKA Moscow and Benfica, winning five and losing once against Basel in the process. There is no doubt that Manchester United have the players to rival any team but their only concern would be that their striker Romelu Lukaku has not been in great goal scoring form of late despite getting off to a flying start scoring ten goals in his first nine games. They have been drawn against Sevilla and many people back them to get through this tie easily. Defensively, Man Utd are a very solid side so it is unlikely they will concede many goals in the knockout stages of this competition but if their source of goals is not coming from their star striker Lukaku, they may have to look elsewhere for goals, perhaps from Zlatan Ibrahimovic who has returned from a long term knee injury. I predict Man Utd will progress into the quarter finals but I am unsure of how much further they will progress, given that they could still play PSG. It can be argued that the Premier League title race is already over so perhaps this could mean José Mourinho will focus more on the Champions League. Overall, it looks likely that Man Utd will beat Sevilla and progress to the quarter final stage but time will tell if Mourinho’s side is the right standard to reach the latter stages of the competition and win the biggest trophy in club football, something they have not achieved since 2008.  

It can be argued that the Premier League title race is already over for Manchester United

William Stewart

Tottenham (Juventus)

Alli_(cropped)_2

Spurs have certainly laid down the gauntlet, given their sensational performances in the group stage this season. Not many expected them to finish first in a group with Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, but they passed the test with flying colours, finishing top of Group E with two games to spare. This was achieved by what many regard as the headline result of the group stage: a 3-1 win over reigning European Champions Real Madrid, including a brace from Dele Alli, in front of their own fans at Wembley. On this evidence, while opponents Juventus may seem a challenge for this youthful Spurs side, it is clearly within their abilities. A team containing ageing old stars such as Gianluigi Buffon, Gonzalo Higuain and Giorgio Chiellini is badly in need of refreshing. This suggests it is a strong possibility they will reach the quarterfinals. Beyond that, the rest is unknown. Despite criticism about recent league form (a disappointing 1-1 against strugglers West Brom and a 2-1 defeat to Leicester City have drawn the attention of critics) the Champions League provides a different story, and given the strength of the team it is unsurprising. With Harry Kane and Dele Alli, the cream of English talent in attack along with experienced players such as Christian Eriksen, and strong full backs in the impressive Kieran Trippier the future looks promising for Spurs. The steady hand of Mauricio Pochettino is also an unsung factor in Spurs’ steady rise, in a form that has seen them come second in the Premier League last season. A dark horse in the competition, they could go far. They may not quite be strong enough yet, however, to win the competition. I would predict a quarter final or even semi final exit.

Chelsea (Barcelona)

Leicester_1_Chelsea_2_(37139292475)

A dastardly draw awaits Chelsea, and despite their opponent’s recent drop in Champions League form over the last few seasons, it is difficult to see how could overcome five time European Champions Barcelona. Mediocre home form, including a poor 1-0 defeat to relegation contenders West Ham shows an inconsistency making them hard to predict.  That said, the English champions should not be written off with a world class squad containing the likes of N’Golo Kanté, Eden Hazard and former Real Madrid forward Alvaro Morata, who has at times dazzled in the Premier League this season, providing just a glimpse of what he can do. As well as this, the coaching of Antonio Conte, in his first full season as Chelsea boss, saw the team immediately Premier League champions last season. The group stage saw a strong overall performance, impressive in the 2-1 away win at Atletico Madrid, only spoiled by the 3-0 defeat to group leaders Roma. That error, however, and the resulting second place, has left them with a far from favourable tie at Barcelona. A squad with good depth, and a strong squad, they have a small chance of progressing to the quarter finals, but only slim: their opponents possess arguably the greatest in the world, Lionel Messi, and timeless greats, among them Gerard Piqué and Andres Iniesta of the old guard that won them the eponymous 2009 and 2011 Champions League titles, as well as more recently in 2015. However, the squad is weakened and needs replacing, shown in recent form over the last two years. Overall, Chelsea will need little short of a miracle to overcome their opponents, but the result is perhaps not quite as nailed on: a strong team means anything is possible. I predict a second round exit.

Their opponents possess arguably the greatest in the world

Man City (Basel)

David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne
Manchester City at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, TN

A favourable draw sees the citizens in what is almost certainly the most promising position of all the English teams at this stage. Manager Pep Guardiola has bags of experience at this level, having coached Barcelona to victory in the competition in 2009 and 2011, and already looks assured to win the Premier League title given City’s 11 point lead at this stage, impressive, given it is only his second season in England.  Combine that with a squad many regard to be the strongest in Europe, and you have a team many have deemed the favourites to win the competition, undoubtedly the strongest of all the English teams going into the knockout. Having spent hundreds of millions of pounds over the summer, including tens of millions on full backs Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, a squad containing Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, and Vincent Kompany (just to name a few!) looks stronger than ever. An easy second round will also see them rested for what is to come. Their weaknesses in defence, in the previously poor performances of stars such as Eliaquim Mangala have been tidied up; the competition looks promising for a team that reached the semi-finals for the first time two years ago. Almost certainly through to the quarter finals, they could win the tournament this year. I predict a defeat in the final.

 

Ben Ffrench