I’ll explain “Part 1” first. Of the knockout rounds, the Round of 16 is the only one that gets split over four weeks instead of the normal two. Last year, I did the entire Round of 16 in two installments, one for each leg, and I remember writing the second week’s games and knowing that all my takes from the opening weekend had been continually dissected. This way, I get my takes on the first week of games in a more timely fashion, as well as give myself more room to write with only four matches to talk about at a time instead of eight.
So without further ado, the worst part of the club season is over, and we finally have Champions League again after a two month wait!
AS Roma 2-1 FC Porto
Porto losing Moussa Marega to a muscle injury hurts since he was on fire in the group stages. I would have to assume it affected the way they played as well as the confidence of the team, especially given its other star striker, Vincent Aboubakar, has been on the injury table since September. Jesús Corona being suspended for yellow card accumulation didn’t help matters either. With all that being said, I think Roma would probably have dominated this game at home anyway. Edin Džeko was unlucky to hit the post twice, though the second one was cleaned up by teenager Nicolò Zaniolo, who bagged a brace. Roma fell asleep at the back and let Adrián López grab a vital away goal on a hopeful long ball forward, though a little more composure from Aleksandar Kolarov in stoppage time makes it a 3-1 win and a more comfortable trip to Porto for his team. Iker Casillas, who, by the way, looks exactly the same as he did when Spain won the World Cup nine years ago, deserves credit for keeping Porto close, and with a difference maker coming back, they have a chance in the second leg. That being said, I feel the same way about this tie as I did about Group D.
Prediction: Roma advances 3-2 on aggregate.
Manchester United FC 0-2 Paris Saint-Germain
I’ll admit that this result surprised me. I felt that United was flying and would be confident enough to, at the very least, give a gimpy PSG a game. I thought they could squeak out a result but concede an away goal before falling in Paris after the return leg. And for the first half, while PSG still had the better chance, it looked like United was at least holding their own. Losing Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial at halftime was certainly a blow, but Thomas Tuchel must have seen something in United’s setup at halftime because PSG blitzed them for the first 20 minutes of the second half. Presnel Kimpembe might have gotten away with a tug on Marcus Rashford, though even then it may have been too soft and too wide to warrant a second yellow. But with all of these excuses in United’s locker, Nemanja Matić was far too lazy marking on a corner, and Kimpembe scored a tap-in. Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf had a ten-yard head start on Kylian Mbappé, yet still got burned when Mbappé ran right between the two of them to slot home the second. The two center backs were caught out again when Ángel Di María played a beautiful ball for Mbappé, but instead of firing past the goalkeeper like he usually does, he tried to chip David de Gea, which has a low probability of success. Juan Bernat had a chance to make it 3-0 as well, but it was from a tight angle, and he’s a left back so he gets a pass. Through all of this, Manchester United was still not down and out, but then Paul Pogba got sent off. Pogba misses the second leg. Whether Edinson Cavani is back on the field for the second leg or not, this tie is over.
Prediction: PSG advances 5-0 on aggregate.
Tottenham Hotspur FC 3-0 Borussia Dortmund
Dortmund was definitely the better team in the first half, but the way they set up tactically, with Mario Götze as a false 9, was ultimately their undoing. Firstly, Spurs’ three center backs were allowed to sit back and wait for a runner to come from deep and then pick him up easily. Given that one of the center backs was the always shaky Juan Foyth, Lucien Favre could have employed someone like Maximilian Philipp to occupy the center backs. Secondly, without an outlet for a long ball that could have even half a chance against Spurs’ center backs, the first two goals came from losing the ball in dangerous positions while trying to play out from the back. The third came from poor marking on a corner, not that the defender wasn’t close enough, but Abdou Diallo’s starting position allowed Fernando Llorente to stand between the defender and the goal, effectively giving the forward a free header from three yards out after a brilliant ball in from Christian Eriksen. Jan Vertonghen deserves man of the match with a goal and an assist from left wingback, but Favre has a lot to answer after this performance. The goal was to keep it close for the potential returns of Julian Weigl (flu), Marco Reus (hamstring), and Paco Alcácer (shoulder), but after this result even that looks beyond them, especially given that Harry Kane and Dele Alli should be available for Tottenham.
Prediction: Tottenham advances 4-2 on aggregate.
AFC Ajax 1-2 Real Madrid CF
I don’t mean to start any conspiracy theories here, but I just have to remark that even with VAR in the Champions League now, Real Madrid seems to get all of the calls. First, Ajax had a goal disallowed for offside against Dušan Tadić that was marginal at best. Even if he is in offside position, and if you look at the freeze frame, the Real Madrid defender at the top of the screen might just play him onside. For me Tadić doesn’t interfere with the play. Tadić is 5-foot-11 while Thibaut Courtois is 6-foot-6, so there’s no way the goalkeeper’s vision is obstructed. Then the header loops over Courtois, and if the referee thinks that Tadić somehow prevents Courtois from jumping backwards when Courtois very clearly gives up once the ball is over his head, then we really need better referees. That being said, Ajax’s finishing should have been better in the first half, and that poor finishing allowed Real to take the lead from a clinical Karim Benzema finish. Ajax fought back well and scored again. Then came Real’s second goal, where Lucas Vázquez very clearly takes down an Ajax player in the build up right in front of the referee. Why it wasn’t called I don’t know, but once play was allowed to continue, André Onana, who had a good game overall, decided to come for the cross too late, and Marco Asensio passed the ball into the empty net. With all that being said, even with the questionable referee decisions, Ajax should have won. Now they have to go to Madrid and score at least twice, and Raphaël Varane will likely return from the flu.
Prediction: Real Madrid advances 3-1 on aggregate.
Just as a side note, that’s two players that have missed these first leg matches due to the flu. You’d think these players would get their flu shots.