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Champions League last 16: Four things we learned

Following the latest round of UEFA Champions League last-16 action, we look at four things we learned from the midweek European ties.

Time to bring back away goals?

Dare we say it, but has the Champions League been a little dull this season? The first legs of the last 16 have passed and, in truth, was there anything that memorable?

While almost all of the ties are evenly poised ahead of the return legs, there feels a distinct lack of jeopardy with perhaps few expecting anyone outside a small group of clubs to truly challenge. The abolishment of the away goal rule in 2021 has removed an element of excitement that made the Champions League great, with UEFA deciding it was ‘no longer appropriate for an away goal to carry more weight than one scored at home’.

Rewind to some classic Champions League ties of recent seasons and the away goals rule played its part. Andres Iniesta’s last-gasp equaliser to send Barcelona through at Chelsea (2009). Roma’s comeback against Barcelona (2018). Spurs dumping out Manchester City and Ajax after enthralling encounters (2019). Each of those games would now just head into extra-time, an often tense period of cagey football.

Of this season’s last-16 ties, Inter vs Atletico (1-0), Porto vs Arsenal (1-0), and Lazio vs Bayern (1-0) would be perfectly set up if the away goal was still in place. As it stands, the edge-of-your-seat jeopardy of past campaigns is missing.

It’s time to bring it back.

Arsenal inexperience shows in Porto

Arsenal headed to FC Porto as favourites to progress in their last-16 tie, but have it all to do after losing late on at The Estádio do Dragão. Having been in free-scoring form in the Premier League in recent weeks, the Gunners failed to find a breakthrough against a Porto team happy to soak up the pressure in their home stadium.

Arsenal dominated the ball in Portugal but lacked cutting-edge and creativity, failing to muster a single shot on target as the best chances fell to the hosts. After Galeno had somehow failed to convert from a double chance when well placed, the Brazilian bent in a stoppage-time winner with virtually the last kick of the game.

Mikel Arteta’s side are inexperienced in the Champions League, with Porto centre-back Pepe having played more games (118) than the entire Arsenal starting XI in this competition. Declan Rice admitted Arsenal lacked savviness in allowing Porto to score a late winner and the Gunners will hope their last-gasp switch-off can be turned around in the return.

Barcelona blow chance to take control

Barcelona have hardly been convincing this season with the Spanish champions enduring a disappointing defence of their La Liga crown. Some questionable defensive performances, conceding 4+ goals in defeats to Real Madrid, Girona and Villarreal, have seen the Catalans written off as contenders in the Champions League, though their trip to Napoli provided optimism.

Barcelona were the better side at the Diego Armando Maradona stadium and nullified Napoli during the opening exchanges, with the hosts failing to register a single shot in the first half.

Robert Lewandowski’s goal on the hour then handed the Catalans a lead to protect, but an error from Inigo Martinez allowed Victor Osimhen to equalise. One chance. one goal.

Barcelona, for all their effort, head into the return leg with the tie evenly poised.

Inter improved from last season’s final appearance

Inter Milan exceeded expectations to reach the Champions League final last season, reaching the decider for the first time since 2010.

The Nerazzurri saw several of that squad depart in the summer with the experienced quartet of Andre Onana, Milan Skriniar, Edin Dzeko and Marcelo Brozovic all moving on. Despite those exits, Inter appear improved under the tactical excellence of Simeone Inzaghi, who has improved his squad with impressive recruitment and by coaxing the best from those already at the San Siro.

Lautaro Martinez is in the form of his career this season, while Hakan Calhanoglu’s reinvention as a deep-lying conductor has been a masterstroke. Marcus Thuram has 11 goals and seven assists since arriving from Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer and Yann Sommer, Benjamin Pavard, and Davide Frattesi have all been astute additions.

Inter have work to do after a 1-0 home win over Atletico Madrid this week, but the Italians were by far the better side in the contest. Except for perhaps Manchester City and Real Madrid, Inter – unbeaten in Europe so far this season – have little to fear from what we’ve seen in the competition to date.

Read – Five players who impressed in the Champions League this week

See more – Mbappe next? Five of the best Bosman transfers of all time

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