The UEFA Champions League returned last month with the first set of knockout games as teams across Europe played out the first leg of the Round of 16. While some matches garnered usual results, some unforeseeable surprises sprang up for the football fans.
We will be revisiting some of the magical European moments in this space and analyse the Champions League games from a holistic perspective for the remainder of the season. Today, we shall take a look at how the English Premier League clubs performed and assess their chances of progress further into the tournament.
Paris Saint-Germain FC vs Chelsea FC (1-1)
A re-take of last season’s quarter-finals, this tie promised all sorts of drama and the first leg lived up to its billing. Although both clubs played out a 1-1 draw at Paris, it was far from insipid. The Parisian club was hit hard with injuries but managed to field a decent side with former Blues player David Luiz in the middle of the park, taking up the role he excelled at against his present employers last season.
Chelsea began the game with a spring in their step and took a first-half lead through Branislav Ivanovic who continued his tradition of scoring crucial goals. Surprising to many an observer, it was the Ligue 1 side which looked more dangerous post that goal as Chelsea dropped deep to hold their lead. A defensive lapse (in concentration as well as organization) allowed Edinson Cavani to equalize nine minutes into the second half. In spite of the absences of Thiago Motta and Lucas Moura, two players who have been instrumental in PSG’s play this season, manager Laurent Blanc saw his side outperform Mourinho’s for most of the second half. Jose Mourinho later revealed that as many as five Chelsea players had not trained in the build-up to the game due to injuries and illness, which explained the sluggishness on the pitch. Cesc Fabregas had been particularly quiet since the turn of the year, combining that with Diego Costa’s lack of match fitness as he was returning from a three-game domestic ban implied all of Chelsea’s attacking laurels rested on Eden Hazard. On a night when Matuidi and Verratti put in brilliant shifts to take control of the midfield, it was too much for the Belgian to accomplish alone. Chelsea lacked the explosiveness they have displayed so often this season, but Thibaut Courtois kept Ibrahimovic and co. quiet for most of the game as a majority of Paris’ intricate play came on from the wings and not the centre.
As for the second leg, Chelsea not only have the home advantage and an all-important away goal, but also have their core set of players available. This being the FA Cup weekend in England, Chelsea has close to a week’s rest before they host Laurent Blanc’s men on the 11th of March at Stamford Bridge. Things do not look so bright meanwhile for Paris Saint-Germain as Lucas Moura is unavailable following surgery on his right hip in late February. Thiago Motta, Yohan Cabaye, and Serge Aurier are still on the sidelines and are expected to miss the second leg as well. In spite of the fact that the likes of Rabiot, Veratti, and Luiz have well compensated for Motta’s absence, Cabaye will be sorely missed. Contrary to last season, Chelsea are in a better place to progress onto the next round and Jose Mourinho is expected to bring that guile his teams so excel at into play.
Manchester City FC vs FC Barcelona (1-2)
In their sojourn among Europe’s elite in the last few years, Manchester City have time and again drawn far more accomplished opponents in the group stages as well as the knockout rounds, as they proceeded to crash and burn. This year has not been much different for Pellegrini’s men. After making it out of the Group of Death consisting of Bayern Munich, AS Roma, and CSKA Moscow, City drew FC Barcelona in the Round of 16. Strong words were delivered from either side in the pre-match pressers and Pellegrini backed up his bold statements with his team selection as Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko started up-front.
Pellegrini set up his side to play possession-based football, albeit at an aggressive tempo, but what followed next was exactly opposite to what the reigning Champions of England expected. Barcelona showcased one of their best performances of the season with a dazzling array of passes and moves which swiftly cut through the City backline. Fernando looked clueless in the middle as Messi operated in the channels around him. Suarez and Neymar not only bypassed the likes of Kompany, Zabaleta, and Clichy through the wings, but also discovered spaces to exploit behind City’s defensive line. James Milner tried his best to contain the sprightly Barcelona midfield and attempted a couple of Hollywood passes on the paths of Aguero and Dzeko, but City sorely missed the steel of Yaya Toure to calm their nerves. A moment of magic from David Silva allowed Sergio Aguero (who has struggled with injuries a lot this season) to get back a goal for the Manchester-based club but Clichy’s dismissal following an unnecessary challenge further compromised City’s position. Joe Hart’s save of Lionel Messi’s penalty in the closing moments kept City in the tie.
Manchester City’s tactics played straight into the hands of Barcelona and Luis Enrique as it is almost impossible to beat the Spanish side at its own game when they are firing all cylinders. City tipped its hand by taking a proactive approach without the correct set of players available and it cost them dearly. Their attacking intent in the second half paid dividends to some extent, but Pellegrini would be worried at the lack of clear-cut chances. Sergio Busquets is doubtful for the return leg after he had to be stretchered off during Barcelona’s Copa Del Rey match, having picked up an ankle injury. City need at least two goals at Camp Nou on 18th March, a task easier said than done, even with Barcelona’s falling defensive stars in the recent months. How Kolarov chooses to stop the goal-hungry Suarez will also play a crucial role in determining the fate of the tie, which Barcelona have more or less sealed in its favour.
Arsenal FC vs AS Monaco FC (1-3)
Arsenal, having finished second in the group stages of the Champions League, drew AS Monaco, who had huffed and puffed their way to the top of Group C earlier in the season. Arsene Wenger was sure to have experienced bouts of nostalgia as the London club prepared to host his former employers. While fans of both clubs revelled in the polite genius that Wenger has been throughout his career, les monégasques arrived and how!
Monaco rarely saw the ball in the first ten minutes as it seemed Arsenal continued their fine form which had seen them playing some delightful football in the league and even beat Manchester City in City’s own backyard. The Emirates would soon be in shock though. Arsenal, for all their attacking prowess, failed to make any in-roads through the Monaco defense and onto the scoreboard but had a theme going when it came to losing the ball in the opposition half. The first goal was a long-ranger from Kondogbia which deflected off Mertesacker to leave Ospina wrong-footed. Once jolted by the goal, Arsenal seemed to lose the plot completely. While any measure of defensive organization flew out of the window, the attacking precision dried up. Turnover after turnover resulted into counter-attacks for the French club. It was hardly a surprise when Berbatov doubled Monaco’s lead early in the second half as the Gunners were thoroughly outnumbered at the back. Giroud missed a plethora of chances before being hauled off for Theo Walcott who immediately forced a save off the Monaco goalie. A long-range curler from Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain brought Wenger’s side back into the tie for mere minutes before Arsenal’s goalscorer gave away the ball which resulted in yet another successful counter-attack for the Ligue 1 team.
Leonardo Jardim, the Monaco boss, probably summed up Arsenal’s tribulations in the best possible manner in his post-match press conference. Season after season, Arsenal have struggled to produce an impact in the knockout phase of the Champions League and once again, they appear to be on the brink of getting knocked out at the pre-quarter finals stage for the fifth consecutive season. Arsenal’s problems do not just lie in the fact that they conceded thrice at home or missed sitters collectively, but that they folded in such a manner against Monaco, who can hardly be considered as a European powerhouse. Come 17th March, Arsenal have an uphill task as they will try to negate Monaco’s three away goals. It is highly possible the Gunners might fail, but how the players fare less than two weeks from now might go a long way in determining which path Arsenal will be traversing on in future seasons – one where they wilt under slightest of pressures or one where they live up to their expectations.
Chelsea are the most likely of all English clubs to clinch a quarter final berth, although the match at Stamford Bridge should be a closely contested affair. Manchester City’s fixture is undoubtedly tougher than those of its domestic compatriots and a lot depends on how City’s defense holds up against the trio of Neymar, Messi, and Suarez. Pellegrini’s side most definitely have it in them to beat Barcelona, but only if the Chilean adopts a pragmatic solution to his team’s problems instead of trying to one-up the Spanish side. Arsenal, in spite of having the weakest opponent, probably has the most difficult job in its hands. The Gunners have been known to make some heroic comebacks in the past, most notably their spirited performance at Munich last season. The fates of the English clubs rest not only on the performance of their respective players, but also on the tactical approach the three managers take in the second leg.
The unpredictable nature of the UEFA Champions League ensures that even the simplest of fixtures make for a great watch. The veritable amount of talent and technique on display is well complemented by the grit and determination of the underdogs, culminating into an exhibition of football at its dramatic best.