UCL MATCH ROUND PREVIEW
MANCHESTER UNITED VS ATLETICO MADRID
Manchester United will make the trip to the red half of Madrid on Wednesday evening looking to claim a victory in the first leg of their last-16 UCL clash with Atletico Madrid.
The Red Devils finished top of Group F to advance to the competition’s knockout round, while Atletico claimed second spot in Group B behind Liverpool to ensure qualification.
Atletico will enter Wednesday's contest off the back of a 3-0 win over Osasuna in La Liga, with Joao Felix, Luis Suarez and Angel Correa on the score sheet, but there is no getting away from the fact that the Spanish champions have disappointed in the league this term.
Indeed, Simeone’s side are currently down in fifth spot in the table have seen their season crumble in split seconds. Currently 15 points behind leaders Real Madrid, their elimination from the Copa Del Rey as well as their inconsistent form, has seen their chances of getting a silverware dwindle.
The Champions League is their only realistic chance of silverware this term, and they might need to win the competition to secure a position in next season's leading European cup competition.
Man United, meanwhile, will enter the contest off the back of a 4-2 win over Leeds United on Sunday, with Fred and Elanga coming off the bench to secure a vital three points for the Red Devils, who sit fourth in the table, four points clear of West Ham United on the same number of matches (26).
The 3-time European champions have picked up wins over Brighton & Hove Albion and Leeds in their last two but will now switch their attention to the Champions League and will be aware of the importance of picking up a positive first-leg result ahead of the return match at Old Trafford next month.
Man United finished top of Group F to advance to this stage, collecting 11 points from their six matches. Cristiano Ronaldo came up with some incredibly important goals to help send his team into the competition’s knockout round for the first time since the 2018-19 campaign.
The Premier League giants have won seven of their previous 11 round-of-16 ties, while they are in the knockout round for the 19th time - an English record - but the club have not managed to make the final of the competition since 2011, and it will be fascinating to see what Ralf Rangnick can deliver this season.
Atletico will be without the services of both Yannick Carrasco and Brazilian defender Felipe through suspension on Wednesday night, while Danish midfielder Daniel Wass and Brazilian forward Matheus Cunha are both injured.
The home side are also sweating on the availability of Thomas Lemar who as per reports from Mundo Deportivo was unable to train this weekend, after missing out against Osasuna, as he came into close contact with a positive Covid-19 test in recent days, but Antoine Griezmann is back fit, recovering from a muscular problem to make the squad against Osasuna, and the France international is expected to be on the bench against Man United.
As for Man United, Mason Greenwood is out due to a club suspension, while Edinson Cavani, remains a doubt due to a groin problem, but Eric Baily could recover from an ankle issue to make the squad.
Atletico Madrid possible starting lineup:
Oblak, Vrsaljko, Gimenez, Savic, Reinildo, Llorente, Koke, Kondogbia, Correa, Felix, Suarez
Manchester United possible starting lineup:
De Gea, Dalot, Varane, Maguire, Shaw, McTominay, Pogba, Elanga, Fernandes, Sancho, Ronaldo
Man United are more than capable of finding the back of the net against a leaky Atletico Madrid defence, but Atletico will also expect to score at Wanda Metropolitano,
CHELSEA VS LILLE
In what appears to be a fairytale season for the Chelsea faithful, the Blues resume the defence of their Champions League crown when French champions Lille visits Stamford Bridge for the first leg of their last-16 battle on Tuesday night.
The Blues could only finish second in Group H to set up a tie with the Ligue 1 champions, who topped the rankings in the tightly-fought Group G.
Following up their European success by becoming world champions earlier this year, the Blues are currently on a five-game winning streak across all competitions. A little cause for worry is the performance in those games which have been below standard.
Tuchel's men were frustrated for large periods of their showdown with Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday, and it took until the 89th minute to bag the all-important goal through Hakim Ziyech, who had previously had one disallowed at Selhurst Park.
It must be said that little has changed in the way of Chelsea's home form at the fortress that is Stamford Bridge, with the Blues winning their last four Champions League games on home soil without conceding a goal, and not since September have Tuchel's men suffered defeat of any kind at the bridge.
Lille on the other hand may have topped their group, but have definitely not been convincing and their poor and largely inconsistent run of form since the departure of title winning Coach Christophe Galtier speaks volume. The Ligue 1 defending champions currently sit 11th on the log and are in danger of missing out on Europe completely.
Attacking Midfielder Mason Mount is still struggling with ankle damage and will likely be spared for the EFL Cup final with Liverpool on February 27, while Ceaser Azpilicueta and Callum Hudson-Odoi are fresh concerns with knocks. Also, left back Ben Chilwell remains absent due to a ligament damage.
Thomas Tuchel will also hope his strikers can banish the ghost of unimpressive displays hovering over them and come up clutch tomorrow.
As for Lille, Angel Gomes was substituted in the first half against Metz with a calf problem, so the door is open for Hatem Ben Arfa or Timothy Weah to start at Stamford Bridge.
Head Coach Jocelyn Gourvennec will surely consider introducing Portuguese Maestro Renato Sanches from the first whistle in place of Xeka and Zeki Celik ought to displace Tiago Djalo at right-back after serving a domestic suspension, while Jose Fonte and Burak Yilmaz will miss the second leg if they are booked here.
Chelsea possible starting lineup:
Mendy, Christensen, Silva, Rudiger, Azpilicueta, Jorginho, Kovacic, Alonso, Ziyech, Havertz, Werner
Lille possible starting lineup:
Jardim, Celik, Fonte, Botman, Gudmundsson, Weah, Andre, Sanches, Bamba, David, Yilmaz
There is always a danger of Lille breaching the defence line of Les Dogues and their negative goal difference in the league serves evidence.
Chelsea though far from inspiring lately, will hope a freshened team will expect help run out convincing winners, hence getting their first leg advantage.
VILLARREAL VS JUVENTUS
Safe to call him a master in winning the UEFA Europa league, Unai Emery will be aiming to make progress in the Champions League as the Yellow Sub-marine welcome Juventus to the Estadio de la Ceramica for the first leg of their last-16 battle.
Villarreal finished second in Group F behind Manchester United to make it this far, while Juve topped Group H ahead of reigning champions Chelsea.
Emery's glittering success in the second tier of Europe's continental competition is unparalleled, but the former Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain boss will be more aware than anyone that his side are major underdogs to lift the Champions League trophy aloft.
Villarreal largely managed to hold their own in the group stages, despite suffering a pair of defeats to Manchester United, a thrilling 3-2 win away to Atalanta BC on the final matchday ensured their place in the knockout rounds for the first time since 2009.
For Massimiliano Allegri and his Juventus outfit, who are long overdue success on the European stage, this is one tie where they have to exert their force which if won, will serve as a statement for them as well as an alert for subsequent opponent.
Juventus who have continued to falter in the Serie A like last season, once again and did not warm up for this contest in ideal fashion as a forced 1-1 draw with Torino was all they got in the Derby della Mole.
The 1995-96 Champions League winners are making their eighth consecutive appearance in the knockout rounds, but the last-16 curse has bedeviled them for the past two years, going out at this stage to Lyon in 2020 before that disheartening exit to Porto last year.
Villarreal remain without the duo Coquelin and Ruben Pena, with Etienne Capoue also a slight doubt.
Massimiliano Allegri will go into this tie further depleted, as talisman Paulo Dybala is set to miss out. Already without Federico Chiesa, Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini, Allegri witnessed the painful sight of Daniele Rugani pulling out of the 1-1 draw with Torino due to a warm-up injury. The tie also saw left-back Luca Pellegrini pick up an injury.
Villarreal possible starting lineup:
Asenjo, Foyth, Albiol, Torres, Pedraza, Trigueros, Capoue, Parejo, Chukwueze, Dia, Danjuma
Juventus possible starting lineup:
Szczesny, Cuadrado, Danilo, De Ligt, Sandro, Locatelli, Zakaria, McKennie, Bernardeschi, Morata. Vlahovic
With Juve's ongoing absentee woes in the final and defensive third, a Danjuma-inspired Villarreal victory may just be on the cards.
BENFICA VS AJAX
Two unfancied names for the UCL crown lock horns in the first leg of their last-16 clash on Wednesday, as Benfica play host to Ajax at the Estadio da Luz.
Nelson Verissimo's side finished second in Group E to advance to the knockout rounds, while their opponents strolled through Group C without dropping a single point.
Benfica who finished second against all odds, took full advantage to pip an out of form Barcelona to second place behind Bayern Munich.
Long gone are the days of Jorgee Jesus but still present are the ghost of recent defeats, including the defeat to Porto that ensured Jorge Jesus resigned.
Former Benfica youngster Verissimo seeks to steer his side through to the quarter-finals for the first time since 2015-16, but his first 10 games in the dugout have produced a mixed bag of results, with the latest being a 2-2 draw against strugglers Boavista.
Ajax on the other hand, are currently a moving train and the figures of star forward Sabastien Haller speaks volume. Scoring in every group game of this season’s competition, Erik Ten Haag will hope the stroll his side has had in the UCL continues.
Ten Haag’s men 10-game winning run has also seen them concede just one goal away to PSV, and a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in 2020 represents their only loss from their last 21 Champions League games on the road - a streak that includes a 1-1 draw away to Benfica in 2018.
Quite a few Benfica players will be walking a tightrope in the first leg, Julian Weighl, Otamendi, Joao Mario, Rafa Silva and Alex Grimaldo will miss the second leg should they pick up a booking. Though such concerns are unlikely to factor into Verissimo's selection here, but forward Haris Seferovic, Rodrigo Pinho and Lucas Verissiomo make up a trio of injury absentees for the home side.
Major selection headache for Ten Haag will be in the goalkeeping department. Who gets the nod between Andre Onana and 38 year-old Remko Pasveer remains to be seen, otherwise the visitors have no reason to alter a winning formula, although Ryan Gravenberch will certainly hope to displace Davy Klassen in the Midfield.
Benfica possible starting lineup:
Vlachodimos, Lazaro, Otamendi, Vertonghen, Grimaldo, Silva, Taarabt, Weigl, Everton, Yaremchuk, Nunez
Ajax possible starting lineup:
Pasveer, Mazraoui, Schuurs, Martinez, Blind, Alvarez, Klaassen, Antony, Berghuis, Tadic, Haller
Borussia Dortmund, Sporting and Besiktas were no match for this free-scoring and defensively watertight Ajax outfit in the group stage, and we expect Ten Hag's side to claim a healthy first-leg advantage on Wednesday.