The Champions League continues this week, as the round of 16 rumbles on in Europe’s premier club competition. Here’s a breakdown of the four remaining first-leg fixtures, along with predicted outcomes.
Liverpool vs. Real Madrid
- First leg: Feb. 21 (Anfield)
- Second leg: March 15 (Santiago Bernabeu)
“Befitting of a final” is an overused trope, but, considering this literally was the showpiece match of last season’s tournament, it’s an apt description here. On the back of Real Madrid’s 1-0 triumph over Liverpool last May, the two clubs, which boast 20 Champions League titles between them, renew hostilities.
In order to exact a measure of revenge for that defeat, Liverpool’s primary task, at least defensively, will be similar to that of nine months ago. But slowing down Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, is, of course, easier said than done. The reigning Ballon d’Or winner, who was rested in the league over the weekend and should be fresh for the trip to Anfield, has endured a stop-start campaign due to injuries, but he’s still scored 11 La Liga goals in just 13 matches.
When he’s on the pitch, he’s prolific as ever. Benzema feasts on English opposition, too, scoring 16 times in 23 Champions League games. Vinicius, meanwhile, will have fond memories of playing against the Reds after scoring the lone goal in last season’s final.
The Brazilian winger has developed into one of the most devastating wide forwards in world football. And, given Liverpool’s squad makeup, he matches up particularly well against Jurgen Klopp’s team. What scheme will Klopp concoct to give Trent Alexander-Arnold the necessary help he needs to try and stop the explosive Brazilian, and how much will the threat of Vinicius impact Alexander-Arnold’s ability to contribute going forward, where his creativity from a nominally defensive position is so vital?
Liverpool have seemingly put their rotten post-World Cup form behind them, winning their last two matches without conceding a goal. Key attackers are slowly regaining fitness, Darwin Nunez – an injury doubt with a shoulder problem – looks more comfortable, winter signing Cody Gakpo has goals in consecutive matches, and the club’s overall vibe is on the upswing. But not all is healed just yet. Liverpool still look susceptible, and gaping holes in midfield continue to leave the defense exposed.
Even though Real Madrid haven’t been entirely convincing this season – sound familiar? – they have too many weapons not to take advantage of the chances that’ll surely come their way over the two legs. Until there’s irrefutable evidence that Real Madrid’s magic dust in this competition has worn off, it’s difficult to pick against them.
Prediction: Real Madrid advance
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Napoli
- First leg: Feb. 21 (Waldstadion)
- Second leg: March 15 (Stadio Diego Armando Maradona)
Ordinarily, this would be dubbed the proverbial “sneaky good” matchup of the round, flying under the radar in the face of some other heavyweight bouts. But, seeing as how it features the best team in Europe this season, there’s nothing subtle about it. Napoli are a juggernaut right now. A full 15 points clear atop the Serie A table, Luciano Spalletti’s spellbinding team is bulldozing everything in its path en route to what will surely be the club’s first Scudetto since 1990.
They’ve only lost three games all year across all competitions – to Liverpool, Inter Milan, and, somehow, Cremonese in the Coppa Italia – scored more goals than any team in the Champions League group stage, and boast the best defense in Serie A, just for good measure. All the ingredients are there to make this a truly special season. Not just domestically, but on the continent, too. By every possible metric, Napoli profile as the tournament’s best team.
Led by the ruthless and irrepressible duo of Victor Osimhen and Georgian sensation Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, they attack in waves, at pace, and score at will. With Korean man-mountain Kim Min-jae anchoring the backline, they concede relatively few chances; Napoli have shipped just three league goals since the calendar flipped to 2023.
They press aggressively, tilt the field in their favor, move the ball swiftly and beautifully, and, when necessary, can score “ugly” goals through set pieces if, for some reason, things aren’t working in open play. Outside of big-game nous, something you can’t actually have until you have it, there are no faults with this team at the moment.
But Europa League holders Eintracht Frankfurt, powered by an emerging star of their own in the form of Randal Kolo Muani, will provide stern opposition. The French forward, 24, is the only player in the Bundesliga to reach double figures for goals and assists so far this season, racking up 10 in each category, and he’s one of the few players enjoying a breakout campaign that can rival that of Osimhen.
He’ll need to outshine his Nigerian counterpart if Oliver Glasner’s side has any chance of pulling off the upset. The German club is stout and tough to play against – Frankfurt have just one loss in all competitions since November – but beating Napoli is a monumental task for any club in the world right now.
Prediction: Napoli advance
RB Leipzig vs. Manchester City
- First leg: Feb. 22 (Red Bull Arena)
- Second leg: March 14 (Etihad Stadium)
Manchester City’s quest to win the only major trophy that’s eluded the club under Abu Dhabi ownership begins in earnest Wednesday. The group stage was just a formality. Now the tournament truly begins for Pep Guardiola, who will again be under the microscope as he looks to deliver the singular piece of silverware the club’s hierarchy so desperately craves.
Erling Haaland was supposed to be the final piece to complete City’s continental puzzle. On an individual level, his signing has been an emphatic success; the imposing Norwegian has more goals (32) than appearances (31) since joining the club from Borussia Dortmund. He’s an inevitable force of nature who, barring injury, will shatter multiple scoring records this season. And yet, his prowess in front of goal hasn’t had the kind of transformative impact that one might have expected.
Paradoxically, now that City have the bona fide No. 9 that detractors said was missing – and one who’s finding the net with frightening frequency – they look less convincing than ever. Something is amiss. There’s a malaise that’s difficult to pinpoint. Perhaps the recent struggles in the league, where City look vulnerable – and sometimes even disinterested – won’t apply in Europe. Maybe that switch can be flipped. Haaland, after all, was recruited primarily for this tournament. They didn’t need him to win the league. They did that already. This is the focus.
Before they can even think of ticking that final box, City face a tricky test against an RB Leipzig outfit that has the tools necessary to cause an upset. At the back, Josko Gvardiol will relish the chance to lock horns with Haaland in what should be a riveting tussle. And up front, Leipzig have a bevy of exciting attackers who are more than capable of capitalizing on the openings that City present, something they’ve been doing with unusual regularity lately.
For all their territorial dominance, City are susceptible when attacked at pace, and in Timo Werner and the fit-again Christopher Nkunku, Leipzig have exactly that. If emerging star Dominik Szoboszlai can find his teammates in space, City will have problems. Guardiola’s tenure in Manchester has, obviously, been a rousing success, but it’s been punctuated by surprising Champions League defeats, often to inferior opposition. His tendency to overthink these matches can’t be ignored; if Bernardo Silva lines up at left-back, as he has recently following the January departure of Joao Cancelo, City will struggle.
Can Guardiola, an objectively brilliant coach, get out of his own way? To win his first Champions League title since 2011, he may need to.
Prediction: Manchester City advance
Inter Milan vs. FC Porto
- First leg: Feb. 22 (San Siro)
- Second leg: March 14 (Estadio do Dragao)
Simone Inzaghi and Sergio Conceicao, teammates at Lazio during their playing days, reunite as the managers of Inter Milan and Porto, respectively.
These two sides haven’t met in the Champions League since the 2005-06 season when a certain 22-year-old defender was just starting to make his breakthrough at the Portuguese club. Incredibly, ageless wonder Pepe remains an integral part of this equation.
Described by club president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa as a “competitive animal” who could play another “five or six years,” the 39-year-old will be tasked with shutting down red-hot Inter striker Lautaro Martinez, who has eight goals in his last 10 matches across all competitions. Can Pepe unsettle Martinez with his physicality?
And how will he split his attention between the Argentine and whomever Inzaghi decides to partner with him, whether it’s Edin Dzeko or Romelu Lukaku; the Inter boss has options after the latter’s return from injury. Both are big bodies who combine well with Martinez and play key roles in Inter’s buildup while in possession. The answer to those questions will go a long way toward determining who reaches the quarterfinals.
Despite a top-end talent advantage, Inter have been flummoxing this season, and their lack of consistency is cause for concern. Which version of the Nerazzurri will show up on Wednesday at the San Siro? The one that dominated city rivals AC Milan twice in three weeks after the World Cup break, or the one that lost at home to Empoli and then couldn’t find a breakthrough against Sampdoria following those emotional derby triumphs?
Porto, on the other hand, aren’t facing the same question marks. Despite several injuries – Conceicao is hopeful that Otavio and Evanilson will be back in time for the first leg – Porto have won 10 consecutive games in all competitions, giving up just two goals in that span, which includes a pair of victories over Sporting CP. Questioning Porto’s strength of schedule isn’t unfair here, but, frankly, considering the overall weakness of Serie A this season, Inter’s recent fixture list isn’t totally incomparable.
The Champions League always seems to deliver at least one upset at this stage of the tournament. Porto, authors of some of those surprises against Italian opposition in recent years, could just do it again.
Prediction: Porto advance after extra time