UCL Preview: Haaland set to wreak havoc, Real’s Jude issues and Kane turns Bayern into Spurs
Close your eyes and you can hear Handl’s Zadok the Priest playing in the back of your mind. The UEFA Champions League is back after its winter hiatus, and the much-anticipated knockout stages are upon us.
The groups threw up a host of shocks, leaving this week’s first Round of 16 clashes with some interesting match-ups, from surprise qualifiers to title heavyweights.
We travel from Denmark to Germany, France to Italy to get back up and running again – and here on the The Roar, we’ll have the whole thing covered for you.
Copenhagen v Manchester City
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and if you’re the nice, cuddly petro-project in the blue half of Manchester, you can be both.
City don’t need much assistance in retaining their Champions League title from 2023, but got it anyway with a draw that was, on paper, the best they could possibly get.
Now midway through their traditional early-year run of crushing all-comers, Pep Guardiola’s men are on a ten-game winning run and will roll into the Danish capital with Erling Haaland back in form following two goals at the weekend and Kevin de Bruyne back on deck as well.
European football’s most potent attacking combo should have too much for FCK – but don’t count out a spirited performance from a side that have already shocked Manchester once this year.
Copenhagen’s victory over Manchester United in the Group Stage was arguably the best match of the whole first round, with a late goal from Roony Bardghji, the 18-year-old tyro, enough to seal a 4-3 win.
This is a side that have never got this far before and will genuinely have nothing to lose, and have already proven that they can go toe-to-toe with the best, grabbing a draw at home to FC Bayern earlier in the competition.
Prediction: Copenhagen 0 – 3 Manchester City
RB Leipzig v Real Madrid
Real Madrid’s procession to the Spanish title was all but assured after defeating upstarts Girona over the weekend, but let’s be real here: this is a side built for the Champions League.
The Spanish giants have a tricky tie in the works, travelling to Leipzig to take on the footballing arm of a soft drinks company – who actually beat them last year at this same venue.
Real have already tasted success in Eastern Germany in the competition, downing Union Berlin in dramatic circumstance in the Group Stage, with a 3-2 win sealed by Dani Ceballos in the dying minutes, but Carlo Ancelotti’s men return to the DDR without superstar Jude Bellingham, who sprained an ankle in the Girona win this weekend.
How Carlo replaces Bellingham is the big question ahead of this one. In truth, he’s basically irreplaceable, but one suspects that it’ll have to be a collective effort to replicate a guy who has been probably the best player in the world for the first six months of the season.
Their opponents are performing, well, like they always do: they’re a decent way behind the frontrunners in the Bundesliga, but miles ahead of everyone else, meaning that this competition is all that they have to play for.
RBL’s specialise in a style of football that makes big teams vulnerable and, on what should be a very cold night in Leipzig, will look to utilise their high-octane style.
In Lois Openda, they have one of the breakout stars of 2023/24 in Germany – he got four in six in the groups and his partner in crime, Xavi Simons, is fast becoming a properly elite midfield talent.
Prediction: RB Leipzig 2 – 2 Real Madrid
PSG v Real Sociedad
Paris around Valentine’s Day might seem the perfect opportunity for a love-in, but it’s hard to show much affection for a side that has so consistently underwhelmed in the most elite competition in Europe.
PSG are motoring in Ligue 1, where they haven’t lost since September, but spluttered over the line in the group stage a heavy defeat at Newcastle and a couple of unconvincing draws against group winners Dortmund and third-placed AC Milan.
The league title is all but secured – quelle surprise – and that, combined with the news that Kylian Mbappe is set to depart at the end of the year, means that a huge emphasis will be put on Luis Enrique’s side in Europe.
Traditionally, they have found ways to fail on the continental stage, but this time, they couldn’t have wished for a better opponent in Real Sociedad.
When the draw was made, it didn’t look like that at all. The Basques were red hot in the groups, going unbeaten to win a section that included last year’s finalists Inter Milan, but they have fallen off a cliff since.
La Real haven’t scored in La Liga for a month and have managed just one win in all of 2024 in the league, dropping down to seventh, outside of the European places entirely.
They will at least get Take Kubo, their mercurial Japanese winger, back from the Asian Cup, and have Brais Mendez, who scored in three straight games in the groups, ready to fire in his favourite competition.
Nevertheless, it’s a tough ask for Sociedad, though they will be confident to try and keep it tight and then sort the tie out back on home soil in the second leg.
Prediction: PSG 2 – 0 Real Sociedad
Lazio v FC Bayern
It’s strange to see the Champions League as a respite for Bayern Munich, but after the weekend’s humbling against shock Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen, it might actually be that.
FCB went down 3-0 and now find themselves five points off the pace, in real danger of losing a German title for the first time in a decade.
In Europe, however, they have looked a lot better. Bayern cantered to top spot in their group, winning five from six games, with Harry Kane in typically imperious form.
That hasn’t helped his side in the league, and it appears at the moment like, instead of Bayern making Kane into one of theirs, he has turned the rekordmeister into a mini-Spurs.
That said, Kane has 24 in 21 in the league and four in six in the UCL, so any plan that Lazio have starts with stopping him from playing.
The Romans were shaky in their group matches and required a late winner at Celtic and a goal from keeper Ivan Provedel to salvage a draw with Atletico Madrid to advance.
It’s been very up and down for the biancocelesti, who were battered by Atalanta and Inter, but picked up creditable results against arch-rivals Roma in the derby and then reigning champions Napoli on the road.
Bayern are, obviously, overwhelming favourites and anything less than a win will be frowned upon back in Bavaria – but, realistically, that’s exactly what Maurico Sarri and his Laziale will be wanting.
Prediction: Lazio 1 – 3 FC Bayern