Continental football is back. So, in anticipation of some alluring fixtures throughout Europe, theScore looks into the four most interesting one-on-one battles across the eight round-of-16 ties.
Paul Pogba vs. Marquinhos
What a difference 56 days makes. Prior to Jose Mourinho’s sacking, Manchester United appeared susceptible to a battering from Paris Saint-Germain. Now, with the added inconvenience of injuries to Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Thomas Meunier, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Red Devils should be considered the favorites in the round-of-16 affair.
And since Pogba was relieved of Jose Mourinho’s shackles, the Frenchman has notched a Premier League-best eight goals and contributed five assists. Pogba is now allowed to make mistakes – he can take pop shots and float ambitious passes – and United are much better for it.
A January transfer window that didn’t adequately resolve PSG’s scant resources in midfield – Leandro Paredes can’t strengthen the team’s core on his own – means Marquinhos will likely be deployed opposite the irrepressible Pogba. The Brazilian defender has his work cut out.
“Pogba is a player who has many qualities,” Marquinhos said on Friday. “It will be important to play together as a team; individuals can’t do everything.”
Frenkie de Jong vs. Luka Modric
De Jong’s impeccable performances for Ajax see him bound for Barcelona in the summer. The €75-million Dutch star’s schooling in the Michels-Cruyff approach makes him an ideal recruit for the Blaugrana: he’s a versatile player constantly conscious of space, time, and how he can suddenly quicken the tempo with a defense-splitting pass from deep.
In a team that’s not expected to dominate possession among Europe’s elite, only Toni Kroos, Axel Witsel, Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, and Marco Verratti have completed more short passes than De Jong. Not bad for his maiden Champions League campaign. However, how will he cope with the big-fee expectation and facing players of higher caliber week after week when he’s actually at Barcelona?
We may be able to forecast how he will fare for the Catalonians with greater accuracy when he takes on Real Madrid on Wednesday and again in the second leg three weeks later.
De Jong will station himself near Modric. There are few more daunting tasks in world football than silencing the slippery Croatian, but De Jong is better equipped than colleagues Donny van de Beek and Lasse Schone for the role. If he doesn’t allow Modric to elegantly cavort and conjure in Amsterdam and Madrid, De Jong’s star will grow exponentially.
Virgil van Dijk vs. Robert Lewandowski
Van Dijk is an authoritative force at the back for Liverpool. He brings order to a department that previously had Ragnar Klavan and offers composure to an area that was long hindered by Dejan Lovren’s perpetual bewilderment. In seven league starts alongside the unconvincing Joel Matip, Van Dijk has helped the Reds to 17 points from a possible 21.
In short, he has sorted out Liverpool’s defense. That he’ll miss the first leg through suspension will only highlight his impact; expect Liverpool to be much more solid in the second leg, when the towering Dutchman returns.
But Van Dijk has only faced Lewandowski once when the Netherlands helped warm up Poland prior to its rather dull Euro 2016 campaign. That doesn’t really count.
Lewandowski is gearing up for Bayern Munich’s clash with Liverpool on Feb. 19 with 17 goals in 20 appearances since mid-October. Not only is Lewandowski on form, Der FCB boss Niko Kovac may take an opportunity to rest the gangly striker in Friday’s trip to relegation-threatened Augsburg. Can he capitalize on Van Dijk’s absence in the first leg, before having to square off against the towering defender in the return fixture?
Lucas Hernandez vs. Joao Cancelo
Hernandez may have finished on the losing side in Saturday’s Madrid derby, but he got some valuable practice in by taking on Dani Carvajal.
Both were quite solid defensively in the skirmish – their battle in the first half was especially fascinating – but Carvajal was the player who got the most joy offensively as he drew four fouls and had an unsurpassed three key passes during the match. Atletico Madrid’s Hernandez should refer to these lessons when Juventus’ Cancelo visits the Spanish capital on Feb. 20.
Cancelo, 24, has been a revelation for the Old Lady. He leads Serie A full-backs for take-ons completed per 90 minutes (3.1), has an incredible engine, and his vision often sees his crosses and probing passes reach their mark.
The Hernandez-Cancelo squabble should be absorbing. Will one lean on his defensive capabilities to try to stifle his opponent? Will one overcommit and leave too much space behind him? Let’s hope it’s a series of frantic shuttle runs rather than a conservative game of chess.