After what feels like AGES, the Champions League is back, and the opening pair of first-leg fixtures could be potential classics.
Knockout stage play begins on Tuesday in the Round of 16 as reigning title-winners Liverpool visit Atletico Madrid while Borussia Dortmund hosts Paris Saint-Germain, as both matchups are dripping with possible fireworks.
[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]
For both Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, the Champions League games are the most important remaining fixtures left on the schedule, but for very different reasons. The Reds are 25 points clear atop the Premier League table, and while the players will never admit it, the top flight is all but won and the true focus now shifts to defending its European crown. For Atleti who sit 13 points behind Barcelona in the La Liga table, are out of the Copa del Rey, and continue to struggle creating chances, the Champions League appears to be Diego Simeone’s last stand in what is otherwise a lost season.
To make matters worse for the Mattress Makers, there are reports that teenage sensation Joao Felix will be unavailable for the match due to illness, leaving the hosts already a step behind at the Wanda Metripolitano. The 20-year-old has been underwhelming in his first season after becoming the Atletico Madrid record signing at $147 million, but the heavy attacking weight on his shoulders hasn’t helped and his presence will nonetheless still be sorely missed.
Atletico has scored just 25 league goals this season, good for joint-12th in the league, on an expected goals tally of around 37. In comparison, Liverpool has blitzed the Premier League with 61 goals on an xG of 59.3. Atletico’s defense has been its usual stellar self, just 17 goals all year long in La Liga play, but they have made a habit of conceding goals at the worst possible times and have struggled to pick up the slack of a slumping attack.
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Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain will bring its fully potent attack to Germany as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are in the squad to face Dortmund and expected to play. The pair had missed the weekend draw with Amiens in Ligue 1 play to get them ready for the Champions League, which PSG has publicly targeted for years as its coveted competition. Neymar’s inclusion is specifically of note for PSG as he had missed the last three league matches with a bruised rib.
The French side will need all its available firepower to counter a Dortmund attack that is white hot, with Jadon Sancho in electric form. Dating back to the return from the November international break, Sancho has scored in 11 of the club’s 14 games across all competitions. All three of the games Sancho did not score in, the club lost – two in Bundesliga play to Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen and one against Werder Bremen in the DFB-Pokal. However, Dortmund has also struggled mightily at the back, resulting in near-weekly shootouts to stay alive in the Bundesliga title race. Since a mid-December 3-3 draw with RB Leipzig, Dortmund has conceded three or more goals four times across all competitions.
Even PSG has been questionable at the back of late, failing to keep a clean sheet in three straight Ligue 1 matches including the draw with Amiens this weekend that required PSG to come from a 3-0 deficit. With all that attacking firepower and defensive frailties, the game at Westfalenstadion could be a barnburner.
Round of 16 Champions League schedule:
2/17 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Atletico Madrid v. Liverpool
Borussia Dortmund v. Paris Saint-Germain
2/18 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Atalanta v. Valencia
Tottenham Hotspur v. RB Leipzig
2/25 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Chelsea v. Bayern Munich
Napoli v. Barcelona
2/26 – 3:00 p.m. ET
Lyon v. Juventus
Real Madrid v. Manchester City