The UEFA Champions League is set to resume on Tuesday, with Manchester United vs. Paris Saint-Germain and Roma vs. Porto, and Wednesday, with Tottenham Hotspur vs. Borussia Dortmund and Ajax vs. Real Madrid. Here is a look at the key storylines from those Round of 16 clashes. Part 2 will run next Monday, with lookaheads to the other four matchups.
Stars are out for Manchester United vs. Paris Saint-Germain
No, literally: The stars are out. Neymar won’t play in either leg with a broken foot. Edinson Cavani is doubtful to be ready for Tuesday’s match after straining his thigh. Thomas Meunier, a lesser name but also a first-choice defender fully capable of scoring goals, will miss the first leg due to a concussion. PSG manager Thomas Tuchel even admitted he might have to risk banged-up midfield fulcrum Marco Verratti against United.
And the way the Red Devils are playing, boy would it be a risk. Paul Pogba has rediscovered his park-wrecking form under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose “interim” tag is withering by the week. He’ll be a load for PSG, as will the young, in-form attacking pair of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. United hasn’t lost in 11 matches under Solskjaer, dating back to mid-December.
But even without Neymar and Co., PSG is about the furthest thing from a pushover. Twenty-year-old striker Kylian Mbappe is widely regarded as the next global superstar in soccer (if he isn’t already), Gianluigi Buffon brings about as much Champions League experience as you can hope for in goal, and the wings are pulsating with threat through Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria.
There’s also the stark contrast at work between European royalty and the nouveau riches. Manchester United has won Europe’s top prize three times, more than all but six clubs, while PSG has never won it and has yet to progress past the quarterfinals since being purchased by a mega-rich Qatari ownership group in 2011.
Moreover, these two teams have never met in their entire competitive histories. One marquee club will be gone by the end of two legs. Which will it be?
Real Madrid suddenly a live ‘dog for continued supremacy
Calling Real Madrid an underdog seems fanciful, but if you were predicting Champions League winners at the moment, wouldn’t you rattle off three or four before considering Europe’s most successful club?
The sale of Ronaldo, the resignation of three-time Champions League-winning manager Zinedine Zidane and the wretched run of form to start the season seemed to bury any hopes of Real Madrid winning Europe for the fifth time in six seasons. But interim manager Santiago Solari has not only steadied the ship, he’s steered it back toward the top of La Liga by reigniting the squad’s passion and playing to its strengths.
Ajax is a both a favorable draw for Real Madrid and a tempting draw for neutrals, as the likes of Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong, coveted center back Matthijs de Ligt and other stars-in-waiting will entertain as they’re summarily ushered out of the competition by their vastly more experienced opponents.
Where this generation of Ajax talent will end up is anyone’s guess. So is whether or not Real Madrid will win the competition again, as unlikely as it once sounded.
Will Christian Pulisic play as BVB battles Spurs?
Still leading the Bundesliga and having won its Champions League group, Borussia Dortmund is fighting a battle on two fronts.
America’s brightest soccer star, meanwhile, is just battling for playing time.
Since Dortmund returned from the Bundesliga winter break on Jan. 19, Pulisic has played about a half’s worth of minutes in the league and made just one start, a DFB-Pokal loss to Werder Bremen on penalties last Wednesday. What gives?
Well for starters, Pulisic’s $73 million move to Chelsea was made official early in the January transfer window, with the 20-year-old winger being loaned back to Dortmund for the remainder of the season. It makes sense that manager Lucien Favre would lean on players like Marco Reus, Paco Alcacer and Jadon Sancho – who figure into the longer-term future of the club – on his team sheets.
Which puts Pulisic, and indeed American fans, in a tough spot as Dortmund faces Tottenham Hotspur in the Round of 16. He must play to continue developing and become the superstar Gregg Berhalter and U.S. Soccer need him to be, but one could argue Dortmund doesn’t need him to advance. Spurs will be without stars Harry Kane and Dele Alli for at least the first leg, and Wembley Stadium is hardly a fortress compared to the Westfalenstadion, BVB’s intimidating home ground.
It’s a luxury for Dortmund to be able to bring someone of Pulisic’s caliber off the bench, especially against a Spurs defense that’s conceded just eight times in 10 matches since the turn of the calendar. Such depth will be vital if Dortmund wants to reclaim the Bundesliga for the first time in seven years and make a deep push in the Champions League.
The immediate question is, will that push include Pulisic?
2018 semifinalist Roma limping into this year’s knockout phase
AS Roma stunned many by making a run to the Champions League semifinals last spring. Replicating the feat seems like an uphill task.
The Serie A side will likely be without regulars Patrik Schick and Cengiz Under on Tuesday, and goalkeeper Robin Olsen is a doubt as well, although defender Kosatas Manolas is expected to play.
Porto cruised through the group stage, topping Group A with five wins and one draw, a 1-1 stalemate at Schalke on the first matchday in by far the club’s toughest fixture. The reigning Portuguese champions will be without suspended Mexican international Jesus Manuel Corona, however, and whoever wins will likely be an underdog in the quarterfinals.
That’s OK. Look at how it served Roma last season.
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