The UEFA Champions League returns this week with the commencement of the knockout stages, the first set of last-16 fixtures promising some enthralling European encounters.
Manchester City face Sporting Lisbon in the first leg of their last-16 tie in the Portuguese capital, as Pep Guardiola’s side look to go one better than last season’s runners-up finish.
Liverpool are also in action at Inter Milan, whilst Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid meet in what promises to be a superb showdown.
Ahead of the week’s Champions League action, we look at the major talking points surrounding the sides in action.
Can Guardiola end City’s search for elusive European success?
Pep Guardiola’s record in the Champions League has been questioned since his arrival at Manchester City, with the Spaniard having failed to transform the club’s dominant domestic success into European silverware.
After a series of disappointing early eliminations in the competition, City showed their quality to reach a maiden Champions League final in 2021.
Pep Guardiola insists he feels no added pressure to win the #ChampionsLeague with Manchester City.
— The Football Faithful (@FootyFaithfuI) February 15, 2022
Guardiola has often been accused of overthinking the biggest occasions in Europe and the decision not to start with a recognised defensive midfielder for the final defeat to Chelsea is one that still rankles among the club’s fanbase.
Guardiola’s status at the Etihad is unquestioned following the wealth of success and records broken during his time in English football. However, the City boss – despite his soundbites to the media – knows that his legacy, at least perceived from those outside the City bubble, will hinge on whether he can win the Champions League.
Clear at the top of the Premier League and boasting the best squad on the continent, City have all the ingredients to mount another challenge for the crown.
Sporting have the potential to be tricky opposition, but a side that conceded 12 goals in just six group stage fixtures should be an obstacle that potential champions conquer comfortably.
It’s been over a decade since Guardiola last lifted the Champions League and he will be determined to right the wrongs of past campaigns in 2022.
Mbappe the headline act as he prepares to face his Spanish suitors
Paris Saint-Germain’s abundance of superstars have not truly clicked this season, but even amid the indifferent performances of the Ligue 1 side it it Kylian Mbappe who continues to excel.
Mbappe has finished as the leading scorer in Ligue 1 in each of the past three seasons and looks well placed to make it four in a row, having netted 21 goals in all competitions for PSG already this season.
As Lionel Messi finds his feet in Paris and Neymar frequently finds himself on the treatment table, it is Mbappe who carries PSG’s hopes of Champions League success on his quite brilliant shoulders.
🗣️ Benzema: "Playing against Mbappé will be exciting. Messi? He's an extraordinary player. Neymar is a top player, I don't know if he's fully ready but it's great for them that he's back."#UCL pic.twitter.com/ItHp51Pnd6
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) February 14, 2022
In inevitable fashion, the Parisians have been paired with Real Madrid in the last 16, the side who are hell-bent – and seemingly increasingly likely – to prise Mbappe from the French capital on a free transfer this summer.
Mbappe’s rapidly expiring contract has hung over PSG’s season and it will be the major narrative as he faces his Spanish suitors in the Champions League this week.
The exit of the 23-year-old – quite possibly heading to a status as the world’s best player – will be a monumental blow to PSG’s project, one the club will hope is softened by his inspiring of a talented but dysfunctional team to club football’s biggest prize.
Throw in Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi, Angel Di Maria, Keylor Navas and Carlo Ancelotti coming up against their former sides and it is a recipe for an unforgettable last-16 tie.
Liverpool’s attacking options make Reds a real threat
Liverpool’s front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino has often terrorised defences across Europe in recent seasons, including a wonderful 2017/18 that saw the trio become the first three teammates to score 10+ goals each in a Champions League campaign.
The three all remain an important part of Jurgen Klopp’s plans, but the additions of Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz have given Liverpool an embarrassment of attacking riches.
Jota has been on a steep upward trajectory since swapping Wolves for Anfield, with the forward having netted 17 goals in all competitions so far this season.
Diaz has also shown encouraging signs since his arrival from Porto last month and Klopp now boasts the attacking depth he has previously lacked as the Reds look to compete on all fronts.
Liverpool will face the toughest test of their UCL campaign so far with a clash against Inter Milan, but having overcome a perceived Group of Death with a flawless record it will be a tie the 2019 winners are confident of winning.
Adeyemi looks to upset old employers
Karim Adeyemi has emerged as a rising star of German football, with the forward having developed his talents away from the Bundesliga spotlight at Red Bull Salzburg.
The serial Austrian champions have developed a reputation for finding and improving bright prospects in recent seasons, having contributed to the rise of names including Sadio Mane and Erling Haaland among others.
Adeyemi looks set to be the latest starlet prised away in the near future, having scored 18 goals in all competitions for Salzburg this season.
Karim Adeyemi is a special talent… 🔥
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) January 18, 2022
The 20-year-old spent time in the youth ranks at Bayern Munich before his move to Austria and Adeyemi will be out to prove a point as Salzburg take on the Bundesliga champions in Europe this week.
The forward has the speed and composure to trouble Bayern, who will hope their sense of regret is not increased after another Adeyemi showing on the Champions League stage.
The expectation is that Adeyemi will return to the Bundesliga next season, with Borussia Dortmund understood to be leading the race for his signature.