The UEFA Champions League is back after a winter hiatus and the last 16 begins with some terrific ties this week.
Ahead of the first fixtures of the knockout rounds, we look at four Champions League talking points.
An audition for Premier League-linked Bardghji?
Roony Bardghji is a name that is growing in familiarity with the Swedish starlet having announced his arrival on the European stage this season. Bardghji’s late winner against Manchester United in the group stage showed what many already knew about the winger, being hailed as Scandinavia’s brightest talent.
Several Premier League clubs, including Manchester United, Spurs and Chelsea, are understood to have checked in on his progress at Copenhagen and an English audience will get another glimpse of the teenager on Tuesday evening. There is perhaps no greater test than facing the European champions, as Manchester City visit the Danish capital this week.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 10, 2023
The 18-year-old has scored 10 goals in 23 appearances this season and many believe this will be his final season in Denmark, as Europe’s elite circle.
“He is close to the total package for a player who plays on the right wing and can cover most offensive positions. Roony is the greatest talent in Scandinavia. He has justified the hype and his potential is difficult to understate,” Danish journalist Nicklas Degn said in comments to the BBC this week.
“He will go to a great Premier League club. He would suit a team that dominates the ball, like Manchester City, or Liverpool because he has very similar characteristics to Mohamed Salah.
“When Copenhagen have to come up with something brilliant or unlock a team, it is Roony they look to. He has this unique talent.”
Bellingham back in Germany with UCL in sights
Jude Bellingham departed German football last summer as the Bundesliga’s Player of the Year, his three seasons at Borussia Dortmund concluded with the title as the division’s finest footballer.
Those in the Bundesliga knew Bellingham was special, but the midfielder’s stunning impact at Real Madrid has caught even his biggest advocates by surprise. The 20-year-old has been the driving force of Carlo Ancelotti’s side, assuming main man status at the Bernabeu in his debut campaign.
Bellingham is La Liga’s leading scorer with 16 goals and has 20 in all competitions this season, crashing into the box from an advanced role and scoring prolifically for the Spanish side.
Hey Jude! 🎶
Jude Bellingham doubles Real Madrid’s advantage! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/JG54NQVVUD
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) February 10, 2024
Real Madrid are targeting a record-extending 15th title in the Champions League this season and look well placed to challenge. Ancelotti’s side won all six group games and have lost just twice in 34 games across all competitions this season.
An out-of-sorts RB Leipzig will look to combat the threat of Bellingham this week, with the England midfielder one of the most influential players in Europe right now.
Last chance saloon for Mbappe in Paris?
Paris Saint-Germain’s project looks set for a relaunch in the summer, amid the expectation that Kylian Mbappe will depart at the end of the season. The superstar forward line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Mbappe failed to deliver elusive European success last season, with the former duo departing last summer.
Mbappe has remained and will be the leading light in PSG’s push for the Champions League, in what appears last chance saloon for the forward in France. The 25-year-old’s deal expires at the end of the season and the likelihood is he will leave, with Real Madrid the obvious, and probable, destination.
Kylian Mbappé is the first player across Europe’s top 5 leagues to score 30 goals across all competitions this season 💎 pic.twitter.com/dW5e8dzMnB
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) February 7, 2024
PSG have continued to flatter to deceive in Europe and were unconvincing in an admittedly tough group stage. A lack of domestic challenges has posed a problem when it comes to Europe and a last-16 tie with Real Sociedad will be no straightforward task.
Mbappe, despite becoming the face of a vanity project PSG are now attempting to move away from, remains the trump card. He has scored 30 goals in 29 appearances this season and can take the game away from opponents in an instant.
Yet to truly do it in the latter stages of this tournament, it would perhaps be a fitting finale to his PSG career if he can change that narrative this season.
Wounded Bayern shift focus to Europe
Bayern Munich take on Lazio in the last 16 this week with the German giants a wounded animal. Thomas Muller’s meltdown summarised the mood in the Bavarian’s camp at the weekend, after a 3-0 loss to title rivals Bayer Leverkusen left Thomas Tuchel’s side facing an uphill battle to defend the Bundesliga.
So dominant, for so long, Bayer Leverkusen – unbeaten in 31 games this season – have emerged as a real threat to Bayern’s perennial status as champions and in current form look capable of taking away the title.
🎙️ Manuel Neuer: “It was one of our worst performances on one of the most important days. Each and every one of us has to take a good look at ourselves and reflect on our performance.”
Read all the reaction to #B04FCB here ⬇️
— FC Bayern Munich (@FCBayernEN) February 11, 2024
Bayern will turn their attention to Europe this week in what could represent their best chance of a successful season. The arrivals of Kim Min-jae and Harry Kane strengthened the spine of a side which has the foundations for Champions League success but came up short in a meek exit to Manchester City last season.
For Kane, his move to Bayern was also designed to give him a chance at European success and the England captain will be key to his side’s hopes of a response to their battering at the BayArena. The 30-year-old has 28 goals in 28 games this season, including four in the Champions League.