Champions League Round of 16 Preview, Week 1

Adam Bakr, Men's Soccer Beat Reporter

Dortmund vs. PSG

First Leg: Feb. 18 in Dortmund, Germany

Second Leg: Mar. 11 in Paris, France

The first and possibly most entertaining matchup sees Paris Saint-Germain take on Borussia Dortmund. As a fan, it puts my favorite team, Dortmund, against my preseason pick to win it all. From a neutral perspective, it puts two of Europe’s most attacking teams against one another. 

Starting with PSG, the team has looked determined to get past the heartbreak of the previous years. The team won five of its six group games, scoring 17 goals and only conceding in its 2-2 draw at Real Madrid. In the league, PSG has 20 wins from 25, scoring 67 and conceding 21 in the process. Its roster has arguably the best collection of forwards in Europe with Kylian Mbappe, Neymar Jr., Angel Di Maria, Mauro Icardi and Edison Cavani. Not to mention one of the best offensive minds to put it all together in Thomas Tuchel, who coached Borussia Dortmund for two seasons from 2015-2017. 

This attack could potentially have a field day in this series, as Dortmund’s defense does not have the pace to keep up with PSG. This bodes well for PSG, as the team has pace and much more. Mbappe, Neymar and Di Maria specifically should find little problems running in behind, and Icardi will likely find himself in space often as the defense tries to contain three of Europe’s best players.  

What makes PSG different from previous years is its new balance in the midfield and defense. The arrival of Idrissa Gueye and full conversion of Marquinhos to defensive mid from centre back has given the team more stability in what has been its weak point in previous years. With them covering the defensive work, it opens things up for Marco Verratti to connect with the front line more with less to worry about behind him. Keylor Navas has also been a strong addition to the lineup, playing a huge role for PSG, conceding only two goals in the Champions League. 

For Dortmund, a rocky start to the season has been transformed first by switching formations and second by signing Erling Haaland. The offense is clicking, with 22 goals in five league games since Haaland joined. Haaland has eight goals himself, and Jadon Sancho has four goals and four assists in the five games, moving his season total to 13 goals and 13 assists in the league. 

The major issue for Dortmund comes from the aforementioned defense. Unlike PSG, Dortmund has rarely shown the ability to balance its high-flying offense on the other end of the field. Dortmund has conceded eight goals in the five games, and looked shaky for long stretches in those games. 

Manuel Akanji has regressed after a promising 2018-19 season, but in the most recent game was dropped for the first time this season. PSG offers a different threat than the Frankfurt attack that Matts Hummels, Dan Axel Zagadou and Lukasz Piszczek were able to shut down in its 5-0 win last time out; but the signs were much more promising with the out-of-form Akanji on the bench. 

Even with the potential defensive issues, the biggest problem for Dortmund will be the absence of its captain Marco Reus for the first leg, as he is sidelined for a month with a muscle injury. Ever since Reus got to Dortmund in 2012, the team has shown to have a completely different identity without him. Even with the team being more equipped to play without him in previous years, the signs were there when Dortmund saw its 3-2 lead against Bayer Leverkusen crumble with two goals in three minutes to see it fall in a 4-3 loss. To make things even worse, the man brought mainly to fill in for Reus in times of need, Julian Brandt, is in a race against time to be healthy for the first leg. 

In the end, Dortmund has one too many problems to worry about against a Paris Saint Germain team that has looked better this season. The German side should be able to find goals themselves, but the PSG offense should prove too much to handle over the two games. It feels like Dortmund has to win the home game with a comfortable lead to take back to Paris, but with the injuries and defense, that does not seem possible. The ties should be high scoring, but PSG has the better offense and is going against an easier defense. 

Prediction: PSG 7-4 Dortmund

First Leg: 4-3

Second Leg: 3-1

Liverpool vs. Atletico Madrid 

First Leg: Feb. 18 in Madrid, Spain

Second Leg: Mar. 11 in Liverpool, England

Do not let Atletico’s finals appearances in 2014 and 2016 fool you, this is a mismatch. This season Atletico Madrid looks much worse than teams in recent years, and the team is preparing to take on another team in the midst of a historic season. 

Starting with the out-of-form team from Spain, Atletico Madrid games have not been pretty this year, winning just 10 out of 24 league games, and averaging just over a goal per game with 25 on the season. It has not been good as of late either, winning just one of the last five league games and getting knocked out of the Copa Del Rey to a third division side in the run. Attacking tandems have proved hard to come by so far, with the team’s top three scorers in the league, Alvaro Morata, Angel Correa and Jaoa Felix combining for just 13 goals. Compare that to Liverpool, whose top scorer Mohammed Salah has 14 league goals on his own. 

What Atletico does still have is its world renown defense. Jan Oblak is still one of the world’s best goalies, and Jose Maria Giminez is a world-class centre back. These two would have to be key performers if Atletico is to pull off the upset, with Oblak needing the best two games of his career and Giminez having to defend and potentially score off set pieces Atletico gets in the series. 

As for Liverpool, its season speaks for itself. The team has played 26 league games and gotten 25 wins with 61 goals and just 15 against. The only exception was a 1-1 draw at Manchester United, which was the only game of the season that Salah missed. Liverpool is 25 points clear at the top of the table and are 12 games away from an unbeaten season. The only time its starters have lost this season was the 2-0 loss at Napoli to start the group stage, which seems like a distant memory now. 

The whole team seems to be peaking at the right time. Sadio Mane has 12 goals and marked his return from injury with a game-winner at Norwich in the team’s last game. Roberto Firmino has eight goals and seven assists, and always seems to score when needed most. The defense has kept 10 clean sheets in its last 11 games, only conceding in its 2-1 win at Wolverhampton in January. Even the man I have often considered the weak link of this Liverpool side, Jordan Henderson, has been in tremendous form of late, with exceptional long balls to spread the field and get the forwards in behind. 

Despite all of its wins, Liverpool does have games that are not as convincing. The issue has been that the team still wins all of those. Even when the offense is not clicking, it keeps the opposition under so much attacking pressure that it has always found its way through. Even when everything down the middle of the field is not falling for the offense, it has Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold offering chances down the wings. For the rare attacks the team gives up, the likes of Virgil Van Dijk and Allison Becker rarely let it turn into an easy chance. 

Atletico Madrid has had some big upsets in the runs to the finals it has had, mainly taking out Barcelona on both occasions. Pairing Liverpool’s dominance with its own struggles, this would be the biggest upset of all, and one that just does not seem possible. Atletico will probably make Liverpool dig deep for it, but it’s hard to imagine anything more. 

Prediction: Liverpool 3-0 Atletico

First Leg: 1-0

Second Leg: 2-0


Atalanta vs. Valencia

First Leg: Feb. 19 in Milan, Italy

Second Leg: Mar. 10 in Valencia, Spain

For both of these teams, this is the ideal match for each other. Both were arguably the weakest teams in their respective seeding, and the one the big teams were hoping to get. 

Atalanta has a shockingly strong attack. The team is built on a heavy offensive system, and rarely adjusts off it no matter who the opponent is. Atalanta leads Serie A with 63 goals in 24 games, and has four games scoring five or more goals, twice putting seven in the back of the net this season. The goals are spread out as well; Josip Illic leads the team with 14 league goals, and Luis Muriel is not far behind with 12. Beyond the main two, Atalanta has four other players with five or more goals so far in the league. 

Atalanta’s run to the knockouts is also a historic one, after losing its first three games and only having one point after four games. No team has ever started like that and advanced, until Atalanta’s 2-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb and 3-0 win at Shakhtar Donetsk propelled it to second in the group on the last day. 

Despite advancing, the downside to its attacking play was on display early in the campaign. Atalanta lost the first game against Zagreb 4-0, and quickly saw its 1-0 lead against Manchester City turn into a 5-1 loss. Atalanta has also given up goals in some of its biggest league games, losing 3-1 to Juventus and tying Lazio 3-3 earlier this season. 

Valencia quietly had an extremely impressive group stage campaign. After beating Ajax 1-0 away from home on the final match day, it sent last year’s semi-finalist to the Europa League and topped the group over Chelsea. Valencia has also had some impressive results in the league, being seconds away from beating Madrid in December and beating Barcelona in January. 

Overall, it’s been a mixed season for Valencia, as the team has struggled to find any real consistency. It has won only 10 of its 24 league games, failing to win three in a row at any point this season. Some of its main forward talent, such as Kevin Gamerio and Rodrigo, have struggled so far, with just six league goals between the two of them. 

Despite the up and down season, it is hard to pick against Valencia in this one. The team has shown throughout the season that it can get up for the big games, especially when it comes to the Champions League. Atalanta’s case is also hurt by not having a true home game, playing at the San Siro since its own stadium did not meet UEFA regulations at the start of the season. 

Prediction: Valencia 4-3 Atalanta

First Leg: 2-2

Second Leg: 2-1

RB Leipzig vs. Tottenham Hotspur

First Leg: Feb. 19 in London, England

Second Leg: Mar. 10 in Leipzig, Germany

This match is potentially the most unpredictable of them all. It puts the second place team from the Bundesliga against last year’s finalist, now under the guidance of a two-time Champions League-winning coach. 

It’s hard to know where to begin with Spurs this season. They came in with promise after finally making signings, but a spell of bad form, including a 7-2 loss to Bayern Munich at home in the group stage, saw them fire Mauricio Pochettino in the same year he took them to the final. This opened up the return of Jose Mourinho to the Premier League, and the return has been up and down. Tottenham  won five of its first seven under Mourinho, before losing four straight. Then, just when the team looked like it was going back into poor form, it beat Manchester CIty 2-0 at home to show it can win when getting outplayed for long stretches of games. 

The Spurs’ defense will be up against an immense test in this series, but there is arguably more pressure on the offense to perform. With Harry Kane sidelined with a hamstring injury, Heung-Min Son, Dele Alli and Lucas Moura will have the responsibility to score, along with new signing Steven Bergwijn, who scored in his debut in the win over Manchester CIty. Fortunately for Tottenham, Son has a knack for scoring against German teams in European competitions, having come from the Bundesliga himself. He left before Leipzig was promoted to the first division, so this will be his first time against this specific opposition. 

The big question for Spurs will be if they try to limit Leipzig’s counter attacking style by sitting back for a majority of the game, and what kind of fortunes Leipzig will have against a deep line. If Spurs are caught playing high, it is easy to see Timo Werner and company getting behind at will. 

Leipzig’s offense has been explosive all season, scoring 56 goals in 22 league games, 20 of which have been scored by Werner. The team is built for counter-attacking, with pace all over the starting line up. While Leipzig is best on the counter attack, first-year head coach Julian Nagelsmann has often found a way to get it done when his team’s best method is not working.

Leipzig has not lost to the rest of the Bundesliga’s top four, even when it was up against it. The team was down 2-0 at Dortmund, and despite being heavily outplayed, turned three Dortmund mistakes into goals to tie 3-3. Against Borussia Monchengladbach at home, Leipzig was again down 2-0, but rallied to tie 2-2 in the second half despite Gladbach commonly having everyone behind the ball. Earlier this month, in its 0-0 draw in Munich, Leipzig was dominated in the first half before completely flipping the game in the second, and only failed to win after some non-clinical finishes saw two very open chances go astray. 

The point here is that Leipzig is much more than the fast attacking team that people suspect it to be. Leipzig has shown an ability to play through adversity throughout this season.

At the beginning of the season, I said Leipzig would be this year’s Ajax, who had an underdog run to the semi-finals last year; and Spurs are too inconsistent to really sway me off of that prediction. It is far from a guaranteed win, but Spurs’ dysfunction makes it hard to see another deep run like last season. 

Prediction: RB Leipzig 4-2 Tottenham 

First Leg: 1-1

Second Leg: 3-1

Adam Bakr is a men’s soccer beat reporter for Impact 89FM WDBM. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamBakr14.