A culminating world war, ground breaking new rules and enticing matchups succeeded into a surely entertaining but unforeseen turn of events in the UEFA champions league RO16. For the first time, since 1965 they have excluded the away goal rule, which had been a fundamental strategic asset for the teams in the draws.
Thus far, we have seen favourites to the title such as Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool and Real Madrid already booking a spot in the quarter finals of the competition. Alternatively, we have also witnessed a disappointing early exit from teams such as PSG with their enthralling front 3 ,as well as Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United who simply couldn’t cope with Atletico Madrid’s defensive resilience. These draws didn’t lack activity, offering controversies with the refereeing, heroic comebacks and managerial masterpieces. All things considered the champions league never fails to deliver incredible moments for us football fans to cherish. Seeing the passion from the home supporters in the great capitals of Europe watching 2 teams leaving their body and soul on the pitch, proves the reason for us calling it “The beautiful game”.
Accompany me as I go through the key events for the 2 major games of the first knockout stage round of this year's Champions League.
PSG x Real Madrid
This was the opening draw of the RO16, an exciting one to say the least. On one side we have The most prestigious well decorated team in the history of the competition with 13 titles. On the other we have a dream squad full of talented players that have put themself in the highest level, enchanting us with their innate ability to dominate in the highest occasions. Kylian Mbappé, the rising superstar, Neymar Jr the most expensive transfer in football history, and none other than Lionel Messi considered by many the GOAT, 7 times Ballon d'or winner. Over the years PSG has made some great investments with the sole goal of winning the most prestigious football club competition of the world season upon season bringing on incredible stars to tackle this notable competition. They have come incredibly close in the last 2 years, reaching a final and semi-final respectively.
For this season PSG have done what many considered one of the best transfer windows of all time, not only did they manage a free agent the signing of Lionel Messi , they also reinforced their midfield with ex Liverpool Georginio Wijnaldum, as well as their defence with the trio of Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi and Gianluigi Donnaruma all on free transfers. With this optimistic prospect and with such a stacked team you would expect to exceed their performance from the previous years, although they weren’t able to translate this into quality performances, the attacking trio wasn’t able to produce an offensive menace as expected and committing so many men forward they ended up compromising their defensive system. The coach Mauricio Pochettino struggled greatly to find a balance to this as he identified great inconsistencies.
On the other side we had Real Madrid, which is in the midst of a rebuilding process taking back Ancelotti having already 3 champions league titles to his name. After Cristaino Ronaldo’s departure from the club they have struggled to find that winning spirit and style of play. From the beginning of the season Benzema, who was overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo’s reign in Madrid, now has grown to be one of the best strikers in world football forming a deadly linkup with the brazilian sensation Vinicius Jr.
On the 15th of february these two teams entered the pitch in the Parc des Princes in Paris, PSG were feeling extremely comfortable and confident playing at home with their supporters while Real Madird was weary and looking rather anxious. The first leg proved to be a complete massacre for PSG. They had over 58% possession and consistently posed a threat to Courtois' goal. In the 62nd minute the referee pointed to the spot kick signalling a penalty to PSG after Carvajal brought Mbappé down with a challenge inside the area. To the spot kick cema Lionel Messi who shot on the bottom left corner only to be denied by a miraculous save from Thibaut Courtois.
PSG on the other hand didn’t back down for one instance, they subbed in Neymar Jr who was back from an injury that had him out for 2 months. In the final moments of the game a moment of brilliance from Neymar and Mbappé decided the game. Neymar picked up the ball from the left flank releasing a backheel pass towards Mbappé who still had much work to be done. Mbappé then burst with his trademark pace only to cut inside leaving both Militao and Lucas vazquez behind and sending a powerful effort underneath Courtois and into the back of the net. PSG grabbed a valuable last minute winner but they still left the stadium with a sense of frustration taking into consideration they were only able to convert 1 of their 8 shots on goal, this many due to Courtois phenomenal performance.
As we know when you miss such a great number of opportunities this can surely haunt you back in the return game. In the in-between games Real Madrid regained their form, they picked up a series of results giving themselves a major advantage over the second placed Sevilla. On the other hand we saw PSG displaying a very inconsistent series of results, the trio showed no progress in their link up and the defence continued showing vulnerability even to the least esteemed in the ligue 1.
So the stage is set at 21:00 pm on a rather chilly afternoon, two of the teams with the most renowned players of Europe and of the world facing each other in 90 minutes with the singular goal of qualifying themselves to the next round.The game seemed to have resumed from they left off PSG dominating the possession not leaving any space for Real Madrid to generate chance of their own. PSG managed to miss a few chances at goal, , first a 1, 2 between Neymar and Messi where the latter just almost missed the frame of the goal with an audacious chip, and a left footed shot from Neymar that met Courtoi’s gloves. Pressure kept building up until Mbappé with a spark of brilliance leaving all defenders behind with his inhumane speed managed to strike a low effort to the bottom left of Real Madrid’s goal, 2-0 aggregate. After this PSG even managed a goal that was ruled offside from Mbappé. From here on tides started changing.
It’s almost as if fate and destiny played a part in the end result of this game. Despite the unrealistic odds of turning around this game they took the crowd's chants as motivation to fuel their spirits. On a play that did nothing much, Real Madrid put on a breathtaking pressure on the PSG's backline with a rather controversial challenge from Benzema, in which the referee claimed there was no foul at play. Donarruma then played a faulty pass to the left flank, Vinicius Jr then picked up the ball delivering it for Benzema to strike it towards the goal. A fire then lit on the Real Madrid players and fans as the stadium came alive. Meanwhile, they seemed to be in a state of complete shock, all their systems turned off and they looked clueless on the pitch. Real Madrid picked up this momentum, on the basis of resilience they managed to make it a 2-2 aggregate with a superb in between the lines from Luka Modric for Benzema to score his second in the game. In a matter of 12 minutes Real Madrid were able to turn the game upside down, At this point PSG was wishing for the referee to blow the whistle for extra time for them to settle their nerves but Real Madrid was merciless. Not even 5 minutes later Karim capitalised on a horrific mistake from the world class centre back Marquinhos, resulting in a clear cut chance for Karim Benzema to complete the comeback. Real Madrid went against all odds and Ancelotti showed real perseverance and determination with his team knowing that they had the quality to pull this drawback. On the other hand we have Pochettino who showed he doesn't have what it takes to take hold of a team with so many conflicting imponent egos and personalities.
The issue with PSG was taking their advantage for granted and having such an arrogant approach to the game. Once again football has shown us that, even though the financial aspect does play an immense role, nothing is impossible in this sport, with the correct determination tactics and slight bit of luck teams can produce magic memorable moments on nights like these. This will surely shake things up in the PSG club and in regards to Real Madrid they are as motivated as ever to go all the way and bring the trophy back to Madrid.
Inter Milan x Liverpool
Liverpool and Inter Milan two of the biggest winners of the competition, the two of them combined have a total of 9 UCL trophies. The first game took place on the 16th of february in none other than the San Siro, one of Europe's biggest stages. Both Liverpool and Inter Milan are both in the title races of their respective competitions. INter MIlan showed great character in the national perspective having won a Scudetto and a Coppa da Italia, although they still have much to prove in respect to European football as last time out they managed to finish in only the 4th position of their Champions League group. This year with a certain level of difficulty they managed to climb out of their group trailing behind Real Madrid. Nonetheless Inter showed that they have quality players and that they won’t concede easily no matter how great the challenge or how strong the opponent that they might be facing.
On the opposing side we have none other than Liverpool, a team that no longer than 3 years ago had the glory sensation of lifting the trophy of this competition. Their Coach Jurgen Klopp has built a super team with little to no investment, and for years now Liverpool has been competing for each and every major title there may be. In the past year Liverpool suffered greatly with a series of injuries that ruined their backline and other essential pieces of their squad. They performed very poorly in the Premier League compared to their standards and got knocked out of the UCL by Real Madrid in the quarter finals. They lost their footing but somehow still managed to attain a top 4 position in the Premier league that awarded them the qualification for the UCL. For this season Liverpool has regained all their strength with players such as Sadio Mané, Van Djik and Roberto Firmino. They have shown to be back to full strength, storming through this year's group stage and taking up an impressive opposition to Guardiola’s Manchester City in the Premier League.
So the stages are set, the first game occurred on the 16th of February in the San Siro, one of Europe's most gracious stages, This was a game of few chances now and then Inter threatened a goal and liverpool also tried their luck. Liverpool held more possession in this game but they weren’t effective at all, yet Inter was able to create more threat to the goal but still didn’t manage to put the ball in. In Inter’s best moment in the match Liverpool went on to win a corner, Firmino then struck Trent Alexander Arnold’s effort with the top of his head and watched as the ball flew inside. From here on Liverpool took a shot of courage and despite playing away they began working the ball closer to the goal. Another set-piece for Liverpool and more trouble incoming for Inter Milan, The ball came in the second post as Van Djik dinked it towards Salah who made no mistake dispatching the ball past Handanovic. 2x0 Liverpool in a match in it really could’ve gone to either team.
Taking a 2 goal lead to Anfield Liverpool would surely think that it’d be over or so they thought. The second matchup between these two teams took place on the 8th of March in Anfield, one of the most alive stadiums; there is an atmosphere like no other. Inter Milan would have to chase this game back while Liverpool, despite getting an amazing result, were far from their best. Liverpool took hold of this game having a total of 63% possession and double the attempts of Inter but they couldn’t seem to break down the Italian wall. Playing on the counter attack Inter knew that they would have very few chances to make their decisive moves and so they did. In the 63rd The argentinian striker Lautaro Martinez picked up a mistake from Van Djik anticipating the Liverpool defence cutting outside and sending a terrific ball curling over Alisson and into the back of the net: game on.
At this point the game became a thriller. Inter began to believe one goal and they would be sending the game to extra time. And then it happened, Alexis Sanchez feeling the adrenaline of the game went on to a silly challenge on Fabinho that saw him off the pitch after a second yellow card. This event totally demoralised Inter who looked to really be using the equaliser having still 30 minutes to go. The red card cooled off the game and took away any chance Inter had to pull this game back. Inter, nonetheless were able to see the game off at 1x0 winning the game in Anfield a feat that very few can manage, leaving the competition with their heads high. Liverpool have got to produce better performances than this one especially at home if they seek to go the distance in this competition having the possibility of facing deadly teams such as Real Madrd, Bayern Munich and Manchester City ahead of them.
That's all for this exciting round of 16. Let's see what the rest of the competition has in store for us in the following rounds. There are many other compelling stories that you can follow up on for this round but overall an incredible start to the competition indeed maintaining the tradition of making our Tuesdays and Wednesdays that much more special. Having a few setbacks shows that any team that has come through to this point can still grow to be Champions League winner no matter the odds and this is the magic of the sport and of this amazing competition.
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