Hoonhout: Predicting the Champions League round of 16
Tobias Hoonhout | Thursday, January 31, 2019
So, while we wait for Tom “Football” Brady to return to the promised land (Atlanta), I propose we take a quick trip across the pond.
This week’s Sports Authorities have been inundated with soccer references — shout-out Charlotte and Ellen — and as the resident self-appointed expert in the department, I couldn’t help but weigh in.
Back in September, I previewed the group stages of the world’s premier club competition — the UEFA Champions League — and we are only two weeks away from the best anthem in sports to make its illustrious return in the round of 16. Here are my thoughts on each impending matchup:
Roma vs. Porto
I predicted that both of these teams would advance (#expert), but predicting the winner won’t be as simple. Both clubs are regulars in the competition: The Portuguese giants have made three-straight knockout rounds, and Roma made a run to the semifinals last season. On paper, Roma has the deeper squad, but the summer loss of the mercurial Radja Nainggolan has clearly hurt more than it has helped. Porto, meanwhile, holds the top spot in Portugal and finished top of their group, albeit both are relatively weak. I’d flip a coin, but Roma just lost 7-1 in the Coppa Italia. You heard that right. Porto advances.
Manchester United vs. PSG
If you had asked me only a month ago, this seemed like a bygone conclusion. For the first half of the season, United was a basket case under Jose Mourinho, who has the bad habit of imploding his managerial duties every third season with a club. But usher in club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær as caretaker, and suddenly the Red Devils are a serious threat. PSG, on the other hand, is once again running away with Ligue 1 in France, but the loss of Neymar to a broken foot bodes a bad sign for a club that, despite being backed by infinite Qatari oil money, still doesn’t have the European success to match the ocean of funds. United advances.
Tottenham vs. Dortmund
As a Spurs fanatic, being unbiased is never easy. But in all honesty, Tottenham has had one of the wackiest seasons in recent memory. After shockingly making zero summer moves (and looking increasingly unlikely to do anything in January), Spurs and Mauricio Pochettino have riskily elected to take a squad that heavily featured in the World Cup into a hectic season. The bold strategy has pushed Spurs out of a “Group of Death” and into the knockout rounds and brought them up to third in the Premier League, but there’s no question the squad is thin and injuries to Harry Kane and Dele Alli definitely pose a challenge. It’s unclear whether or not the two stars will play a role against Dortmund, but the German club will be a serious threat regardless. Dortmund has been firing on all cylinders this season, sitting in first in the Bundesliga, and will be itching to return to Spurs the same punishment the North London club inflicted in last season’s competition, when Tottenham knocked them out of the group stages. I don’t like this one. Dortmund advances.
Ajax vs. Real Madrid
This is a blast from the past, as Ajax was once the darling of Europe in the 1970s, before turning into an elite factory of young talent in recent memory. Madrid was also one of the early heavyweights, winning the first five Champions League competitions and four of the last five trophies. But times change. In all honesty, Madrid has been a different beast since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and manager Zinedine Zidane after last season, and there are serious doubts as to if the club can continue its run of European dominance. Ajax, with a blend of experience and future stars, poses a serious threat. Upset alert! Ajax advances.
Lyon vs. Barcelona
I’ll keep it short — Lyon may have talent, but Barca is still Barca. Messi hasn’t kissed the trophy in four years, and in all honesty, the man looks to be on a mission this year. Barcelona advances.
Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich
This looks to be a highly entertaining matchup, with some serious firepower on both sides. Bayern surprisingly started slowly in the Bundesliga, but have won their last seven in the league and are hitting top-gear at a very good time. The Reds, meanwhile, have taken the Premier League by storm after spending big on center-back Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Allison, who both have been worth arguably every cent. While Bayern may have the pedigree over the last decade, Liverpool have emerged as one of the best in Europe under Jürgen Klopp — and Klopp knows Bayern well from his days at Dortmund. Liverpool advances.
Atletico Madrid vs. Juventus
While Ronaldo may not be at Real anymore, he has still wound up with a matchup against their pesky little brother. This may be a hot take, but Diego Simeone is the best manager in the world. The fact that Atletico plays in the same league as the world’s two biggest clubs and still finds a way to make two of the last five Champions League finals is nothing short of extraordinary. They simply don’t lose — only one loss in La Liga this year and a whopping 13 goals conceded, the best defensive record in the league. But there’s only one reason Juventus added arguably the best player in the world — to win the Champions League. I like Atletico, but they’re in Ronaldo’s world now. Juventus advances.
Schalke 04 vs. Manchester City
Schalke is practically in a relegation battle in Germany. Manchester City has Pep Guardiola. Need I say more? Currently taking bets on whether or not Leroy Sané celebrates against his former club. Manchester City advances.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.