The elimination round of the Champions League has begun in what may be one of the more entertaining competitions in recent memory. The only things that are guaranteed are an exciting bunch of games in the round of 16 and that everyone outside of Madrid — plus the Atlético Madrid fans in the Spanish capital — would greatly appreciate it if Real Madrid did not win for the FOURTH TIME IN A ROW.
Paris Saint-Germain 2, Manchester United 0
I had originally penciled this in as an easy PSG victory. The French side is one of the world’s best, but that premonition was largely because of Manchester United, which limped into December with the footballing quality of a troop of dizzy kangaroos after a New Year’s party. The team came out of December with a new manager in Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who has lost just one game since his appointment, which was a home defeat to the Parisians.
The Red Devils were thoroughly outclassed, showing little flare for attack, as PSG silenced Old Trafford and limited United to just one shot on target.
Manchester United must now win by two in Paris. Solskjær has done well to let his team play a free and creative game, but the absence of French superstar Paul Pogba will dent any chance of victory. PSG will be eager to avoid any upsets, as the team has a history of letting first-leg leads slip away. The Red Devils must score early to give themselves a chance, or PSG’s attack will surely put the tie away.
A.S. Roma 2, FC Porto 1
Despite Roma’s second-place finish in the group stage, the team entered this matchup slightly favored over an untested Porto side.
19-year-old Nicolò Zaniolo has emerged for a depleted Roma squad and performed well in his first season with the first team, scoring twice.
FC Porto had the last laugh, though, putting in a critical away goal in the 79th minute. The Portuguese side must simply win 1-0 in the home fixture to pass into the quarterfinals.
Roma can be a difficult side to break down, though, and Porto must be conscious of Edin Džeko, who has a propensity for turning absolutely nothing into a goal.
Real Madrid 2, Ajax 1
Talk about exciting football. You could feel the emotions running through this game, even while watching it in another language on the other side of the world. Well, at least, I could.
Ajax was unfortunate to lose, putting on a stirring performance against the reigning champions. The team seemed to have snatched a critical equalizer before a Marco Asensio goal and a time-wasting yellow card from Sergio Ramos (who else?) dashed the home team’s hopes.
Hope is thin for the Dutch side. Ajax must either win by two goals or score three goals in a victory to move on. You can bet your next three meals that Ajax will play with heart, but will it be enough?
Tottenham 3, Borussia Dortmund 0
Now, the one tie that really isn’t close. Borussia Dortmund will have an opportunity to flip the script, as the next match is at home, but the German side must win by three goals and shut out Tottenham to make the quarterfinals.
This marks the third consecutive Champions League defeat of Dortmund by Tottenham. Are the Germans simply outclassed, or will Tottenham live up to tradition and blow its lead? If the score was closer, it would be dramatic.
Liverpool 0, Bayern Munich 0 and Barcelona 0, Lyon 0
These two matches are together because — for one, look at the score — but, mainly, they were supposed to be the most exciting, enthralling and thrilling games.
Instead, they were two nil-nil draws and… still the most exciting, enthralling and thrilling games.
No one scored, but really, everyone should have. Liverpool and Bayern played a sloppy but gut-wrenching game, while Barcelona and Lyon both blew chances to win.
Barcelona and Bayern Munich will both be at home for the second matches of their respective ties and therefore carry the advantage, but Nabil Fekir will return from suspension for Lyon, and Liverpool is really, really good. Both of these rematches are must-watches.
Atlético Madrid 2, Juventus 0
Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best Champions League performers of all time, returned to his old stomping grounds in Madrid with his new club, Juventus, and went back to Italy down by two.
Ronaldo did perform well, and Juventus controlled most of the match, but the team did not break Atlético, which paid Juventus back for that error with two set-piece goals and manager Diego “El Cholo” Simeone’s awkward, ecstatic and possibly PG-13 celebration.
Atlético Madrid has extra stimulus to go deep in this year’s competition, as the final is hosted in its home stadium (It’s like the Super Bowl, my fellow Americans — it rotates from stadium to stadium), but Juventus is itching to end what has been a long Champions League drought.
To do so, the team must break down a top-class Atlético Madrid defense. Ronaldo is the fulcrum of Juventus’ attack and must score or assist or do anything, really, that involves getting a goal.
Manchester City 3, FC Schalke 04 2
Down by a goal on the road and with only 10 men on the field, Manchester City proved to be true title contenders.
OK, Schalke is not a top-tier Champions League competitor. Schalke will feel lucky to have made it this far, though perhaps unlucky to have lost to two late goals from the Citizens. The Germans face an uphill battle, needing to either win by two or score four goals in a win, at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester in order to move on.
But Pep Guardiola and his men showed something that precious few Manchester City teams have in this competition, or any competition, for that matter — heart. City has seldom shown the ability to grind out wins in the face of adversity, often wilting when push comes to shove.
I am no Manchester City fan, but if this match was any indication, all other teams in the Champions League should beware of the Citizens.