The 2018-19 Champions League round of 16 is booked and it’s going to be eventful, to say the least.
Monday’s draw for the first knockout ties of this season’s competition brought forward some mouthwatering matchups. There’s Atletico Madrid vs. Juventus, the battle of the European bridesmaids; Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich, the current Premier League leaders against Germany’s historic behemoth; Manchester United vs. Paris Saint-Germain, a tale of what once was against what now is.
Amid these titanic clashes, a wider narrative could emerge – a changing of the guard amongst Europe’s elite.
Madrid may get Dutch dose of Reality
Real Madrid against Dutch giant Ajax seems a kind hand – Los Blancos have won the last three Champions League titles and haven’t lost a knockout tie since the 2015 semifinals, while Ajax last progressed beyond the group stage in 2005-06.
However, if there’s one year this tie could yield an upset, it’s now. Madrid’s knockout record may be near perfect, but they’ve already lost twice in this year’s competition. Real was shocked home and away (and shut out both times to boot) by Russian side CSKA Moscow in the group stage. Things have undoubtedly recovered under Santiago Solari, but shorn of its greatest star in Cristiano Ronaldo, the capital club lacks its old status as an unassailable opponent. Teams believe they can beat Los Merengues and, from CSKA, to Alaves, to Levante, they’ve been proven right.
Meanwhile, Ajax is the most talented team the Netherlands has had in a generation. Containing newly-crowned Golden Boy Matthijs de Ligt, fellow superstar-in-waiting Frenkie de Jong, and a spate of more experienced talent, the Amsterdam representatives have impressed many with their vibrant brand of football and an unbeaten group stage. Ajax’s hierarchy has repeatedly insisted De Ligt and De Jong are not for sale, and if the club can indeed hang on to its prized assets, it likely believes it can make a true sit-up-and-take-notice statement by dumping Real Madrid from Europe
Klopp can exorcize Bayern demons
Jurgen Klopp has had a rough record against Bayern. Sure, his Borussia Dortmund side beat the Bavarians in all five meetings across Dortmund’s back-to-back Bundesliga-winning seasons in 2010-11 and 2011-12, but that’s about where the good times end. In total, Klopp won just nine of 29 games against Bayern during his 14 years at the helm of first Mainz and then Dortmund.
Come February, though, his Liverpool side will have a glorious opportunity to change the narrative. The last time the Munich club failed to reach the final four of the competition was in 2009, shortly before Klopp’s Dortmund briefly usurped them as Germany’s greatest power. But they will likely, for once, be lining up for a Champions League tie as the underdog when they face the Reds.
The current iterations of Bayern and Liverpool appear to have swapped their usual places, at least domestically. The Germans have faltered, losing three league games already, conceding more goals than any of their fellow top-four clubs while failing to beat Ajax twice in the group stage. In contrast, Liverpool boast a very Bayern-esque record in the league. They are unbeaten and top the Premier League after 17 games while scoring five times as many goals as they have conceded. The Reds had a patchy group stage in a tough pool, but can seal those contrasting trends by comprehensively beating Bayern over two legs.
PSG mauling could complete United’s fall
United have been far from a leading European power for some years. Since losing to Barcelona in the 2011 final at Wembley, the Red Devils have failed to get out of the group stage twice and haven’t qualified for the tournament a further two times. After winning the Europa League in 2017 and reaching the last 16 last term, things are hitting new lows.
In a clash emblematic of the struggle between traditional giants and new superpowers, PSG are light years ahead of United on paper. Regardless of United’s late group-stage win over Juventus, it’s a chasm that is too wide, too yawning, and it would be hugely surprising not to see that reflected in the aggregate scoreline.
A lot of things could happen before February to affect the balance of this tie. Jose Mourinho’s successor could transform the club’s fortunes or sign three center-backs in January. Paul Pogba could leave. Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, and most of Paris could be struck down with some type of fever. The far more likely outcome, however, is that PSG’s attacking riches will be far too much for a badly-damaged United and their hopelessly inadequate defense to handle.