8 from 16 required – The Champions League is back

Benfica v Zenit Saint Petersburg – 1st Leg 16th Feb / 2nd Leg 9th Mar

benficaZenit romped their group, five straight victories secured top place with their most commanding performances in the competition to date. The defending Russian Premier League champions are seven points adrift in their zenitdomestic competition so with their chances of retaining their title slim they will be focusing on progressing in this tournament. Benfica were only pipped in their group due to a last match defeat at home to Atletico Madrid. They have struggled at times this season, but Rui Vitoria has got them back challenging for the Portuguese Liga and they are now getting over the shroud that hung over the club after the defection of previous manager Jorge Jesus to city rivals Sporting. As with a number of these ties this game will be tight, but I feel Benfica are in very good run of  form despite defeat to Porto in ‘O Classico in their previous match) whereas Zenit have not played a competitive game since their last Champions League match on the 9th December. The fact that this will be their first one since that time I feel Benfica can take advantage of the Russian teams rustiness and take a decisive first leg lead and hold out in the away leg and end their previous nemesis Andre Villas Boas (he managed their arch rivals Porto) chances of taking his Zenit side through to the quarter finals.

Paris Saint-Germain v Chelsea – 1st Leg 16th Feb / 2nd Leg 9th Mar

psgFor the third year in succession these teams will meet in the Champions League, the score is one win each, withchelsea Chelsea progressing in the quarter final in 2014 and PSG besting the Londoners in the round of 16 last year. The differences in the teams seasons has been remarkable, PSG are romping away with Ligue 1 (as I write 20+ points ahead) and will win their league at a canter (I suspect maybe even before April). Over at Stamford Bridge it has been one of turmoil, Jose Mourinho was sacked in December with the team flirting with a potential relegation battle, now Guus Hiddink has steadied the ship and got the players back onside, but these were the same players (under Mou) who despite the odd hiccup comfortably topped their Champions League group. This one, just like last year will go to the wire, PSG have to be favourites, but like last year I’m going to go with the underdog, Chelsea to sneak it, but only after two dramatic and titanic legs of football. A returning to full fitness Eden Hazard will be the difference in my opinion.

Gent v Wolfsburg – 1st Leg 17th Feb / 2nd Leg 8th Mar

gentArguably the weakest of all of the round of 16 matches, but credit where credits due, both these sides have deservedly got out of their groups and  made history as neither has ever reached this stage of Europe’s premier cup cwolfsburgompetition. Either side will fancy their chances of making the quarter final too. Gent won their first ever Belgian League title last year (they are doing a good job of trying to retain it too) and wins in Lyon and then at home to Zenit secured their path to this stage. Wolfsburg topped their group thanks to a 3-2 win over Manchester United. Last season they were the only team to get anywhere near runaway title winners Bayern Munich. However since their qualification in December they have struggled, though their first win in eight came this last weekend. Gent have a real chance here, but Wolfsburg have shown when on form they can match anyone. They may well lose the first leg, but they will swarm all over the Belgians at home and secure a quarter final berth and then who knows.

Roma v Real Madrid – 1st Leg 17th Feb / 2nd Leg 8th Mar

romaAt the time of the draw this game looked to be a foregone conclusion. Even now Real Madrid will still be strong favourites but the chasm between the teams is much narrower now. Amazingly both sides have made managerial changes since their qualification from the group stage. In Real-Madrid-LogoRome, Luciano Spalletti has taken over from Rudi Garcia and brought back the feel good factor, and play the Spanish giants on the back of four straight victories. Over in Madrid, a club run under some strange politics, the Rafa Benitez experiment has ended and club legend Zinedine Zidane has taken over. It was thought the Spaniard did not get on with the players and was dispensed with by president Florentino Perez. The Frenchman will be given time, though I suspect elimination at this stage of the competition they covet more than even their domestic title may shorten that length. As stated it will be closer than at the time of the draw, but the Real will prevail, their goalscoring power will be too much for the Italians, home and away.

Arsenal v Barcelona – 1st Leg 23th Feb / 2nd Wed Leg 16th Mar

arsenalThis is what can happen when you don’t top your group, though to be fair to Arsenal they did have Bayern Munich in barcatheir section, though defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos were no help. All in all the Gunners actually did an amazing job to get out of their group after those losses and their reward is a tie against the holders and let’s be honest as we stand the best team in Europe. Barcelona are on fire, a club record 29 games unbeaten run (as I post this) is ongoing stretching back to the end of September. The front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez are irresistible, scoring for fun and that’s not even mentioning the guile and skill of players such as Iniesta and Rakitic. At the time of the draw I could see a potential shock result, but looking at where both clubs are at the moment there is only one winner for me. Barcelona to continue their quest to become the first team to win back to back titles under the Champions League guise.

Juventus v Bayern Munich – 1st Leg 23th Feb / 2nd Leg Wed 16th Mar

juveFor me this is the tie of the round and one that Juventus will be rueing too. Their last match defeat to Sevilla cost bayernthem top spot in their group and they probably drew the second shortest straw with the German champions. Since that defeat they have won every single one of the 13 matches they have played. They are in red hot form domestically (15 league wins in a row) but can they do it against a Bayern team that most people feel are the only team that can stop Barcelona. It is common knowledge that manager Pep Guardiola is leaving Bavaria next season and heading to Manchester City. Whilst they are still on for a domestic double (clear at the top of the Bundesliga and already in the semi-finals of the German Cup) their chances of winning the Champions League are not being helped by a stack of defensive injuries, especially at centre back. I feel this could be weakness that an in form Juventus can exploit and I’m taking them to squeeze through, though a first leg lead (of any sort) is imperative.

Dynamo Kiev v Manchester City – 1st Leg 24th Feb / 2nd Leg Tues 15th Mar

Manuel Pellegrini has done a fantastic job at Manchester City this year, with his team still fighting on four fronts. It is now known that he will be kievleaving the club at the end of the season so a favourable draw (due to topping their Champions man cityLeague group for the first time in their history) would have been a god send and they will fancy their chances of getting through to the quarter finals, which would be another first for the blues of Manchester. The current Ukrainian champions are in a dogfight with their arch rivals, Shakhtar Donetsk, for this seasons title and their performances in the Champions League have been outstanding, their 0-2 away victory over Porto brought back memories of the glory years under Shevchenko and current manager Rebrov. They will fancy their chances at home, but I feel like with Zenit their lack of competitive football will work against them. The Ukrainian side will hold their own in the first leg, but I feel the English side will have more than enough in the return leg to make this a comfortable aggregate victory.

PSV Eindhoven v Atletico Madrid – 1st Leg 24th Feb / 2nd Leg Tues 15th Mar

psvPSV did magnificently to qualify from their group, especially the fact they took four points off Manchester ath madridUnited, which proved crucial in their qualification. They were arguably the weakest of the top seeds and will be hugely pleased to have made the knockout phase. Atletico Madrid have made huge strides in the last few years in their domestic league and the European competitions. Runners up in this tournament in 2014, and they won the Europa League in 2010 and 2012. Diego Simeone’s charges had a slow start, even losing at home to Benfica in their second group game, but got their revenge by beating the Portuguese side to nick top spot from them in their final match. I can see nothing other than a comfortable victory for the Spaniards.

So my predicted eight from the field for the last eight are as follows:-

Benfica, Chelsea, Wolfsburg, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester City, Atletico Madrid – pretty tasty and quite an open field if I say so myself.

Whoever gets through – the Biggishmouth will be previewing the ties – enjoy.

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