by Zack Lambert (@bigbird8224)
December 14th, 2020
Borussia Verein für Leibesübungen 1900 e.V. Mönchengladbach vs Manchester City Football Club
Borussia Mönchengladbach (Germany)
Title Odds: +10000
League Place: 8th
Gladbach are one of the surprise features in the knockout rounds, beating out a quality Inter Milan side as well as the very talented Ukrainians from Shakhtar Donetsk. Gladbach used Donetsk as a punching bag while earning draws from the larger clubs which was just enough to edge them on to the knockouts. Gladbach aren’t a necessarily well known or even dominant club, though they are more than capable of beating any club in the world on their day and their exporting of talent is overshadowed by few. They’re a very young team with a lot of upside and making it out of that hellish group while very injured is a big achievement.
The biggest name currently on the roster of Gladbach is certainly that of Marcus Thuram, son of the legendary Lilian Thuram. Marcus’s objectives lie opposite to those of his father, preferring to score goals and deliver assists to his teammates from the wing. Thuram has plenty of big names around him, Pléa, Sommer, and Hofmann to name a few, but the value in this club lies in the younger talent. Matthias Ginter and Nico Elvidi are star defenders, Ramy Bensebiani is a threatening menace from full back, Denis Zakaria has murderous intent from the midfield and Breel Embolo could be a future star at the top of the formation. If health falls in line for the Germans then an upset could be in the works.
Manchester City (England)
Title Odds: +400
League Place: 9th
Manchester City are one of the premier clubs in Europe and England alike, but injuries and inconsistent form leaves them in a less than desirable position in the Premier League early on. The club rolled their way through the group stages, only stumbling with a Porto draw after they already won the group. City is known for their mastery of “Guardiola-ball”, a system implemented by their master manager Pep Guardiola that relies upon strong positioning, ball possession, and passing. The employment of some of the top footballers in the world makes life and football much easier for the team.
If there’s ever a footballer that commands your attention at this point in time, let it be Kevin de Bruyne. The Belgian midfielder is a maestro with the football at his feet, directing his teammates with scintillating through balls and unleashing his howitzer of a right foot upon goal with remarkable precision. The newly revamped defense is still taking time to work out the kinks but the upside shown by the line is massive. To make things even tougher on opponents, a combination of Raheem Sterling, Jesus, Sergio Agüero, Ferran Torres, and Riyad Mahrez will be leading the attack, all top players at their position. There is a quarterfinal curse on this team in the past Champions League seasons, but a healthy and quality Citizen side will give even Bayern a run for their money.
Despite the domestic league positionings of these two clubs being similarly and irregularly low for a Champions League pairing, they are not the same in quality. Pep Guardiola’s side, a roster handpicked and composed with balance and perfection in mind, is widely thought of as one of the best clubs in the world. Though they didn’t have many opportunities to prove that claim in the group stage, City will be eager to begin the knockout stage with a bang.
Gladbach have proven capable of killing giants. Though they have yet to net the big name this season it took an improbable comeback for Real Madrid to draw in Germany, a point that would help Gladbach advance to the position they are now, though an enviable position it is not. Manchester City will probably win both legs of this fixture with their skill outclassing that of Gladbach in every area of the pitch, though a scoring draw would not be a surprise at Borussia-Park.
Societá Sportiva Lazio vs Fußball-Club Bayern München e.V.
Title Odds: +8000
League Place: 9th
I am a bit attached to Lazio as a club for a few different reasons, but don’t let that take away from my praise for the team. Lazio were a top club in Europe leading up the shutdown last season and could have caught Juventus were it not for the stoppage. Once football returned Lazio were a different side and dropped off drastically, nearly missing out on the Champions League completely. Now things are getting better again. The club are dominating in Serie A and their performance in the Champions League shows us that they’re geared up for battle once again.
Lazio are reliant on their two superstars to lead them and for the most part that’s a successful strategy. Ciro Immobile is one of the best pure scorers in the world and led Serie A in that category last season, but his slow start this season has kept Lazio a bit lower in the league. He’s picked up the production recently and will need to elevate himself even more for Lazio to have a chance to move on. The other star is Sergej Milinković-Savić, one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world. He’s a strong defender and has a missile in his boot that makes him a threat on the attack as well. Lazio will need help from the supporting cast as well, players like Leiva, Felipe, Caicedo, Acerbi, and the keeper Strakosha, though the main load rests on superstars.
Bayern Munich (Germany)
Title Odds: +275
League Place: 2nd
Bayern Munich are the current holders of the Champions League trophy, winning the title last season over PSG after leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The German giants seem to only have one vulnerability in their game: injuries. Right now Joshua Kimmich, arguably their most important player, is out with a meniscus injury. Granted, everyone is expected to be healthy to kick off the new year, but injuries have attempted to derail this team before and there’s no reason to expect they won’t again.
When this team is healthy, though, they’re the best club in the world by some distance. Robert Lewandowski is the best pure goal scorer in the world and Thomas Müller’s transformation into one of the best creators on the planet is close to unbelievable. From top to bottom this club is loaded with world class footballers, defending and attacking at the highest rate in the world. It’s no surprise to see them as the odds-on favorites to repeat as title winners.
As of right now Bayern are in an odd state of affairs and almost seem lost without Joshua Kimmich on the pitch, but their chances in the Champions League will not wane because of that. The midfielder is expected to be healthy when the new fixtures roll around in February, as is Alphonso Davies, and when Bayern is healthy there are maybe three or four clubs capable of really competing with them, and even that could be a stretch.
Every year there seems to be a type of sacrificial lamb type of matchup in the Round of 16. Last season it was Chelsea and Bayern, the year before Manchester City and Schalke 04. This season Bayern is likely to take advantage of Lazio, a team who are coming into their own but won’t be able to keep up with the firepower of the German titans. Ciro Immobile could make the matches interesting if his form is astronomical, but based on the Italian’s defense I don’t think there will be enough goals to keep up with the Cup holders. Bayern will win both legs.
Club Atlético de Madrid, S.A.D. vs Chelsea Football Club
Atlético Madrid (Spain)
Title Odds: +1600
League Place: 2nd
Atlético Madrid are one of the more well known clubs around Europe, but their popularity falls off in the States thanks to Barcelona and Real Madrid taking control of the Spanish football scene. Los Colchoneros are one of the top clubs in Spain and have been for most of their existence, recent history being a testament to the club’s ability to defend their own goal. One criticism of Diego Simeone’s side was that their attack was far from reliable and that was fair, though their Champions League showing at Anfield and this season’s start have begun to wipe away the legitimacy of those claims.
The biggest name for the club is arguably up for debate. On one hand there’s the face of the future in João Félix, a wonderful young player who can score goals in the blink of an eye. There’s also Luis Suárez of Barcelona fame, one of the best strikers in the history of football, albeit a very underrated player. Still yet we have Jan Oblak, possibly the best keeper in the world, but also an overlooked name. Surrounding them are hundreds of millions of Euros worth of talent, be it Gímnez or Lodi in defense or Saul, Koke, or Llorente in the midfield. There’s often a good argument for Atlético Madrid to make a run and this season is no different.
Title Odds: +1200
League Place: 5th
Chelsea’s lone Champions League title came when Didier Drogba headed in history to draw level with and eventually beat Bayern some eight and a half years ago. Since they’ve fluctuated a bit and looked to be falling behind the European powers, but instead they spent hundreds of millions to recoup their winning ways and resurface as title contenders in England. In the Champions League they dominated their group outside of a draw with Sevilla, but that was avenged by the four goal performance by Olivier Giroud in Spain.
Questions circulated around Frank Lamapard’s coaching abilities when the Blues got off to a slow start, but the talent brought in is beginning to perform and the club’s stock is rising. Hakim Ziyech is the chief creator, when he’s able to stay healthy, and young Kai Havertz has the potential to become something like what Manchester CIty has in Kevin de Bruyne. The plethora of forwards like American Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner, Mason Mount, Giroud, Tammy Abraham, and Callum Hudson-Odoi provide fireworks and goals capable of overpowering most sides in Europe. N’Golo Kanté is one of the top box-to-box midfielders in the world and has proven a winner at all of his tops. The defense was once an issue for the Blues, but now it seems there’s too many quality players to field. Be it Emerson, Chilwell, Azpilicueta, or James at fullback or Thiago, Christensen, Zouma, Rüdiger, or Tomori at center back, they’re extremely solid. Also, finding an answer at keeper in Edouard Mendy cements whatever combination of defenders that are on the field.
This pairing between Chelsea and Atlético de Madrid is one of, if not the most, interesting pairings of all that came out today. On one side we have a tried and true club run by a manager who has as much experience as anyone in the coaching scene. Atlético have proven the stakes don’t phase them, even in an evening fixture in England during extra time against the momentum. Their attack is possibly in the best form it’s ever been under Diego Simeone and the defense and midfield are always thwarting walls who reject even some of the most savvy attackers.
On the other end we have the opposite. An unproven manager who is attempting to get past the Round of 16 for the first time, drawing poor hands twice in a row. His team is heavy with young players who lack experience but bubble with upside and expectations. Chelsea are an attacking football team with plenty of options but the defense has been the surprise this season, lending itself to one of the best defensive records in the Premier League. No matter who the victor is between these two clubs, they won’t be named until the final whistle blows. It will be a tight call but Atlético Madrid moves on in my mind.
RasenBallsport Leipzig e.V. vs Liverpool Football Club
Title Odds: +2800
League Place: 3rd
RB Leipig are also favorites to be labelled as the most exciting club in the world. The German side has proven time and time again to be full of great talent and even after losing the likes of Timo Werner to bigger clubs, they’re not taking a step back. Leipzig are one of the top challengers of Bayern in Germany and considering the Munich side’s recent form, Leipzig could actually take advantage this season. The team is pretty healthy and even though they’ve shown weaknesses away from home, they’re tough to outscore and shutting them down is generally a fruitless task.
If you want to familiarize yourself with Leipzig’s there’s plenty of places to start. One spot is in the defense where Dayot Upamecano is one of the world’s most desired central defenders. You could also look to the left side where Angeliño is proving to be one of the most dynamic wing backs on the planet, defending with a low center of gravity and serving assists to his talented forwards. We could go to his countrymate Dani Olmo, one of the biggest creating prospects on the rise, often playing as a central attacker and proving himself time and time again with mercurial passes and scores. Maybe you would prefer the box-to-box threat Christopher Nkunku, a danger in front of goal with the abilities to disarm a player, start a counter, or amplify possession. My point is that Leipzig may not have the proven world-beaters that Bayern or Juventus have, but they’re holding some of the most valuable future commodities on the planet and those players could make the difference in a two-match series.
Title Odds: +600
League Place: 2nd
Liverpool won their sixth Champions League title in club history to bookend the 2018/19 season, but their accomplishment to close last season meant much more. Liverpool’s first top flight title in over 30 years was not just won, but ran away with, clinching the title with seven matches to go, the largest margin of all time. The Reds’ Jürgen Klopp rebuilt the team with smart purchases and fantastic coaching, turning an inconsistent touch-and-go side to one of the most dominant clubs of all time with an impregnable defense and unstoppable attack.
Getting to know all of the impact players on Liverpool’s team would take ages, so we’ll skim over the highlights. Virgil van Dijk is possibly the world’s best central defender, but a knee injury will likely keep him out until April, leaving Liverpool more vulnerable than usual on the back line. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are the left and right fullbacks respectively, and are arguably the best players at their positions in the world, often attacking with terrifying crosses. The soul of the team lies with Jordan Henderson, the PFA Player of the Year in 2019/20 and a wonderful pivot in the midfield. The attack is loaded. Mohamed Salah could be the second best goal scorer in the world, Sadio Mané’s desire and effort combined with his skill make him a blur of ruthlessness on the left wing, Firmino is the best false nine in the world, and newcomer Diogo Jota looks to be blossoming into a true nine, giving Klopp a wealth of formational options. If this team can keep away from more injuries and survive the first rounds, they’ll be close to favorites late in the competition.
The German side of this tie is one of the premier innovative attacking clubs in the world, developing star youngsters into merciless assassins, and experienced ones at that, making it all the way to the tournament semifinals last season. This year they’re challenging Bayern for the top spot, usually a fruitless endeavor though an opening has arisen this season. The question will be whether or not this innovation can overcome Liverpool’s.
The Reds certainly have more talent and a much higher payroll than that of their opponents, but injuries piled on top of one another make things a bit more complicated than Jürgen Klopp might like. His club have won the trophy just two seasons ago so their experience isn’t in question, just whether or not they can weather the storm until their stars return to full capabilities. The attack has proven to be overwhelming regardless of the defensive issues, but Leipzig are capable of keeping up with them. This pairing will be decided in the second leg at Anfield though Liverpool will fare much better than they did last season and advance to the quarterfinals.
Futebol Clube do Porto, MHIM, OM vs Juventus Football Club
Title Odds: +15000
League Place: 3rd
Porto own the lowest chances to win the Champions League of any remaining team in the tournament, though underestimating them could be as dangerous as underestimating any side in the world. Portugal sides are famous for their exportation of world class talent and Porto have done their share of that this season, but the value they kept is still immense. Winning the group was never in the cards for Porto with Manchester City in the group, but Marseille and Olympiacos provided easy targets to build some momentum for the knockout stages.
The club are tearing through the Primeira Liga thanks to their wealth of talent. Forwards like Moussa Marega, Luis Díaz, and Otávio are providing goals in bunches while the midfield is full of quality players who can amplify the effectiveness of a possession. The defense is very stout as the legendary Pepe is making his presence known at the spry age of 37. The most valuable player on the side though is probably the Mexican Jesus Corona, a wing back bursting with versatility and talent that can even see him playing in the attacking third with regularity. It’s right that Porto have the lowest chances to advance, but they’re capable of beating any of these teams if the opposition is lazy.
Title Odds: +1400
League Place: 4th
Juventus are one of the premier names in world football and their brand continues to grow with every winning season, a good thing when you’re winning Serie A for a decade straight. The Italian giants have yet to conquer Europe this century, but their best bet is coming this season as the team is filling out. No Ronaldo for a part of the group stage saw them fall behind Barcelona for the group lead, but the reverse fixture in Camp Nou saw the Old Lady explode for three goals, two from the legendary Protuguese and another stunner from American midfielder Weston McKennie. Juve are struggling to keep pace in Serie A at the current moment, but some regression at the top combined with Juve regaining their health will see them close the gap in coming months.
We must start the discussion around personnel with the indomitable Ronaldo. The player is one of the top winners in all of sport and its history. Since coming to Juventus he’s won Serie A twice, a drop in the bucket that includes five Champions Leagues, seven domestic titles, five Ballon d’Ors, a Euro title, and much more. Around him are a murderer’s row of world class accomplices. Alvaro Morata and Paulo Dybala are world class scorers, McKennie, Adrien Rabiot, Rodrigo Betancur, Arthur Melo, Aaron Ramsey, and Fede Chiesa in the midfield, Fede Bernardeschi, Danilo, Juan Cuadrado, Giorgio Chiellini, Merih Demiral, Leonardo Bonucci, and Matthijs de Ligt in defense, and Wojciech Szczęsny and Gianluigi Buffon in goal make probably the best roster in football. Andrea Pirlo has a difficult task to find the right formation and lineup for each team, but he’s a coach capable of taking the club to the heights of football, especially with the team beneath him.
There won’t be too many massive discrepancies in the head-to-head odds for these pairing, but this will likely be one of the few. Once Ronaldo recovered from Covid, Juventus breezed by Barcelona in a way that was startling. Of course Barcelona is struggling this season with Messi dipping slightly in form, but Juventus looked next to unstoppable dn got whatever they wanted, a terrifying sight. Of course Ronaldo would like to win a Champions League with his third team, but it didn’t seem really possible until that performance.
Porto won’t be the sort of sacrifice that Lazio could be against Bayern, but they won’t like their chances against The Old Lady. Of course they can’t be as talented as their legendary opponents and while they will provide a good fight, it won’t be enough. The wounds of last season’s early exit to Lyon are still fresh on the Juventus players and that embarrassment will be avenged in both legs, Juventus moving on easily.
Futbol Club Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain Football Club
Title Odds: +1600
League Place: 8th
We’re all familiar with Barcelona, right? The Catalan club are one of the legendary sides in all of sport, employing some of the best footballers ever seen. Their attacking football has won them countless trophies and even now in a time where the club is in its most unstable point ever, they’re very good. The issue with Barcelona right now is one that’s rampant among clubs with massive talent and wage budgets: they seem to lack a real style. Ronald Koeman is a proven tactician and a good coach, but allowing talent like this to roam instead of using them as specialized weapons makes the team weaker.
Barcelona are struggling in La Liga and their final day antics in the Champions League lost them the top spot, but Lionel Messi cannot be blamed for that. La Pulga Atomica could be the most individually talented player we’ve ever seen and though his production declines with age, the struggles cannot be placed on him. Actually, the issue is not really the players at all, it’s more of how they’re used. Antoine Griezmann is one of the best scorers in the world but won’t be played in his correct position. Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho are seen as club outcasts despite their solid performances as of late. Sergio Busquets and Gerard Piqué are admittedly aging quite a bit, but that’s not an excuse for playing Frenkie de Jong out of place. There’s still huge quality wherever you look, but it’s not being used correctly. Hopefully Ansu Fati can come back healthy and players like Llenglet, Alba, Dest, and ter Stegen can help stop the free fall of this club.
Paris Saint-Germain (France)
Title Odds: +900
League Place: 3rd
PSG are last season’s runners up in the Champions League, falling to Bayern in an uneventful Final. Though it was the first Champions League Final appearance for the Parisian club, their dominance shouldn’t be understated. The club has dominated French football for the past decade, winning the league every season since 2012/13 outside of a wealthy blip on the radar from the French Riviera. This season PSG seem destined to win the league title yet again, but their sights are set on a much more precious prize, a trip to the Promised Land.
Where to start with this club? Defense has always seemed to be a fault for the French side, but that’s mainly because their attack is so loaded. Presnel Kimpembe and Marquinhos are top center halves in the world and any of the wing backs around them are capable of starting for nearly any club in the world. The midfield is actually an area that requires refining as it can seem that there’s no semblance there. Sometimes they can lose their shape and there’s no Henderson or Casemiro or Kimmich to reassemble them. However, those issues can often be overlooked considering the attacking line. When two of the five best players on the planet are under your employment, you can generally cover up some flaws. Neymar and Mbappé are two of the most ridiculously talented players on the planet. Neymar’s jaw-dropping ball skills paired with the sheer athleticism of the Frenchmen makes them unstoppable alone, but when you add an Ángel Di María, Moise Kean, or Mauro Icardi to the mix, they become unfair.
If you’re all for wonderful football with a great storyline attached, and you better be if you’re a Champions League fan, this is the pairing for you. The public flirtations over reunification between Lionel Messi and Neymar are well noted, Barcelona wanting to bring the Brazilian star back to Catalonia while Neymar urges his former teammate to join him in France. Cameras will be focused on the pairing, waiting for any sheepish grin or wink that we might be able to speculate upon, if Neymar is on the pitch, that is. The Brazilian was stretchered off the pitch in PSG’s loss to Lyon on Sunday and will be assessed later today, an MRI that could have massive implications on who advances through here.
The other big storyline is that of the last time these clubs met in the Champions League in 2016/17 when Barcelona provided one of the most entertaining and wildly improbable comebacks in competition history, coming back from 4-1 down to win. Of course PSG is a completely different club at this point and many players won’t have too many attachments to that event, but the fans will remember and revenge will be on their minds. Assuming the health of Neymar I believe PSG will come out ahead. Their composition is more balanced than that of Barcelona and their options run far deeper with much better talent. If Neymar is out it is a completely different tale, but we will talk about that closer to when the games will actually be played.
Sevilla Fútbol Club vs Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e.V.Dortmund
Title Odds: +4000
League Place: 5th
Sevilla can be overlooked often in Spain with the three giant clubs looming over and some rotation of teams like Sociedad or Villarreal or the like moving in and out, but the Sevillans are consistently playing quality football both domestically and internationally. The record of Sevilla in the Europa League is well known, winning the competition four times in its existence, but they’re still unproven on the highest level. This season saw the club start slowly and their limitations were put on display by Olivier Giroud, but there’s still a quality team here.
Sevilla prefer to play football slowly and methodically, stoning their opponents with defensive stand after defensive stand that’s followed up with counters or slow build ups. Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos are the prize players in the defense and form a great pairing at center back. Jesus Navas is a well-known threat at right back and Sergio Escudero is proving to be dominant on the left as well. The midfield is anchored by Fernando and Ivan Rakitić who have done very well both defending and supplying the attack with oxygen, a big responsibility for this side. That offense is headed mainly by Luuk de Jong, an experienced striker who used clinical finishing to get his club ahead. Lucas Ocampos is a wonderful winger with great scoring and creation abilities and Youssef El-Nesyri is a nice threat to employ opposite of him.
Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
Title Odds: +2000
League Place: 5th
Dortmund are one of the most exciting clubs in Europe thanks to their constant turnover of talent in addition to their likening of fast paced, high scoring football. Lucien Favre leads an organization that’s proven to be one of the best identifiers of talent in the world, producing players like Robert Lewandowski, İlkay Gündoǧan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic, and many more. While well known for making profits, they’re also well known for being great at football. Being unable to overcome Bayern isn’t a fault of the club, but their consistent dominance elsewhere combined with their runs in the Champions League make them a terrifying team to match in a two game series.
Dortmund, like many clubs, have been struck with their own injury issues recently. The latest absence is that of unbelievable youngster Erling Håland, the striker of the next generation and the heir, or usurper, of Robert Lewandowski. Jadon Sancho is surprisingly still with the club after a very public affair with Manchester United, but his fee was too high for the English club (they’re probably kicking themselves for not finding the cash, huh?). The midfield is littered with talent, namely Emre Can, Gio Reyna, and Jude Bellingham. Of course there’s plenty more talented men, but Can’s box-to-box ability, Reyna’s ability to create out of thin air, and Bellingham’s raw upside make them the names to know. The back line is anchored by the legendary Mats Hummels. The club have surrounded him with talented defenders and a great keeper, but compared to the rest of the team it probably is the weakest unit, though that’s not an indictment.
While this matchup has the potential to be a lot of fun and a tactical delight, I think it could be one of the disappointments of the knockout rounds. Dortmund are on schedule to be healthy for the fixtures and assuming they stay that way Sevilla shouldn’t have a chance. The Spanish club do overperform in the international level but Dortmund can flat out score and even with an interim manager their focus will not change. The defense has been a problem, just ask Lucien Favre, but there’s plenty of time to resolve those problems before the ides of February.
Sevilla are a young and exciting team that prides itself on stopping attackers with rock solid defending. I almost think of them as a less expensive version of Atlético Madrid, but even the capital side can manage something in the attack. Sevilla showed well against Krasnodar but that was one of the worst clubs in the competition and their 4-0 loss at home to Chelsea was more indicative of what this side are. I don’t see them being blown out by the Germans but it’s far more likely than Sevilla advancing. Dortmund will move past the Spanish in inspiring fashion.
Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio vs Real Madrid Club de Fútbol
Title Odds: +3300
League Place: 8th
If you’ve been following world football over the past couple of seasons, you’re familiar with Atalanta, the best attacking team club football has seen. They’re not a particularly great football team, but their ability to put goals in the net has been objectively unrivaled. Their lack of world class quality will likely prohibit them from becoming a team who wins titles with consistency, but the team they’re fielding right now can flat out score and that counts for a lot.
While the club did struggle to make the knockout stages, needing a highly unlikely victory over Liverpool to keep their heads above water, and Ajax, they can’t be ruled out. The combination of Iličić, Gómez, and Zapata at the top of the formation has proven capable of scoring on any team in the world and will be dangerous at any point in the competition. The run of the midfield belongs to the likes of Marten de Roon, Remo Freuler, and Ruslan Malinovskiy. Atalanta has enough talent going forward that they generally play with a pair of defensive midfielders, though one is always capable of drifting forward and providing an outlet for the attack. The defending is the weak link. While PSG and Dortmund are perceived to be bad at the back, Atalanta is. Cristian Romero is probably the best defender at the club and he’s far from world class. Hateboer and Gosens are good players as fullbacks, but their commitments lie with the attack. If this club ever expects to win titles they must build a formidable defense, but I don’t see that happening in this window.
Real Madrid (Spain)
Title Odds: +1400
League Place: 3rd
Real Madrid are the recent superiors of the competition, winning the title three times in the past five seasons and four in the past seven. However, there’s one key factor that won those games that’s no longer with the team: Ronaldo. Since the wonderful player left for Juventus, Real have struggled to compete in the prestigious competition, running into Manchester City last season and Ajax before that. It was a struggle to make it through the group stage for Real, losing the Shakhtar twice, but wins over Inter and Gladbach secured their advancement.
All season I’ve preached that there’s three players who guide the Spanish club to good performances, one at each level of the pitch. At the top is Karim Benzema, the French goalscorer who pulls the strings in attack, lifting an especially heavy load with Eden Hazard on the bench. In the midfield is Casemiro, a wonderful ball-winner, metronome, and counter-initiator who anchors a bipolar midfield. The defensive stalwart is the legendary Sergio Ramos delivering crunching tackles and providing heart and passion to the side. The supporting cast is very strong for the club and despite their lower odds to win the competition, they’re my favorites from Spain and I might favor them over any team outside of Bayern.
The last draw came down to Real Madrid and Atalanta, actually one of the better matchups that we’ll see in this Round of 16. Atalanta needed an unlikely win and a good showing against Ajax on the final day to push through to this point but we all know what they can do on the attack. There’s no defense in the world that’s completely impervious to the best of Atalanta and that goes to one of world football’s biggest giants and best defensive brands, Real Madrid.
While I did say that I might favor Real Madrid over any club outside of Bayern, this pairing worries me. One of the things that Real is susceptible to is being lazy on defense and getting into a shootout with less talented teams, just check their matches with Shakhtar and their opener against Gladbach. The lack of discipline on this team leaves them vulnerable and I would be dreading these matches were I a Madrid supporter. Obviously Real are talented enough to breeze past Atalanta and I assume they will, but the struggle to get out of the group stage doesn’t inspire confidence, even with wins over Atlético Madrid and Barcelona domestically.