How Will the Premier League Teams Fare in the Champions League Round of 16?
The UEFA Champions League knockout stages are upon us, and as has been the case in recent memory, it’s hard to put too much faith in the remaining English sides getting much further along in the competition.
Not since Chelsea defeated Bayern Munich on penalties to win the crown in 2012 has a Premier League team reached the final, and the road for the three clubs left with the hopes of repeating that feat this year appears to be difficult indeed.
Arsenal faces Bayern Munich, an old adversary they’ve yet to beat in a cup tie. Manchester City has to deal with Monaco, the most potent attack in Europe. And the Leicester has been so poor domestically that they may require a second miracle in successive seasons to simply stay in the top flight of English football, so they're up against it facing Sevilla.
Yet despite the obvious concerns, the European prospects of Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester City may not be bleak as they may seem at first glance.
Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal
First Leg : Wednesday, February 15th, Allianz Arena
Second Leg : Tuesday, March 7th, The Emirates
Arsenal’s prize for finishing first in Group A after going unbeaten in pool play against Paris Saint-Germain, Basel and Ludogorets is a 10th Champions League encounter this millennium with five-time winners Bayern Munich.
It’s the renewal of the most-played Round of 16 tie in UCL history -- the fourth meeting at this stage since 2004-05 -- and as you’re no doubt aware by this point, it’s a matchup that’s rarely gone the Gunners’ way.
The Bavarian giants have ended the North London club’s European dreams in the Round of 16 in all three prior meetings, including twice in the past four seasons, and even though Arsene Wenger has had some success in single-match situations against Bayern, the Bundesliga outfit has always had the last laugh.
Arsenal enter Wednesday’s encounter in Munich after a vital 2-0 league win over Hull, with an Alexis Sanchez brace stopping a two-game losing skid. The Chilean leads the Premier League with 17 goals this season despite constant circulation that he’s unhappy at the club, though his form suggests otherwise.
Let's just say that if things aren't all well in Sanchez's camp, helping the Gunners advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009-10 wouldn’t hurt morale.
According to the purists, Bayern have not been their usually dominant selves in Carlo Ancelotti’s first season in charge, and a second-place group stage finish behind Atletico Madrid appears to back that up.
Still, rumors of the demise of the 26-time German champions appear to be greatly exaggerated, as Der FCB find themselves seven points clear in the Bundesliga table with 15 league wins, 4 draws, just 1 defeat, and a plus-33 goal differential.
As you’d imagine, Bayern lead the Bundesliga in most statistical categories, including possession (64.5%), shots per game (16.9), pass accuracy (86.5%) and aerial duals won (55.8%). Oh, and they’ve also scored the most goals (45) and conceded the fewest (12) in the league.
Add in the fact that Arsenal have lost at this stage in each of the last six seasons, and it’s an understatement to say that recent history and current form are not on the North Londoner’s side.
But as the Gunners are mostly fit and seem to be firing this time around, history surely can’t continue to repeat itself forever -- can it?
Manchester City vs. Monaco
First Leg : Tuesday, February 21st, Etihad Stadium
Second Leg : Wednesday, March 15th, Stade Louis II
City could only manage two wins out of six in a group dominated by Barcelona, but three draws combined with the sheer profligacy of Moenchengladbach and Celtic allowed Pep Guardiola’s side to reach the knockout stage with the second-fewest points of the 16 advancing clubs.
It bears mentioning, however, that one of City’s wins in the group stage was a 3-1 beatdown of Barca at the Etihad in November, the most eye-opening result so far in this year’s Champions League, especially after the Citizens fell 4-0 at the Camp Nou three weeks earlier.
The presence of Guardiola -- a man who lifted the UCL trophy in 2009 and 2011 while in charge of the blaugrana and who has never failed to reach the semifinals of this competition in his seven years as a manager -- has greatly improved the prospects for Manchester’s blue half, but the task to pull City to a second-straight semifinal or beyond is still an uphill one.
That challenge begins in earnest with Monaco, a club with European pedigree that’s on the rise and very much in the picture for UCL honors.
The club from the French principality won a difficult group that included Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur and CSKA Moscow, but they did so with just a plus-two goal differential, the same mark City carried in their six group games.
In Monaco’s case, the fact they didn’t dominant proceedings shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the quality of the opposition -- Spurs and CSKA are third in their respective domestic leagues while Bayer is a disappointing ninth in Germany -- but nevertheless, they’ve been nearly unstoppable in France this season.
The Ligue 1 leaders have been clinical domestically, pouring in 75 goals in just 25 league games for the most prolific strike rate of any club in Europe. (Granted, this is France, where defense is optional and the competition isn’t great but still.)
Most of Monaco’s attack is based around crosses from wide areas -- they average 24 per game, second-most in Ligue 1 -- with their prowess in the air centered around the
resurrection rejuvenation of Radamel Falcao.
The 31-year old No. 9 has returned to devastating form after two -- let’s face it -- depressing loan stints in the EPL at Manchester United and Chelsea that saw him net just five times in two years. The Colombian hit man has 16 league goals in 19 matches this year and an additional four in five UCL appearances, and slowing him down will be a priority for City’s defense.
On the plus for Pep, City have been on a good run of form lately, having won their last three league games to pull into second place in the EPL, albeit a distance eight points behind non-UCL combatants Chelsea.
They do, however, face a trip to Championship side Huddersfield in the FA Cup Fifth Round on Saturday before next Tuesday’s first leg, which -- thankfully for them -- is in Manchester.
Adding to Guardiola’s selection challenge is the currently unknown injury status of Gabriel Jesus, who limped off with an apparent ankle problem in the first Half of City’s 2-0 win versus Bournemouth on Monday, though at least the gaffer has the likes of Sergio Aguero to call on in reserve.
It's that kind of squad depth and quality that make City a dangerous side in the competition, no matter who the opposition is.
Leicester City vs. Sevilla
First Leg : Wednesday, February 22, Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium
Second Leg : Tuesday, March 14, King Power Stadium
If you’ve been following Leicester City’s Premier League campaign this season, you know it’s not been a pretty sight.
After lifting the Premier League title last May, this vintage of the Foxes -- despite featuring a lot of the same cast as last year with the exception of N'Golo Kante, which has been a big loss -- has been unrecognizable, slumping to within a point of the drop zone and sitting in 17th thanks in large to an anemic attack that’s yet to post a league goal in 2017 in six matches.
But while the soccer world’s feel-good club are in serious danger of losing their place in England’s top flight, Claudio Ranieri’s golden touch hasn’t abandoned him in the club’s European bow. Leicester, in their Champions League debut, strolled to the top spot in a fairly lightweight group, with the team’s lone loss coming at Porto on Matchday 6 after they’d already secured a first-place finish.
As you’d imagine, the road for the Foxes will get much tougher from here as three-time defending Europa League champions Sevilla await in the Round of 16.
Unai Emery is no longer in charge after leaving Seville for Paris this summer, but former Chile National Team manager Jorge Sampaoli has continued the good work started by his predecessor, propelling the Andalusian side to third spot in La Liga behind only Real Madrid and Barca and engineering advancement at Real’s expense over two legs last month in the Copa del Rey.
Working in Leicester’s favor is the fact that Sevilla is a possession-based side. In the league this season, Sampaoli’s group keeps the ball 57% of the time on average, a number good enough for third among La Liga sides.
The Foxes won the EPL last season by ceding possession and springing counterattacks when the opportunities arose, utilizing the pace of Jamie Vardy in open areas to get behind and unlock defenses. Teams in England, of course, have adapted to that style of play, a leading cause for the struggles of Leicester and specifically Vardy, who has just five goals all season and hasn’t recorded a shot on goal since December 17th.
You’d imagine Sampaoli has been paying attention.
Like City, the Foxes have an FA Cup 5th Round game this coming weekend -- away to third-tier Millwall -- before Wednesday’s first leg in Seville. After that comes EPL games against Liverpool, Hull and Arsenal, and while it feels blasphemous to say it, it’s possible the Foxes could have a different manager for the second leg of the tie in mid-March if results do not turn around in this five-match span, no matter what the LCFC board may say.