So, the Champions League is back, and this is where it gets serious, and the questions we ask every year come back around. How far can the English teams go? Will Bayern beat Arsenal again? Will Barca or Real get knocked out early? Will there be a surprise winner?
The round of 16 draw has thrown up a couple of crackers, and in the first week’s action we see Benfica take on Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint Germain host Barcelona, Bayern Munich welcome Arsenal (again, the predictable eye roll from your typical Arsenal fan,) and hosts Real Madrid face Napoli.
The first game will see an inconsistent Dortmund side look to regain their form outside of the domestic programme, with Thomas Tuchel’s side hoping for European refreshment at the Estadio de la Luz.
However, under Rui Vitoria, Benfica currently lead the way in Portugal despite the loss of Renato Sanches to Bayern in the summer, and they will be no pushover for the German favourites.
Still, with Brazilian striker Jonas appearing to be a doubt for the game, they could offer little attacking threat, although bright spark Goncalo Guedes, compared already to Cristiano Ronaldo, will definitely be one to watch when Benfica do look to get forward, although don’t be surprised to see Tuchel’s side dominate possession.
As for players to look out for in yellow, young Ousmane Dembele seems to be a real prospect and his skill and energy is aesthetically pleasing to watch, and he could prove the key in a game where his side are likely to dominate.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will as always be a difficult man to contain, and whilst the domestic form of both sides has contrasted so far this season, I expect Dortmund to have too much quality on the night, although it will be by no means straight-forward.
Also tomorrow night, Barcelona travel to Paris in what has become an increasingly common fixture in recent Champions League campaigns, although the Spanish giants have ran out as victors every time.
Furthermore, in a league which is so often a stroll for the French heavyweights, Unai Emery has struggled since switching from Sevilla in the summer with the club sitting in second place after 25 games gone, three points behind leaders Monaco.
The loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Manchester United has no doubt affected PSG but the form of Edinson Cavani has been encouraging.
Still, his normally impressive six group stage goals don’t come close to the ten goals of Lionel Messi, who only played five of the six games.
Messi, who is arguably playing the best football of his career, still poses the same question to opposing managers – who do you stop him?
And whilst he is occasionally contained, the likelihood of containing Luis Suarez and Neymar also could prove just as difficult, with both of the South American forwards terrorising PSG in recent seasons with stunning displays.
The usual meeting between Bayern Munich and Arsenal has been thrown up by the draw once again, and despite the fact that Arsenal finally topped their group this year, their luck rewarded them with the German champions, who they have lost to in each of the last three ties.
However, there is optimism to be had for Wenger and co. as the Gunners frequently beat Bayern and have come very very close to ousting them in recent years.
Arsenal will, as usual be praying for Alexis Sanchez to be on song, as when they are, they are rarely stopped, but it has scarcely happened so far this season and it again seems unlikely that they will be capable of pulling off the upset.
Don’t be surprised to see Wenger start Olivier Giroud who has proved a threat against Bayern in the past as he could be the key to winning the tie, but they’ll need more than just Giroud.
The final game sees reigning champions Real Madrid host Napoli, and despite Madrid’s relatively uninspiring group stage showing where they failed to top their group, they consistently make the semi-finals of this competition with ease, year after year, and setbacks rarely stop them – how many times have we seen them on the brink of being knocked out, only for a late moment of Ronaldo magic or a Sergio Ramos header to save them in the dying embers of games.
This will to win and never give in is what has helped them reach the latter stages so often, and is why they’ve won the Champions League twice in the last three years.
As for Napoli, Dries Mertens and Marek Hamsik could well catch Zidane’s side out and there is quality throughout the Italian side, so it will, like all of the other games, be fairly closely contested although this game also features a team considered favourites.
But then again, what is the point in labelling a team as ‘favourites’? Were Leicester favourites for the title? No. Were Portugal favourites for the Euros? Of course not. So really, whilst you can analyse players, form, tactics and everything else, it is always inevitably inspiringly unpredictable.