“First leg syndrome” strikes UEFA Champions League last 16 matches

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After the first round of UEFA Champions League knockout games, just six goals have been scored and three of the four matches have ended in draws.

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Should we be surprised? Or is this the old “first leg syndrome” kicking in?

If you look across the board at the first group of last 16 matches, the only match where there was a significant mismatch in talent ended in a comfortable away win for reigning UCL champions Real Madrid. They beat Schalke 2-0, but elsewhere an evenly matched Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain tied 1-1, the same scoreline popped up when Basel hosted FC Porto and Bayern Munich were held to a 0-0 draw away at Shakhtar Donetsk after having Xabi Alonso sent off.

With the second leg’s coming up, all four ties are still in the balance, even if Schalke do have to pull off a miraculous 3-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu to topple Madrid. Anyway, do the lackluster scorelines point to any kind of theme?

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After four tense, nervous encounters there is plenty of intrigue left in the UCL last 16 stage. If not a slightly underwhelming feeling.

Next week the other four last 16 matches take center stage with Manchester City hosting FC Barcelona, Juventus playing Borussia Dortmund in Turin, Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid and Arsenal welcoming AS Monaco to London.

Of those four games, the latter two could be blowouts in favor of Atletico and Arsenal, but it’s conceivable that all all will be level or slender one-goal leads will be taken by the favorites into the second legs. If we take a look at the 2013-14 UCL last 16 games, five out of the eight matches were pretty much done and dusted after the first leg’s.

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Barca beat Man City 2-0 away from home, PSG hammered Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 away, Real Madrid smashed Schalke 6-1 away, Bayern Munich were 2-0 up against Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund were 4-2 up against Zenit St. Petersburg. Notice something? All of those wins came away from home last season.

This year it seems as though the away teams have taken a different approach than season’s gone by and instead of going gun-ho in the first leg to grab the all-important away goal they are willing to sit back, soak up pressure and play cautiously. While the home teams are also failing to go for the jugular early on, as the second seeds are all at home in the opening match and just want to hang on and stay in the tie as long as they can. That’s understandable.

Some may call it boring, unattractive soccer but tense tactical battles are waiting to unravel as the first leg’s have resembled a game of chess. The second leg’s will be more like a game of checkers played against the clock.

At the halfway point of the first knockout round of the 2014-15 UCL competition we have more questions than answers. That’s something to keep us all interested, even if this latest round of matches failed to deliver vast swathes of excitement. Hold on tight folks, the second leg’s are when these encounters really liven up.