Europe’s top club competition is back! Ahead of the UEFA Champions League last-16 action this week, we look at five talking points.
Heavyweights collide in Paris
Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich meet this week in an early collision between two teams with expectations to go far. Each disappointed last season, with PSG suffering a comeback defeat to eventual winners Real Madrid at this stage and Bayern upset by Villarreal in the last eight.
PSG have breezed into the knockout rounds this season, but ended up as runners-up in Group H after a remarkable turn of events. Benfica’s 6-1 thrashing of Maccabi Haifa on matchday six saw the Portuguese overhaul PSG on away goals scored, after the two teams finished level on points, head-to-head meetings, goal difference, and goals scored.
PSG now face a difficult last-16 tie with Bayern in a rematch of the 2020 final, when the Bundesliga giants extended the French’s side wait for European success. The Parisians have the star power to trouble any side in world football and the return of Kylian Mbappe (hamstring) and Lionel Messi (muscular issue) to training is a major positive ahead of Tuesday’s clash.
Look's who back in PSG training 👀
They face Bayern Munich tomorrow… pic.twitter.com/4EHOVrPhcA
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 13, 2023
Christophe Galtier’s side entered the World Cup break unbeaten, but have lost four times in all competitions in 2023 already. Another loss at the Parc des Princes this week will leave PSG facing a huge task to reach the last eight.
Faltering form makes Milan vs Spurs fascinating
AC Milan and Tottenham meet in the Champions League this week, with each team resuming their European campaign amid faltering domestic form.
Milan – after a period of decline – are returning to the Champions League’s knockout rounds for the first time since 2013/14, having progressed as runners-up to Chelsea in Group E despite convincing defeats home and away to the Premier League side.
Their form heading into a showdown with Spurs could hardly have been worse. Milan lost four games in a row in all competitions, including heavy losses to Lazio (4-0), Sassuolo (5-2) and Inter Milan (3-0) before a win over Torino at the weekend stopped the rot.
Previously at the San Siro ⏪
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) February 13, 2023
Meanwhile, Antonio Conte will be looking for Spurs to bounce back after a 4-1 thrashing at Leicester. Spurs have now lost seven of their last 13 league games, a run which has seen the north Londoners drop out of the Premier League’s top four. New signing Pedro Porro endured a nightmare debut at Leicester, while Rodrigo Bentancur’s season-ending knee injury represents a huge blow with the Uruguayan having been one of the few consistent performers in Conte’s side this season.
Milan’s exciting left-sided axis of Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao will look to exploit the weaknesses down the Spurs right, after Leicester’s Harvey Barnes gave Porro and Japhet Tanganga a torrid time last weekend.
Are Benfica dark horses?
Napoli’s form this season has seen the Italian side dubbed as a dark horse for Champions League success this season, with Luciano Spalletti’s side cruising into the knockout rounds after thrashing Liverpool, Ajax and Rangers in the group stage.
The Serie A leaders have impressed to earn that tag, but Benfica have quietly enjoyed a fine season of their own. Having topped a group containing PSG and Juventus without losing a game, Roger Schmidt’s side have been handed a favourable last-16 tie against surprise package Club Brugge. Brugge have become just the second Belgian side to reach this stage in the Champions League era and Benfica will begin as favourites.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) October 31, 2022
The Portuguese side have lost just once in 37 games across all competitions this season, form which has seen Benfica create a five-point lead over Porto in the Primeira Liga. Their 20 league games have seen just 12 goals conceded, while home and away wins over Juventus – and draws with PSG – have shown their ability to mix it in Europe.
Even given the loss of Enzo Fernandez to Chelsea last month, Benfica will be confident of reaching the last eight ahead of their first leg with Brugge in Belgium. The quarter-finals is then a stage where almost anything feels possible.
Haller prepares for Champions League return
Borussia Dortmund will host Chelsea in the Champions League this week, a first-ever meeting between the teams in European competition.
In the Bundesliga side’s ranks will be Sebastien Haller, who will be preparing for his first appearance in the Champions League since March 2022. Last season the Ivorian took the competition by storm, scoring four goals on his competition debut against Sporting Lisbon and 11 times in just eight matches for Ajax.
An incredible moment yesterday! 🥰🥰
Borussia Dortmund's Sebastien Haller scored his first goal for the club since his return from testicular cancer. 👑 pic.twitter.com/uj0Y6qhixC
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) February 5, 2023
That form persuaded Dortmund to spend €34.5m to sign Haller as their Erling Haaland replacement, before the diagnosis of testicular cancer just weeks after signing for the club put the forward’s career on hold.
After two surgeries and four cycles of chemotherapy, Haller made his return for Dortmund last month, before scoring his first competitive goal for the club against Freiburg on February 6.
It has been a remarkable tale of strength in adversity for Haller, who will be reminded how far he’s come when the Champions League anthem plays out at the Westfalenstadion. How Dortmund will be glad to have Haller back, with only three of the qualified teams having scored less than their ten goals in the group stage.
James and Chilwell key to Chelsea’s chances
Graham Potter this week discussed his excitement at the return of the Champions League, as the Chelsea manager prepares for his first experience of the knockout stages.
Chelsea remain a work in progress and Potter’s uncertainty over his best side and system has been evident, making more changes to his starting XI than any other Premier League manager since taking charge at Stamford Bridge.
🗣️ “I don’t think there’s a trophy we [Chelsea] can’t win. I think with the team we’re building, with all the young players. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the world.”
Reece James says Chelsea will be one of the best in the world in the future. 🌍 pic.twitter.com/nGGtItUgmm
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) February 13, 2023
The wealth of new additions has added talent, but also more selection problems for Potter as he looks to shape this Chelsea squad into a side capable of competing for prizes.
One major boost is the recent return of Reece James and Ben Chilwell from injury. That duo have the potential to be one the most effective wing-back partnerships in European football and can inject some much-needed creativity into the Chelsea side.
The west Londoners have often dominated possession in European fixtures this season, but have struggled to create chances with regularity. Given a preference for a back three in the Champions League and need for ammunition to a new-look forward line, James and Chilwell could prove the difference as Chelsea take on Borussia Dortmund for a place in the last eight.