Wednesday, April 17

Champions League returns to action


The Champions League last 16 starts with Paris St-Germain v Real Madrid and Sporting Lisbon v Manchester City on Tuesday.

According to the BBC, this is the first time in 18 years that Barcelona are not in the Champions League knockout stages.

Instead of competing for club football’s most prestigious trophy, they will be facing Napoli (who finished above Leicester) in a play-off for a place in the Europa League last 16.

The last time they were not in the Champions League last 16 was in 2004 when they lost to Celtic in the Uefa Cup.

On the other hand, there are at least four English teams in the Champions League last 16 for the fourth time in five seasons – all getting there with a game to spare this time.

And three of them are among the four bookmakers’ favourites to win the tournament (Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Chelsea), BBC further reported.

All the English sides face domestic champions of four of Europe’s next five highest-ranked leagues (Spain, Italy, France, Portugal).

However, none of those currently top their league.

Last season Chelsea beat City in the final.

The last-16 teams come from eight different leagues – including knockout debutants Red Bull Salzburg.

Salzburg, Ajax, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon mean there are more teams from outside Europe’s top five leagues than in the previous three years combined (Porto in 2021 and 2019 and Ajax in 2019).

The Champions League last-16 draw had to be done twice after mistakes were made in the original draw. Manchester United were excluded from the pot of possible opponents for Atletico Madrid, and Liverpool included instead. But it should have been the other way around.

The entire draw was redone, leaving some teams with tougher ties and others with “easier” games.

Manchester United were initially due to play one of the tournament favourites in Paris St-Germain – Cristiano Ronaldo v Messi as it was briefly billed before the problems emerged.

Now they play Atletico Madrid, who are outside the top four in La Liga.

Liverpool had an upgrade in opponent with Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg being replaced by Serie A champions and leaders Inter Milan.

Manchester City will play Sporting Lisbon instead of Villarreal, while Chelsea were drawn with Lille both times.

Among the other teams with strong swings in the new draw were Bayern Munich, who were due to play Atletico Madrid and now play Salzburg. Real Madrid were due to face Benfica, but now take on PSG.

These will be the first Champions League knockout stages since Uefa scrapped the away-goals rule.

Ties with level scores after two legs will now all go to extra time and then penalties.

It could well change the dynamic of knockout games. Tottenham’s famous wins over Ajax and City would both have gone to extra time under these new rules.

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