Giant slayers, giant players shake up Champions League return

Photo of UEFA Champions League game
Steffen Prößdorf/Creative Commons

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The UEFA Champions League made its return felt with a spate of goals and surprises. Spencer Golanka and Jasper Kenzo Sundeen break down the round of 16 with recaps and previews of eight first-leg matches.

Recap: PSG 4, Barcelona 1

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen: There are good days, there are bad days and then there’s being clobbered 4-1 at home by a Paris St.-Germain side bereft of two of its most important starters. Les Parisiens proved that their run to the Champions League Final last season was no fluke, as they strolled into the Camp Nou and thumped Barcelona like a bass drum. An early Lionel Messi spot-kick proved to be the sole high point of the game for La Blaugrana, who sleepwalked through the rest of the first leg. Kylian Mbappé was the indisputable man of the hour — the Frenchman put in a copacetic performance and tallied a hat trick. Four years ago, Barcelona reversed a 4-0 deficit at home against PSG, but now it’ll have to repeat the trick with Neymar on the opposing team. History has a sense of humor.

Recap: Liverpool 2, RB Leipzig 0

Spencer Golanka: “One night in Budapest” is not a phrase that one would use to describe a Champions League clash between an English and German soccer team. However, amid the unpredictability of the COVID era, it seems more than suitable. RB Leipzig will be ruing its mistakes Tuesday evening, as Liverpool’s Mohammad Salah and Sadio Mané made the best of them, each scoring in the second half on their way to a 2-0 victory. Both teams trudged to the tunnel after the first half, feeling that they deserved the lead after Leipzig hit the post in the first 10 minutes and an attempt by Liverpool’s Andy Robertson eclipsed the crossbar from about 50 yards out. But in the second half, Liverpool’s relentless pressing forced an errant pass from Leipzig’s captain Marcel Sabitzer and a misjudged clearance from defender Nordi Mukiele, both resulting in goals for Liverpool.

Recap: FC Porto 2, Juventus 1

JKS: There’s no mercy in homecomings. Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to his native Portugal ended in defeat as FC Porto shocked Juventus with two lightning-quick goals at the beginning of each half. Juventus came out of the locker room flat-footed at the beginning of both halves, and Porto was in there like swimwear, scoring in the second and 46th minutes. A beautifully composed late goal from Federico Chiesa put the Old Lady on the scoreboard, but Porto’s defensive discipline and opportunism left Juventus frustrated for most of the match. The first leg’s end was frenetic and open, with each team launching chaotic counterattacks and making brutal tackles. Juve’s crucial away goal means that the Old Lady can hope for the quarterfinals, but for now, the Portuguese (excluding Ronaldo) have cause for celebration.

Recap: Borussia Dortmund 3, Sevilla 2

SG: At just 20 years of age, Dortmund striker Erling Haaland is making the Champions League his own. His two first-half goals helped Dortmund outlast Sevilla’s late surge, bringing his scoring record in the UCL to a whopping 18 goals in 13 games. Haaland is already tied for second-highest scoring Norwegian in the competition’s history and shows no signs of slowing down. As long as he is in the team, Dortmund have every chance of advancing to the quarterfinals. It is worth noting, however, that Sevilla dominated possession on the night, and a late goal from striker Luuk De Jong gave them a lifeline. An enticing second leg in Dortmund awaits in three weeks’ time.

Preview & First Leg Prediction: Bayern Munich at Lazio

JKS: The defending champions travel to Italy to face a Lazio side that has never advanced past the quarterfinals. The Bavarians are missing a host of important players, including Thomas Müller and Serge Gnabry, but have a week to return to fitness and overcome COVID-19 issues. Lazio struggled earlier this season and is languishing in seventh in its domestic league, three spots away from Champions League qualification. “I Biancocelesti” have since found their groove, managing six straight wins in the Serie A before losing to Inter Milan on the weekend, but Bayern Munich should hold an advantage in this tie.

Bayern Munich 2, Lazio 1

SG: Bayern Munich 3, Lazio 1

Preview & First Leg Prediction: Chelsea at Atlético Madrid

SG: If we decide to take league form into account, Atlético Madrid is a shoo-in for the quarterfinals. Sitting atop of La Liga with a six-point lead over city rivals Real Madrid, Atlético has been one of the most consistent teams in Europe this season. The attacking boost, provided by Luis Suárez along with the defensive shape employed by manager Diego Simeone, is and has been a recipe for success in this competition. Chelsea, who currently sits fourth in the Premier League, has a new manager in Thomas Tuchel, who has yet to lose since replacing club legend Frank Lampard. Tuchel seems to have resolved the scoring woes of world-class striker Timo Werner while reinvigorating the Blues’ defense. Having been knocked out in each of their last four round-of-16 appearances, Chelsea is up against history as well as Atlético.

Atletico Madrid 3, Chelsea 2

JKS: Atlético Madrid 2, Chelsea 1

Preview & First Leg Prediction: Manchester City at Borussia Mönchengladbach

JKS: Mönchengladbach is the definition of a surprise package. Marcus Thuram and Alassane Pléa are two of Europe’s most exciting attackers and Lars Stindl has proven himself a steady, goalscoring threat. But can they surprise Manchester City? It’s been two months since the Citizens dropped points in a match. Empires have risen and fallen; children have grown old and died, and Ted Mosby has met your mother all while Manchester City has won football matches. And while it hasn’t quite been a geologic epoch, a 17-game winning streak and an unbeaten run stretching back to November of 2020 make Manchester City out to be invincible. It’s unclear if manager Pep Guardiola remembers what a ‘loss’ is. Perhaps, in some misty, unclear hereafter, a future archaeologist will uncover evidence of the Citizens’ fallibility. Until then, İlkay Gündoğan should be classified as a deity and Manchester City as unequivocal favorites.

Manchester City 4, Borussia Mönchengladbach 1

SG: Manchester City 6, Borussia Mönchengladbach 1

Preview & First Leg Prediction: Real Madrid at Atalanta

SG: In only its second-ever appearance in the round-of-16, Atalanta will host the most successful Champions League club in history: Real Madrid. The last three times a Zinedine-Zidane-led Madrid entered the Champions League, it emerged as champions. It’s going to be a considerable challenge for Atalanta, who currently sit in sixth place in the Serie A, to gather the proper defensive reinforcements to muzzle the Madrid attack. Additionally, the goal-scoring threat that catapulted them to the quarterfinals of last season’s competition is not nearly as impressive this time around.

Real Madrid 2, Atalanta 0

JKS: Atalanta 3, Real Madrid 2

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football. Contact him at [email protected].
Spencer Golanka covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.