Champions League knockout-phase action kicks off Tuesday, and with it, a slew of matchups that could go either way courtesy of the ever-looming influence of form.
Top-flight heavyweights accustomed to straightforward progression to the next stage are mired by uncharacteristic displays of late which is likely to result in an exciting eight-pack of clashes.
Here’s a look at the first round of knockout matches ranked by their potential for all things appealing:
Manchester City vs. Monaco
What to look for: Goal-friendly Monaco has bagged three or more tallies in five of its last eight in all comps and lead Europe’s top five leagues with 100+ goals courtesy of a dynamic young attack and a reborn Radamel Falcao. Manchester City also boasts a healthy front four led by Kevin De Bruyne, wingers Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, and nifty newcomer Gabriel Jesus, though there are concerns at the back with a stiff backline and a worrisome Claudio Bravo.
Excitement factor: 10 (out of 10)
Prediction: Monaco (5-4) on aggregate
Real Madrid vs. Napoli
What to look for: Fans of nil-nil draws, turn away. Those not in tune with Serie A this season may give a massive advantage to Real Madrid in its clash with Napoli. That would be a daft assumption considering the form of league-leading scorer Dries Mertens, and his front-three mates Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne and supportive midfielder Marek Hamsik. Kalidou Koulibaly has also helped secure a once-porous backline.
Excitement factor: 9
Prediction: Napoli (5-4)
Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal
What to look for: A matchup as familiar as any, both Bayern Munich and Arsenal enter this last-16 tilt shadows of their potential, making the impulsive selection of the Bavarian giant a hesitant one. Cup specialist coach Claudio Ancelotti is no stranger to continental success, having won the Champions League on three occasions with two clubs, though Bayern’s league efforts have been nothing short of troubling. That said, Arsenal is Arsenal.
Excitement factor: 8.5
Prediction: Bayern Munich (3-3, with penalties at the Emirates)
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Barcelona
What to look for: Like Bayern, Barcelona hasn’t appeared its unbeatable self this season, though four victories and a draw in its last five by a 19-1 margin is reason enough to believe Luis Enrique and Co. can advance to the last eight for the 10th time on the trot. Likewise, Paris Saint-Germain has paired four wins and a draw over the same term, outscoring its opponents 13-4, and Edinson Cavani has been at his best with 25 goals in 23 matches. Hard to fathom La Blaugrana not taking this tilt, though a fit-again midfield pair of Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot could have something to say for it.
Excitement factor: 8
Prediction: Barcelona (4-3)
Sevilla vs. Leicester City
What to look for: Perennial Europa League giant Sevilla is looking to carve its place in the continent’s top-tier competition, and considering Leicester City’s league form, there’s no reason to think Jorge Sampaoli’s lot can’t notch a last-eight spot. As common as the other 14 sides in the knockout stage are, this clash pits two sides oblivious to this level. Sevilla will know that bouncing the Foxes will see it avoid a fellow La Liga side until at least the semis. Cinderella’s slippers may very well fit the Andalusians. That said, writing off Leicester has proved a calamitous task before.
Excitement factor: 7.5
Prediction: Sevilla (3-1)
Benfica vs. Borussia Dortmund
What to look for: Despite the widespread plaudits directed at Thomas Tuchel’s burgeoning Borussia Dortmund, the North Rhine-Westphalians have flirted with defeat and disaster all season. Champions League is rarely the platform for inexperienced players, and Benfica boasts a potent attack led by Kostas Mitroglou and Pizzi paired with a solid backline featuring highly coveted Swede Victor Lindelof.
Excitement factor: 7
Prediction: Benfica (3-2)
Porto vs. Juventus
What to look for: Should Max Allegri opt for cement-footed Stephan Lichtsteiner over not fully fit Dani Alves at right-back in the gaffer’s new 4-2-3-1 formation, Porto winger Yacine Brahimi could have a field day on the left flank with the stagnant Swiss international. The Portuguese giant is also one of the tournament’s most proficient dead-ball sides, though it’s hard to imagine Nuno Santo’s stingy defence denying the Old Lady’s three-headed monster of Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, and Mario Mandzukic over two legs.
Excitement factor: 6
Prediction: Juventus (3-1)
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid
What to look for: With both Diego Simeone and Antoine Griezmann eyeing their next gigs, Atletico Madrid is a fraction of the side that has lost in two of the last three Champions League finals. If Los Rojiblancos have been disappointing, Roger Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen has been drab. Considering these two sides have combined for a scant 57 goals scored 41 top-flight tilts, expect two low-scoring affairs where Atletico has the edge at the Vicente Calderon.
Excitement factor: 1
Prediction: Atletico (1-0)
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)