Culture of Hoops

Champions League Last 16: Four Key Lessons

Image courtesy of El Ronzo/Flickr.

Image courtesy of El Ronzo/Flickr.

The fixtures returned and the anthem was sung. Over the last two weeks, the last 16 clubs left in the Champions League battled it out to see who could gain the advantage that would set them up nicely for progression in the second legs. There were some shocks, some disappointments, and some inevitable results. Here’s a look at four key things we can take away from the round of 16 first-leg action in the Champions League.

Jose Mourinho’s “park-the-bus” tactic isn’t always going to work

Paris Saint Germain welcomed Chelsea to France in a repeat of last season’s quarter-finals stage where the two teams faced-off. PSG won the first-leg comfortably 3-1, but Chelsea were inspired at Stamford Bridge and recorded a 2-0 victory to win the tie on the away-goals rule. However, last season, PSG’s star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was unavailable for the second-leg due to injury, and many pointed to his exclusion as the reason why Chelsea progressed.

Although Ibrahimovic didn’t score in this season’s matchup, he provided a big enough distraction to the Chelsea defense for strike-partner Edinson Cavani to thrive off the space he was afforded. Chelsea took the lead in the 36th minute thanks to a Branislav Ivanovic header, but the goal proved to be their only attempt on target the entire match. It appeared that Mourinho’s side was content, and already looked to sit back in defense and protect their one goal advantage. But PSG eventually found a way through and equalized in the second half when Cavani scored. The striker could have had a hat-trick but for the impressive Thibaut Courtois in goal for The Blues.

Chelsea failed to provide any attacking threat for the remainder of the match, and left bodies in the back focused on defending—something we’ve seen too often this season from Mourinho’s men against tough opposition. However, Chelsea’s defense wasn’t as solid as Mourinho would have liked and PSG caused them continuous problems. Mourinho must question if the tactic of “parking-the-bus” is efficient to get him through the tie. Although he has two world-class goalkeepers to call upon, it is only a matter of time before somebody bulldozes the bus out of the way.

Shakhtar can upset Bayern Munich

The Ukrainian club is a constant feature in the latter stages of the tournament, and they usually pose a threat to whomever they face. This season they have a tough task ahead of them to beat the German giants, Bayern. On paper many would have bet in favor of Bayern tearing Shakhtar to shreds. Of course when you have the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry, Robert Lewandowski, and Mario Gӧtze amongst other, it isn’t hard to believe. Credit to Shakhtar, though, who was organized defensively, and deserved its goalless draw.

Although it didn’t provide much going forward, Shakhtar prevented Bayern from scoring a crucial away goal. This would have been one of the main targets on manager Mircea Lucescu’s notepad. Furthermore, influential Bayern midfielder Xabi Alonso was shown a red-card and thus will miss the second-leg. Shakhtar will be able to enjoy a bit more freedom in the middle of the park with his absence, and may even pose a threat going forward in the second leg, where they might even be inspired to win the tie.

Manchester City remains unlucky

The City hierarchy would have been snapping their cigars and smashing their cups when they saw their name drawn against Barcelona for a second successive season in the Champions League. City came into the match in-form, while Barcelona had a 10-game winning streak snapped by La Liga opposition, Malaga. Nonetheless, The Catalonian side were favorites. Striker Luis Suárez scored two goals within 14 minutes of each other to fire Barcelona into a lead that looked like taking the tie beyond City. But City continued to soak the pressure and hit Barcelona back on the counter-attack in search of a goal.

The first-half was dominated by Barcelona, but the second-half saw City gain more confidence as they pushed forward for their goal. The goal came in the 69th minute thanks to Sergio Agüero’s perseverance. The tie suddenly took a dip for the worse just as it looked like City would find a way back into the game when defender Gaël Clichy was shown a second yellow card and was sent off, reducing City to 10-men for the remaining 16 minutes. Barcelona regained its grip on the match and should have put the tie to bed, but Lionel Messi had his penalty-kick saved by Joe Hart late in the match and couldn’t convert the rebound.

City’s luck looks far from improving as they face a tricky test against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Barcelona will inevitably look to kill the match early on, and if the strike-trio of Messi, Neymar, and Suárez can deliver, they will add more misery to City’s desperate dreams to win the Champions League.

Juventus poses a threat on the counter-attack

The Italian champions haven’t enjoyed much success in the competition over the last five years, but they did come close to a semi-final appearance in 2013 when they lost to Bayern Munich 4-0 on aggregate at the quarter-final stage. They are the only Italian side left in the competition, and will no doubt make their nation proud if they can lift the trophy. The Turin outfit is up against former finalists Borussia Dortmund who hasn’t been in the best of form this season, dwelling in the relegation zone for most of their league campaign.

Juventus scored twice in its first leg, where it looked especially clinical on the counter-attack. Striker Carlos Tevez and Midfielder Paul Pogba did exceptionally well to exploit Dortmund’s weakness in defense. Tevez scored and hit the post, but it was his forward runs that disrupted the Dortmund back-four and opened up the midfield for his teammates to break. Tevez was involved in both of Juventus’ goals and looks an important player when his team travels to Germany for the second leg.

If Tevez, Pogba, and Álvaro Morata can hit their form consistently in this season’s Champions League competition, then Juventus can ease its way past Dortmund and possibly fight its way through to the final of the competition. It is too early to call, but Juventus is overdue for success on the European stage having dominated the Italian league for the past three seasons, where they’re on course for a fourth successive league title this season.

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