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SportChampions League last 16 predictions, with much changed since draw

18:15  11 february  2019
18:15  11 february  2019 Source:   si.com

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Champions League last 16 predictions, with much changed since draw© Getty Images (3) The Champions League last 16 is set to begin

Attempting to garner much about the matchups after the Champions League last-16 draw is a bit of a fool's errand. Sure, it's possible to take a look at two sides drawn against one another and make some general conclusions, but so much can change in the course of nearly two months.

PSG and Tottenham, for instance, weren't struggling with injuries to two key attacking pieces apiece, and Manchester United was still limping along from game to game with Jose Mourinho at the helm. Real Madrid didn't look like anything special as it continued its return to stability under Santiago Solari, and other injuries and the transfer window have also thrown wrenches into teams' plans and outlooks since then.

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The lengthy layoff in between the Champions League group stage and knockout rounds is finally over, and the road to the final in Kiev is about to get kick-started into high gear, with four round-of- 16 first legs this week followed by four more next week. Since December's final group game, plenty has changed .

So now that the matches are finally here, what can we garner about the matchups from the Dec. 17 draw on the eve of the round of 16? Here's a closer look at each of the eight ties and who we see going through (first leg host listed first):

MANCHESTER UNITED vs. PSG

First leg: Tuesday, Feb. 12; Second leg: Wednesday, March 6

When the draw was made, the expectation was of a comfortable Paris Saint-Germain victory, but not any more. Most significantly, Manchester United has improved out of sight since the departure of Mourinho, winning 10 and drawing one of its 11 games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Not only has he improved morale, but there have been intriguing tactical tweaks to suggest that what went wrong during his spell at Cardiff City was far more to do with the club than with him. The result is that Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba are both playing somewhere near their potential and goalkeeper David De Gea is back in form.

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UEFA Champions League round of 16 draw . 12 February & 6 March Manchester United (ENG) v Paris Saint-Germain (FRA) Roma (ITA) v Porto (POR). 13 February & 5 March Tottenham Hotspur (ENG) v Borussia Dortmund (GER) Ajax (NED) v Real Madrid (ESP).

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None of the doubts about PSG have gone away, and while the improvement in its performance at home to Liverpool compared to the shambles at Anfield suggested Thomas Tuchel is beginning to instill his methods, the injury doubt over Marco Verratti potentially leaves the French champion very short in midfield. Edinson Cavani suffered a thigh strain in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Bordeaux and is also a question mark for the first leg, Thomas Meunier is doubtful and Neymar, the most expensive player in history, is out with a broken metetarsal–although he is such a flaky presence his absence from the biggest games may not be such a loss as many think.

PREDICTION:Narrow Man United win.

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ROMA vs. PORTO

First leg: Tuesday, Feb. 12; Second leg: Wednesday, March 6

Roma’s form seemed to have stabilized around the turn of the year, as it won four games in a row in all competitions, but back-to-back league draws on either side of a 7-1 defeat at Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal raised questions about just how sustainable the improvement was. Roma did beat Chievo 3-0 on Saturday to remain fifth in Serie A, but it desperately needs a run in the Champions League to salvage some pride from a disappointing season. Eusebio Di Francesco remains a coach under pressure.

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Porto is on a remarkable run, unbeaten in 25 games in all competitions going back to the beginning of October. During that stretch, 22 of those games have been a win, although it has drawn the last two, leaving it a point clear of Benfica at the top of the Portuguese league. Injuries to forwards Moussa Marega and Vincent Aboubakar are a blow, but Porto looks to have the squad to cope and is playing with verve and confidence.

PREDICTION: Narrow Porto win.

AJAX vs. REAL MADRID

First leg: Wednesday, Feb. 13; Second leg: Tuesday, March 5

Back in December, Ajax might have thought it had a decent chance of eliminating the three-time-reigning Champions League winner. But slowly, Solari’s team has found form, and with Luka Modric back near his best and Karim Benzema supplying the goals, a fourth straight European success is far from impossible. After all, it helps immeasurably with fitness and focus if you effectively only play half the season. Madrid has won its last six in a row and has closed to within six points of Barcelona in the league, but once again Europe is the priority.

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Ajax has played some thrilling football this season, averaging three and a half goals a game in the Eredivisie, but it has also been defensively open, as the recent 6-2 defeat at Feyenoord and 4-4 draw against Heerenveen suggest. A pair of draws against Bayern in the group stage suggest it has the potential to battle against the elite, but this Madrid is a different proposition compared to the sputtering Bayern of the autumn.

PREDICTION: Comfortable Real Madrid win.

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TOTTENHAM vs. BORUSSIA DORTMUND

First leg: Wednesday, Feb. 13; Second leg: Tuesday, March 5

Tottenham still carries the chastening memories of a 5-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund over two legs in the Europa League in 2016–an emphatic defeat that was only partly the result of selecting a weakened side. Tottenham is more experienced in Europe now, but even though the squad is little deeper, it has been severely hit by injury. Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Ben Davies are all out, although the midfield has returned to full strength in recent weeks. There has been a feeling all season of Tottenham on its last legs, desperately clinging on, yet it remains just five points behind Premier League leaders Liverpool and Manchester City. It’s one thing to grind out wins with late goals against Premier League opposition, though, quite another to take on a side playing as well as Dortmund.

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Nickname explained: Most call Roma the Giallorossi (Yellow-Reds) in honour of their club colours Lyon figure in the biggest rivalry in French football. The balance of power between Lyon and neighbours St-Étienne has shifted since Les Verts' 1970s heyday, but Rhône-Alpes derbies remain massive.

Under Lucien Favre, Dortmund has been a revelation, playing with the verve and flair and energy of old. It’s helped, of course, that Bayern is having a poor season, but, even after successive draws, Saturday’s against Hoffenheim coming despite having led 3-0 with 15 minutes remaining, Dortmund is five points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table. Its European pedigree was seen in the 4-0 defeat it inflicted on Atletico Madrid in the group stage.

PREDICTION: Narrow Borussia Dortmund win.

LIVERPOOL vs. BAYERN MUNICH

First leg: Tuesday, Feb. 19; Second leg: Wednesday, March 13

This has been a dismal season so far for Bayern. It has picked up after a very rocky autumn, going 10 games unbeaten before defeat at Bayer Leverkusen over a week ago, but this is an aging squad playing under a manager in whom few have much faith, and it's far from the intimidating side of recent seasons. Robert Lewandowski has struggled for form, and there are injury doubts over Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels and Arjen Robben.

When the draw was conducted, this looked a relatively straightforward Liverpool win, but Jurgen Klopp’s side has also stuttered a little of late. Since losing at Manchester City at the beginning of January, it has scraped wins over Brighton and Crystal Palace and drawn against Leicester and West Ham before Saturday’s comfortable win over Bournemouth. Injuries are part of the problem. Trent-Alexander Arnold is on his way back but his absence and that of Joe Gomez meant a shortfall at right back, the effects of which have been compounded by the decision to send Nathaniel Clyne out on loan. But Liverpool has also looked nervous, and in that regard getting away from the anxiety of the league and the possibility of a first championship in 29 years may come as a relief.

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PREDICTION: Narrow Liverpool win.

LYON vs. BARCELONA

First leg: Tuesday, Feb. 19; Second leg: Wednesday, March 13

Barcelona is six points clear of Real Madrid in La Liga and Lionel Messi continues to be majestic, but this is not a Barcelona that inspires fear as it once did, even if it is unbeaten in the league in 10 games (albeit the last two of them draws). The past few seasons have shown how vulnerable Barcelona is through the midfield against teams that have pace on the counter–like Lyon–and nothing has changed in that regard, even after the signings of Arturo Vidal and the injured Arthur. Lyon, meanwhile, has had a mixed season, and sits only third in Ligue 1, but it impressed in both Champions League group games against Manchester City and then inflicted on PSG its first league defeat of the season.

The knee injury to center back Samuel Umtiti, who is likely to be out until April, creates further defensive issues for Barcelona, but Lyon has had defensive issues itself. It may be letting in only just over a goal a game domestically, but it failed to keep a clean sheet in any of its group games, leaking 11 goals in six matches.

PREDICTION: Narrow Barcelona win.

ATLETICO MADRID vs. JUVENTUS

First leg: Wednesday, Feb. 20; Second leg: Tuesday, March 12

Everything at Juventus is geared toward winning the Champions League. That’s why it spent the best part of $100 million on signing Cristiano Ronaldo, who turned 34 last week, ignoring any thoughts of resale value for the goals it hopes will take it through the knockout stage to win the competition for the first time since 1996. Juve’s biggest issue, though, is the lack of challenge it is presented on a weekly basis in Serie A. It has dropped just six points in 22 games in the league this season, which means that it’s almost impossible to know how it will react when it comes up against a tough opponent in the Champions League.

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And Atletico is a tough opponent. It had gone 19 games unbeaten before defeat at Real Betis just over a week ago, which it followed by losing at home to Real Madrid on Saturday. Even so, it’s conceded just 17 goals in 23 league games so far. It did suffer a 4-0 defeat away to Borussia Dortmund in the group stage, its worst result under Diego Simeone, but then beat the Bundesliga leaders 2-0 in Madrid two weeks later.

PREDICTION: Narrow Juventus win.

SCHALKE vs. MANCHESTER CITY

First leg: Wednesday, Feb. 20; Second leg: Tuesday, March 12

There’s little disguising the fact that the opponent every other club wanted in the last 16 was Schalke. Domenico Tedesco’s side has struggled to reproduce the form of last season and has missed midfielder Leon Goretzka–who signed for Bayern on a free transfer last summer–badly. Form has picked up slightly after a dreadful start, and although Schalke saw off Galatasaray and Lokomotiv in the group stage, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it got lucky with the group draw. Schalke sits 14th in the Bundesliga, by far the lowest league position of any of the 16 sides remaining in the competition.

City meanwhile stands top of the Premier League on goal difference, and after a shaky December it looks back in superlative form. It’s won 11 of its last 12 games in all competitions, culminating in a devastating 6-0 demolition of Chelsea on Sunday. More than that, Pep Guardiola has begun to compromise his relentless attacking approach, and it may be that City is more defensively balanced this time around.

PREDICTION: Comfortable Manchester City win.

Report: Messi a 'major doubt' for El Clasico.
Lionel Messi is considered a major doubt to feature in Wednesday's Copa del Rey match against Real Madrid after the Barcelona star missed Monday's training session with a thigh injury.

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