The second set of matches in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, Manchester City travel to Barcelona with the hopes of overturning a 2-0 deficit, while Paris Saint-Germain will want to see out the somewhat easy task of seeing off Bayer Leverkusen, over whom they have a 4-0 lead. Here’s 5 things to lookout for on the night.
Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid have already progressed to the next stage in the Champions League, seeing off erstwhile European giants Arsenal FC and AC Milan. It seems unlikely that Bayern will be joined by German compatriots Leverkusen, who have 4 goal deficit from the previous leg. This was a match where they never got in the vicinity of goal on their home ground, and were ripped apart by the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Blase Matuidi. In the other game, Manchester City also have the unenviable task of trying to overturn a 2-0 deficit at the Camp Nou, where the Catalan faithful will surely be in full voice. This will be Manuel Pellegrini’s sternest test yet, as he needs to thoroughly outwit Tata Martino to ensure the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar don’t get on the scoresheets.
Can Ibrahimovic Build on the Legend of Zlatan?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is possibly THE most entertaining footballer of our generation. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi may be better all-round footballers, but Zlatan’s knack for sublime goals and hilarious quotes set him apart. The fact that he has had a mercenary’s career path, having never called any one club home for more than 3 years, means that his legend is his own. Even on the international stage, his might is such that Sweden getting knocked out of World Cup 2014 was met with groans of dismay across the globe, as it meant that Ibra would not be present to dazzle on the greatest stage of all.
This year’s Champions League presents Zlatan with a chance to cement his name in the books of footballing lore. If he can lead Paris Saint-Germain to Champions League glory, he will surely become a legend at the club for decades to come. One can imagine a statue of his being erected in front of the Parc des Princes; after all, who can better symbolise the club’s extravagance and ambition than the pony-tailed Swede? But a Champions League victory might be a tall order for PSG, who are far too inexperienced in the latter stages of the tournament.
But there is a second target Zlatan can keep in his sights: Lionel Messi and Milan’s Jose Altafini joint record of 14 goals in one Champions League season. True, Cristiano Ronaldo (11 goals) is currently ahead of Zlatan’s 10 goal haul. But he couldn’t ask for a better opposition to better his tally against than a deflated Leverkusen that will turn up with little hope of overturning a 4-0 deficit. And even if PSG only go as far as the quarter finals, 3 games are surely enough for a man of Zlatan’s ability to rack up atleast 4 more goals. Yes, Cristiano might extend the record this season, but he might not as well. As Ibrahimovic himself says, one must not be afraid to Dare To Zlatan.
Tata Martino Must Rally the Troops in Europe
Barcelona manager Tata Martino’s regime has come under a cloud of doubt, with the team succumbing to losses against Valencia, Real Sociedad and Valladolid since the beginning of February. With the Catalan’s sitting third in the La Liga table, beneath the two Madrid clubs, various media sources have been quick to point the finger at Tata Martino, including this piece in Marca that makes it sound as if the writer can peer right into the manager’s soul. But despite all the doom and gloom surrounding the club right now, their performance against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium was quite slick. It was far from one-sided, but at the end Barcelona did look deserving of the 2-0 lead they walked away with, having controlled the game well from the start. The tie was, of course, decided by the incredibly silly tackle by Martin Demichelis, that lead to both a red card and a penalty that was promptly dispatched by Lionel Messi. Barcelona went on to score their second goal in the dying minutes, with City’s defence looking seemingly exhausted from defending with one man down.
Tata Martino needs to ensure that Barca’s La Liga form does not affect their performance here. A strong run in the Champions League will go a long way in securing his future at the club, and it is no less than what the fans of the club expect. If his team don’t turn up mentally sharp for this game, City have the fire-power to pummel their way to a second leg comeback. And then Tata will truly understand the meaning of pressure.
Leverkusen’s Midfield Have To Dominate PSG’s Central Trio
In the first leg, Leverkusen found it difficult to stifle PSG’s midfield. Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta outplayed Simon Rolfes and Lars Bender, but it was Blaise Matuidi who proved to be their greatest threat. He regularly ran forward from midfield, often finding himself further ahead from Zlatan Ibrahimovich, who kept dropping into midfield to play creator. For the second leg, PSG will be without two of these three midfielders, with Verratti and Matuidi both unavailable due to injury. While Yohan Cabaye (who was a goalscoring substitute that night) and Javier Pastore are excellent back-ups for the two, there is no denying that the French club have lost a bit of steel in this area due to the injuries. The onus is on Leverkusen to capitalise on this possible chink in the armor. Against Borussia Dortmund in December, Leverkusen pulled off a 1-0 win by stifling Borussia’s midfield and pressing them high up the pitch. They need to attempt a similar game plan here, and not allow PSG to run rings around them with their quick passing.
Man City’s Left Flank is Pellegrini’s Biggest Decision to Make
Manuel Pellegrini threw in a tactical surprise in the first leg by playing both Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy on the left flank, with Kolarov playing as a left-sided midfielder. He wanted to field naturally wide midfield players as he wanted his full-backs to stay deep and narrow to guard against the likes of Alexi Sanchez and Andres Iniesta, who tend to drift inside more often than they make wide runs. Even after the red card to Demichelis, he maintained a 4-4-1 formation, trying to retain that width.
In this return leg, with a 2 goal deficit to overturn, he can’s take such a defensive approach. What shape and formation he finally resorts to will be largely influenced by who he wants to play on the left flank. If he picks only one out of Clichy and Kolarov, who should the left-midfield role go to? David Silva is the only left-footed player capable of playing in that position, but he is usually far more effective in the centre where he can dictate play, or on the right where he can cut inside. If Samir Nasri is played on the left, he is sure to leave Barca right-back Dani Alves unmarked more often than not. And Alves’ ability to attack shone as clear as daylight in the previous leg, where he got on the scoresheet. Pellegrini’s decision on this matter could be the biggest influencer on the outcome of this game.
Neymar versus Gareth Bale
Just as Ronaldo and Messi tend to have every achievement of their’s measured with respect to the other’s, Gareth Bale and Neymar will have their own competition going. And for obvious reasons: they have both been signed for record breaking sums by two competing Spanish teams, which also happen to be two of the biggest brands in world football. Not that either of them have ever said much about the other, but then that has never stopped the Messi-Ronaldo comparisons either.
Just as they both have faced questions on whether they can play in the same team as their more glorified colleagues, they will both also end up being compared on their achievements during their first season at their new clubs. And one of the metrics to gauge their success will be their impact on their teams’ Champions League campaigns. As it stands, Neymar has scored one goal less than Bale’s tally of 4 goals in Europe this season. While it is uncertain whether Neymar will be in the starting 11 against Man City, or if he’ll start on the bench like he did in the first leg, he must ensure that he makes every minute played count. Gareth Bale certainly will.