The Big Gamble

PSG vs Barcelona

Two Uruguayans, one team to go through. There will be blood goals.

“How do you stop Messi? You have to perform the holy trinity and then pray”. Those were the words Thiago Silva uttered when asked about PSG’s most recent Champions League draw. The good news is: he will not be forced to turn water into wine or to bring back David Luiz from the realm of the dead Chelsea. The bad news is: he’ll be spared of performing a miracle due to a muscle injury that left his club short of centre-back options. Tonight in Paris, the hosts will be trying to tame the MSN trio (319 goals in 2 years and 7 months together) with Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe. Those two lads have a combined age of 43 and this season, they’ve played only two league games together in the heart of PSG’s defence (away 6-0 win over Caen and a home 1-1 draw with Saint-Etienne). Let’s be real: Luis Suárez alone (10 goals and 3 assists in his last 9 games!) could give this duo some nightmares.

At the other end of the pitch, the French giants have a little more hope to offer. After a long, frustrating spell as Ibrahimović’s sidekick, Edinson Cavani is finally flourishing as their main man, boasting the record of 33 goals in the last 30 appearances. Meanwhile, the signings of Gonçalo Guedes and Julian Draxler must’ve given Ángel Di María the kick in the nuts he needed. The Argentinian, after several, underwhelming spells of form this season, has just helped his team to dismantle Bordeaux both in Ligue 1 and in the League Cup. “I hope that we can beat Barcelona so that I can head to Madrid for the second time in the Champions League.” he told Marca in the recent interview. Obviously, the magnitude of the task here is much bigger than anything he’s ever been forced to pull off in France. But still: if an UCL winner cannot help PSG here, who can?

Well… It could actually be Marco Verratti. The Italian, who’s been already dubbed as Xavi’s natural successor at Camp Nou by… Xavi, is finally back in business. His old fitness problems are gone with the wind and, given how poorly PSG fared without him in a prestigious January clash with Monaco, his presence makes a massive difference. About 30 months ago, the tiny midfield maestro had a pleasant memories of scoring a header (!) against Blaugrana – today, he needs more of the same to at least slightly undermine his managers’ abysmal lifetime record against FCB (16 defeats, 6 draws and only a single win over the last nine years). Can he do it without a archetypal CDM by his side? One way or another, we will find out: after all, Thiago Motta is suspended for yellow cards and Grzegorz Krychowiak still has some fitness work to do before returning from his knee injury…

Benfica vs Dortmund

It doesn’t matter how good you are at football – this stadium is a tough nut to crack.

Out of all top European teams, Borussia Dortmund are certainly the most unstable bunch of professionals you could imagine. Ridiculously strong attacking ability; creaky and error-prone defensive lines; injuries forcing an unprecedented amount of squad rotation; outstanding, but irregular form of class players like Marco Reus or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – those are the factors behind BVB’s very strange results this season. For instance: so far, they’ve managed to thrash teams like Wolfsburg and Gladbach, break the goal record for a single Champions League match (8-4 against Legia) and draw Real Madrid at Bernabeu when Zidane’s team looked pretty much invincible. Yeah. On the other hand: they were also beaten by Leverkusen, drew with Ingolstadt and Augsburg or… brought 0 points home from Bundesliga’s tail-enders, Darmstadt. It’s a comedy!

How a team like this can fare at Estádio da Luz? After all, Benfica are extremely strong in front of their own fans: so strong, that they did not lose a single home game since the December clash with Napoli and pulled off a miraculous comeback after being 0-3 down to Boavista in January. For many weeks, Rui Vitória’s team seemed to be absolutely cruising to the fourth consecutive league title. Recently, however, the raging form of FC Porto has pushed The Eagles back against the wall – and with a tremendously important, tough away game at Braga around the corner, they will surely have more on their minds than just this Champions League fixture. It’s a tough week for them, sure, but they’re also aware of one thing: if they want to defeat Dortmund in this tie, they absolutely have to win tonight.

But can they? With winger Eduardo Salvio back from an ankle injury just in time to feature here, we are going to see an intriguing contest. The Argentinian, who took over the creative burden after the sale of young Gonçalo Guedes, will most likely face Raphaël Guerreiro as his direct rival down the wing. The young, Portuguese left-back, despite being born and raised in France, claimed his devotion to Benfica shirt many times in the past – so can he now upset his favourite club? And if that duel wasn’t enough to set this match on fire: we’re also going to see two Manchester United targets, Nelson Semedo and Victor Lindelöf, battling it out against Real Madrid-bound Aubameyang and potential, future Anfield favourite, Christian Pulisic. Two young, goal-hungry XI’s battling it out… I would be bracing for a handful of goals and probably the most entertaining fixture the knockout stage could bring.

Bayern vs Arsenal

An ugly fate – last time Arsenal faced Bayern, this happened.

Every neutral and his dog is already sick of this particular pairing. Bayern and Arsenal have met six times in the last three Champions League seasons and they’re back in it again – one more time, in the Round of 16. Although Gunners have taken two, solid and deserved wins off the notorious German champions, it’s always Die Roten, who would finish higher in the group stages or go through to the quarterfinals. The last meeting of these two sides has ended in a 5-1 massacre at Allianz Arena. The home side dominated the possession 68%-32%, attempted 23 shots to Arsenal’s seven and went on a half-time break with a 3-0 lead in hand. Of course – that was when Pep Guardiola was still in charge at Bavaria. Sure – that was when the London XI consisted of Per Mertesacker and Gabriel as a pair of centre-back. But let’s be realistic: have the odds really changed since those days?

It doesn’t seem so. On Wednesday, out of the eleven starters who humiliated Arsenal in 2015, at least seven will be back in the Bayern’s lineup. And even though Carlo Ancelotti does not produce as many crushing victories as his predecessor: he’s still 83 days into a long streak that saw his lads win thirteen games and draw one (1-1 against Schalke). The Germans are economising their offensive potential, usually scoring only two goals per game and keeping things fairly balanced – but it is a sound tactic for a team that is still shooting for a treble. Perhaps slightly less dimensional than during Guardiola’s helm, Bayern nonetheless remain clear favourites to take this tie – and the inability to field Franck Ribéry (thigh), Jérôme Boateng (chest) and Xabi Alonso (knee) should not be much of an issue with Arjen Robben, Joshua Kimmich and Javi Martínez all ready to step up.

Arsenal are by no means doomed to fall, but it is going to be difficult and unlikely to get anything out of this particular match. After the defeats to Chelsea and Watford and a tedious, unconvincing 2-0 win over Hull (achieved through a handball) – the team’s morale remains fairly low. Apart from sensational Alexis Sánchez, there’s no real links of play upfront – and Arsène Wenger, for the lack of better choices, will have to put his faith in Mesut Özil and Theo Walcott all over again. It highly dubious that those two can make a difference on Wednesday – just like it’s dubious whether Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny have the ability to win midfield battle against Kimmich, Vidal and Thiago. Gunners’ best bid should be a patient, cagey play and waiting for some counterattacks to happen – but realistically, a draw here is less likely than am overwhelming, tie-deciding FCB’s victory.

Real Madrid vs Napoli

Napoli are scoring for fun. No reason why they couldn’t do more of this against Madrid.

A month ago, Real Madrid would’ve been 100% destined to take this match, possibly even by some outrageous margin. However, a lot has happened in the past couple of weeks and Sevilla, along with Celta Vigo, have proven that even Zinedine Zidane is not perfect. La Liga leaders are of course still doomed to succeed and are shooting no lower than the domestic trophy plus a win in Cardiff final – but things could get tricky here. Since Keylor Navas’ superb run of form has ceased, Los Blancos have been slightly exposed is several games, cashing in only three clean sheets in the last 10 games and upsetting themselves in a crucial Sevilla match, where they allowed two, game-changing goals in the final ten minutes. That game marked Zidane’s end of an experiment with a three-men defence and two wing-backs – a system that clearly did not suit Los Merengues’ game.

Tomorrow will be yet another day of Real Madrid without Gareth Bale – as the Welshman is still working on fitness after his prolonged injury. Therefore, it will be down to Lucas Vázquez (2 goals and 1 assist in the last 3 games) or Marcelo (1 goal and 1 assist in the last 3 games) to provide the necessary width. At least in this department, the visitors have nothing to be shy about: the former Madrid winger José Callejón is already on double-figures for both this season’s goals and assists in all competitions. Lorenzo Insigne, though less impressive, has played formidably in big Serie A games against Juventus, Inter, Fiorentina and AC Milan – so this is a perfect opportunity for the 25-years old to prove that he’s worthy of playing for a bigger club. Those two, combined with absolutely on-fire Dries Mertens, should be a serious drop of poison in behind the likes of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane.

“Can we play at their level? It’s tough to say” cautiously says Maurizio Sarri, the visitors’ boss. Details would suggest that his team is ready to give it all. A 7-1 away win over Bologna and the most recent managers’ pizza ban, enforced to improve is players’ fitness – those are the little things that indicate SSCN’s readiness to step up. However, their potential success depends on their ability to cope with Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Last weekend, in Pamplona, it was their cooperation that opened the score and it’s them, alongside with Marcelo, who pushed Real towards the victory after Sergio León’s equaliser. This time, CR7 and his French sidekick will have their former teammate, Raúl Albiol and towering Kalidou Koulibaly to beat. Not an easy task – so even though Napoli are unlikely to conquer Santiago Bernabeu, a draw or a narrow, 1-2 defeat seems within their grasp.


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