Now The Champions League Will Sort The Men Out From The Boys

The Champions League group stages dominate the first half of each football season now, and often throw up some enticing matches, but there’s no denying that everyone is really waiting for the knockout stages to come around.

Those two-legged ties where it’s do or die.

Where the stakes are ever higher and where players, coaches and supporters all understand that one mistake could be the difference in terms of progression in the tournament or an exit from it.

It’s precisely from the round of 16 onwards where the competition sorts the men out from the boys.

We saw how a Manchester United side previously unbeaten under Ole Gunnar Solksjaer were dismantled by an under-strength Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

The French league leaders took the game to their hosts from the off and were rewarded with two well-taken second half goals.

With the second leg to come, it might be the end of the road for the Red Devils, but Solksjaer’s United coaching career has only just taken off and better days are surely ahead.

Roma take a slight advantage to Porto, the Italians succumbing to a late Adrian Lopez strike after a double for Nicolo Zaniolo, the 19-year-old’s first goals in the competition.

Iker Casillas will certainly want to extend his record-breaking number of appearances, and Lopez’s immaculately struck shot gives him hope of doing so.

Ominously, the reigning champions, Real Madrid, without playing well in a round of 16 first leg tie – again – are in the box seat for qualification over Ajax.

After VAR incorrectly ruled out a goal for the hosts, Los Blancos made them pay thanks to a wonderful run and assist from the ever-improving Vinicius Junior, Karim Benzema bagging his 60th in the competition and drawing level with former Madridista, Ruud van Nistelrooy as the fourth highest scorer ever.

Hakim Zayech looked like he’d given the Dutch side something to take to the Santiago Bernabeu with a quarter hour to go, but a late intervention from Real sub, Marco Asensio, means that Ajax have it all to do in Spain.

Often derided for not stepping up to the plate in the big games, Mauricio Pochettino can bask in the glory of a job well done by his Tottenham side.

Borussia Dortmund were some experts’ outside bet for a final berth at least, and with Jadon Sancho just one of many in-form players for the Germans, the Lilywhites were expected to have it tough at Wembley.

A dreadful first half was soon forgotten when Son expertly volleyed home from Jan Vertonghen’s cross, and the Belgian was on hand to double the lead shortly after.

Fernando Llorente’s third was the icing on the cake, and surely only complacency can prevent Spurs from a quarter final.

The manner of the performance also strengthens Pochettino’s candidacy for the Real Madrid job at the end of the season.

Looking ahead to next week, there are some mouth-watering games to come.

Barcelona’s stated aim at the beginning of the season was another Champions League title but they face a Lyon side who are in formidable form.

Having recently become the first team to beat PSG in Ligue 1 this season, they certainly won’t be in awe of a side that seem to be treading water at this point and who will be without Arthur in midfield.

An away goal will be crucial to the Catalans’ aspirations, whilst defensively they need to be on their guard against a lightning-quick Lyon attack.

Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Madrid, albeit the red and white half, to face Atletico, a team who would prefer to see the back of him.

Form would dictate a Juve victory at the Wanda Metropolitano, but Diego Simeone loves battling against the odds. A recent home loss to city rivals Real may be just the motivation El Cholo needed to get his players right up for this one.

Antoine Griezmann needs a Ballon d’Or win soon to ensure his place among the greats of the game, and this is precisely the sort of European night where he has to put his head above the parapet and produce the goods.

At Anfield, Jurgen Klopp faces the rivals from his Dortmund days, Bayern Munich. Still a force to be reckoned with, the Bavarians are off the pace in the Bundesliga and not as daunting a prospect as they were a few seasons ago.

With the likes of Ribery and Robben leaving at the end of the campaign, going all out for a last hurrah is likely, but their lack of pace at the back is manna from heaven for Messrs. Salah, Mane and Firmino.

If the Reds can continue their fine form in 2018/19, this one could be over before the second leg takes place.

Pep Guardiola returns to Germany with his City side up against Schalke 04. Only complacency ruins their chances because, frankly, the way they’re playing they can beat just about anyone, and you have to worry for an opponent that’s currently 14th in an 18-team league.

Upsets can and do happen, but it would be one of the shocks of the season if the end result is anything other than a thumping for the home team.

*Odds were correct at time of publishing the article

Jason Pettigrove

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Journalist, broadcaster, author

Jason Pettigrove is a highly experienced and UEFA accredited journalist, broadcaster and published author specialising in expert analysis and insightful opinion on elite level football.

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