Davide Cappelli previews the round of 16 for the return of The Champions League
It’s been more than two months since the last time the Champions League anthem echoed in the ears of football lovers around the world. Fortunately, the wait is finally over, as the road to Milano—San Siro, the home of AC and Inter Milan, which will be the theatre of the 2016 final—is about to continue. In order to get to the fashion capital on the 28th May, the 16 teams that have made it through the group stage must wear their best outfits, as a series of complicated matches awaits them. While the European Clubs Association is discussing possible changes to make the competition “more attractive”, as proposed by ECA boss Karl-Heinz Rumenigge, on Tuesday night the Champions League will re-start with the first act of its traditional knockout stage.
The round of 16 will be opened by a “clash of blues”: Paris Saint-Germain against Chelsea. The game is a remake of last edition’s dramatic round of 16 where the Frenchmen knocked Mourinho’s army with a David Luiz’s goal and an extra-time Thiago Silva header, after Chelsea had taken the lead twice. PSG have already near enough secured their title hopes in their domestic league (24 points ahead of Monaco,only 39 more to play for) and are only focused to improve their poor results in Europe despite the big investments made in the last years by chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi. However, Chelsea’s good form under Guus Hiddink could be tricky for Zlatan and his teammates. On the same day, Benfica will host Zenit, with Andre Vilas-Boas aiming to get the Russians to the quarter finals for the first time in their history.
On the following night, in Rome, it will be Zinedine Zidane’s Champions League debut as a coach. Zizou, who lifted the trophy wearing “la camiseta blanca” in 2002, is hoping to join the elite club of people who have won the CL both as a player and as a coach and, to do so, he will rely on CL top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo (11 goals so far). It could be another dramatic night for Roma, after a humiliating 6-1 defeat to Barcelona in the group stage, but the “giallorossi” seem to have changed gear with the return of Luciano Spalletti on the Stadio Olimpico’s bench. Meanwhile Gent, who unexpectedly condemned Valencia to the Europa League and knocked Lyon out of the competition, will try to surprise everyone again in a tie against Manchester United’s “killers”, Wolfsburg.
The grandest stage, however, will be on Tuesday 23rd, when 3 out of the 4 semi-finalists of last year’s edition are going to be in action. The Emirates will be the set of “Mission Impossible 1”, where Arsenal have the almost unachievable task of stopping Barcelona from the first back-to-back of the history of the competition. Luis Enrique’s side looks unstoppable, especially at home, so Arsenal’s hopes of getting to the quarter-finals depend almost exclusively on the way Wenger’s defence will be able to block the MSN (Messi-Suarez-Neymar) in London. The other big game of the night is in Turin, where last year’s runners-up Juventus will face Bayern Munich. After a shaky start to the year, the “bianconeri” have been on fire in the last few months, collecting 17 consecutive wins. However, Bayern are one of the favourites to get into the final in Milan, and Pep Guardiola aims to put his hands on the trophy before leaving Germany for Manchester.
Guardiola’s next team, Manchester City, will close the first leg on Wednesday 24th. The Citizens have, for the first time, a realistic chance of getting to the quarter finals, having been drawn with Dinamo Kiev (in the two previous occasions they had to face Barcelona). On paper, the game with Serhiy Rebrov’s team looks easier than it might actually be, since the Ukrainians proved to be a complicated opponent for both Chelsea and Porto during the group stage, especially when it came to playing at home. The other clash of the night will see Chelsea’s target Diego Simeone and his Atletico Madrid face PSV Eindhoven, who are currently sitting at the top of the Dutch league.
The menu is rich and it could be full of surprises. Now, the time has finally come for the beloved Champions League anthem to be played loudly again. “The Championssssss!”