Wednesday finds Arsenal in Germany and Napoli at the Bernabeu. The second legs will both be held on Wednesday, March 8.
Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal
How they got here: Arsenal edged PSG for the top spot in Group A, while Group B Bayern lost to Atletico Madrid and Rostov in finishing second.
History: Traded results in last season’s group stage, though Bayern walloped Arsenal 5-1 at the Allianz Arena. Bayern has won five, drawn two, and lost thrice against the Gunners this century.
The plot: Arsenal has made the Round of 16 in 11 straight seasons but hasn’t earned a quarterfinal berth since 2009-10. Bayern won in 2012-13, and is bidding to win Carlo Ancelotti a UCL title with his third club (AC Milan, Real Madrid).
The subplot: Germany and Bayern legend Philipp Lahm is retiring after the season and the club would be overjoyed to put him out on top; Meanwhile Arsenal is sticking with No. 2 goalkeeper David Ospina over Petr Cech.
Real Madrid vs. Napoli
How they got here: Madrid drew three matches and finished behind Borussia Dortmund in Group F. Napoli edged Benfica to win Group B.
History: Real defeated Napoli 3-1 over two legs in the 1987-88 European Cup.
The plot: Real is looking to become the first time since mid-1970s Bayern Munich to win three European Cups inside of five seasons (Bayern won three-straight), while Napoli is looking to assert itself in Europe with a first big title since the 1988-89 UEFA Cup.
The subplot: Real is one of four Spanish clubs left in the tournament, and will hope to restore some pride after Barca was waxed by PSG; Napoli hasn’t lost in 18 matches stretching into late October, and will feel ripe to upset the champions.
For a lot of us, that meant delving into statistics and seeing what matched the eye test. Many started Googling the name “N'Golo Kante“, the dynamic disruptor who’d move to Chelsea in August.
He’s a household name now, with some personalities even arguing that he should buck the trend of Ballon d’Or nominees including only major statistic producers (There was a time when names like Fabio Cannavaro and Matthias Sammer claimed the honor, you know).
For our purposes, we’ll use a pair of advanced stats sites and the good ol’ eye test. (Of the sites we’re using, Squawka seems to skew toward high attack scores, while WhoScored tilts a bit toward the back, so life is good if a player hits both sites’ Top 50).
Before getting into our team — we promise no 10-picture, click-to-reveal-next stuff — some stats that stood out.
— Three players have had outstanding “short” seasons for different reasons.
Leicester City’s Wilfried Ndidi took a short spell to adjust to the Premier League after arriving in January, but has been the Foxes’ most influential player in their recent turnaround).
Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake essentially was the Cherries’ first-half success before heading back to Chelsea where Antonio Conte won’t move him ahead of Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses (and that’s actually understandable as you’ll see below).
Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas just doesn’t feature a ton for Conte, but in limited time his per-90 stats on Squawka trail only Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez.
Ander Herrera (Manchester United, 7.44, 36.64) – Long-heralded at Athletic Bilbao, Herrera is finally showing what made him so sought. One odd stat that may be explained by his willingness to run to any situation: he’s very high in average times dribbled past.
Idrissa Gana Gueye (Everton, 7.34, 20.57) – The best player in Aston Villa’s awful 2015-16, he’s been arguably as effective as N’Golo Kante. Seriously.
Matt Phillips (West Bromwich Albion) – Once the top player on a relegated QPR, Phillips is fifth in the Premier League in assists despite missing the last four matches with injury.
Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur, 7.41, 31.89) – Second in the PL in key passes, he doesn’t get the plaudits of English teammates Dele Alli and Harry Kane. The relationships are very symbiotic.
Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace, 7.44) – On an under-achieving team, Zaha’s statistics are wild. He’s the most-fouled player in the league, and attempts/completes the most dribbles in the PL. He gives the ball away a lot, too, but that happens when you’re the focal point of everything your team does in the attacking third.
Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, 30.54) – The Nigerian turns 21 in May, and has four goals and seven assists across all competitions.
“[Ibrahimovic] is a genius, he’s very intense because he wants to win everything, even football-tennis,” Herrera said to Radio MARCA.
“He assumes this role of doing or saying what he likes in front of the media because he does not care, he can say that he’ll score 30 goals or is the best because he can afford to.”
There’s certainly something to stature when it comes to saying what you feel (though on the other hand, being egotistical is rarely controversial. It’s not like Ibrahimovic is often railing on controversial soccer or social issues).
We’re sure there are plenty of players across all sports, casual and professional, who don’t understand hyper-competitive teammates, but we love a guy who doesn’t turn it down when it comes to on-the-field activities. Hopefully Ibrahimovic is the Jaromir Jagr of soccer.
Players often like to brush off speculation or criticism in the moment by claiming they don’t read stories written about themselves, but we all know better.
Former Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu confirmed that sentiment by citing specific comparisons he remembers as a youth with Barcelona, citing stories that compared him to Lionel Messi. Now 23 years old, Deulofeu reflects on those early comparisons and wishes the media wasn’t so quick to jump to conclusions about his career.
“In the end, [the comparisons] were more detrimental than beneficial,” he told weekly magazine Forza Milan. “Normally I don’t read newspapers, but that headline I remember well. It created too much expectation among Barcelona fans. There’s only one Messi.”
With expectations high, Deulofeu made just six senior team appearances without a goal or assist before loan spells at Sevilla and Everton saw him out of the club permanently. His time at Goodison Park was up and down as well, with his ability to dazzle a crowd punctuated by long spells of invisibility, failing to earn himself a consistent starting role.
Deulofeu is now on loan from Everton at AC Milan, looking to revitalize his career. He has started every league game since arriving, and has picked up a goal and three assists in 11 matches. There is speculation he could end up in Milan on a permanent basis this summer, but he’s not focused on that right now.
“My future? It’ll be seen to,” Deulofeu said. “My sights are in the present, from experience I know it’s best to leave the past behind and focus on the present. We’ll see what happens in the future. For now, I just want to enjoy the good time that I‘m having at Milan.”