Deputy Sports Editor Adam Robertson gives his view on the upcoming Champions League fixtures.
Chelsea vs Atletico Madrid:
In what is arguably the pick of this second round of fixtures, Chelsea, now of course under the management of last year’s finalist Thomas Tuchel, will be hoping to improve on their last meeting against the Spanish side. It was Simeone’s men who prevented Mourinho from a meeting with his old club Real Madrid in the 2014 final.
Chelsea have had their inevitable upturn in performance that so often accompanies a new manager taking over a dejected-looking squad. Nevertheless, this will prove Tuchel’s biggest challenge so far in his short time in England. In spite of PSG’s shortcomings in last year’s final, Tuchel showed himself to be a tactically astute manager and helped the Parisian side overcome a Champions League hoo-doo of exiting the competition when they really shouldn’t have, even if those efforts weren’t rewarded with a trophy. It’s not necessarily a free pass for the German, but this will allow him to measure his still-new squad against Europe’s best.
Atletico, meanwhile, will be hoping that the game will go the same way as the last time they played English opposition where they dispatched then reigning champions Liverpool after overturning a 2-0 deficit at Anfield. They currently sit top of La Liga, with a rejuvenated Luis Suarez firing on all cylinders and João Félix proving his worth. Despite their disappointing exit last season, Simeone’s side can consider themselves favourites for the trophy which has eluded the club throughout its history and, of course, twice under their beloved Argentinian manager.
Lazio vs Bayern:
The reigning champions set such high standards last season when new manager Hans Dieter Flick converted what was on course for a disappointing season under Niko Kovac into a historic treble-winning one. Champions are forever the victim to this curse – high standards often become the impossible benchmark against which you become measured rather than a joyous memory of the team you were less than a year ago.
Any hopes of a double treble were squandered after a disappointing penalty shoot-out exit to second division side, Holsten Kiel, in the DFB-Pokal; contract talks with Austrian David Alaba have turned sour with the Austrian looking to leave whilst new signing Leroy Sane has not hit the ground running as one might have expected. Nonetheless, they strolled through their group without defeat. They look likely to retain their title and Robert Lewandowski continues to score for fun.
For Lazio, they of course go into the tie as underdogs and anything other than a Bayern victory would be a surprise. The Italian side has spent the last few years in the Europa League. Outwith Real Madrid’s unprecedented three Champions League successes though, you have to go back to 1989 and 1990 to find a team that has won consecutive European Cups.
Atalanta vs Real Madrid:
Last year’s surprise package in the Champions League hailed from one of Italy’s most affected cities throughout the Covid-19 pandemic – Bergamo. After rallying to secure qualification to the last sixteen in their inaugural season in Europe’s top competition, the city was unable to celebrate a historic season for the club, though they would then go on to reach the quarterfinals after scoring four goals in successive games to dispatch Valencia.
Fatigue eventually set in after taking a 1-0 lead against Paris Saint Germain but even then the French side needed two injury-time goals to carry them through. The side has continued to defy expectations this season with a 2-0 victory at Anfield – only the second time that a visiting team had been successful there in European competition since Klopp took charge. They did show their frailties though as Liverpool won 5-0 in the reverse fixture in Italy.
Real Madrid, through good times and bad, always seems to retain that element of soap opera drama at the club. Zidane, for this writer, is one of the finest managers of the last ten years. Whatever people may say about the squad he inherited, to manage a dressing room of that stature takes some doing.
Consecutive last sixteen exits, though, will never sit well with a club who pride themselves on their record in this competition, particularly given that they never really looked like winning last season’s tie against Manchester City. Perhaps their legendary manager is benign given one more chance to bring them success in this competition before they inevitably get someone else on the merry-go-round.
Borussia Mönchengladbach vs Manchester City:
After a shaky start to the season, Pep Guardiola’s side has been in impeccable form in the Premier League and looks firmly on course to secure the title for the third time under the Spaniard. The rejuvenation of a solid defence after the acquisition of Rúben Dias and the upturn in the fortune of John Stones has seen to that; coupled with the sparkling form of the likes of Phil Foden, City have looked virtually unbeatable.
Not many would expect the German side to get much of a look-in here, despite their navigation through a tough group which included Real Madrid and Serie A challengers Inter Milan. Indeed, it would be a shock, especially given that Pep’s side has glided through this stage of the competition with relative ease the last three seasons.
Regardless, questions persist over Guardiola’s record in the competition since joining Manchester City as his side has failed to progress past the quarter-finals in spite of their domestic dominance. Often rueing a combination of missed chances and over-complicated tactics, the blue side of Manchester suffered a disappointing defeat to Lyon last season – arguably when they had a greater chance of heading to the final than any previous year. The German side will no doubt look to take hope from that.