The State of Play after the opening round of first-leg last-16 Champions League ties

This week the Champions League returned and there has already been some surprises. Last season’s winners Liverpool and runners-up Tottenham both lost the first legs of their last-16 knockout matches by a goal to nil. Could the two clubs be heading out of UEFA’s premier tournament already? European regulars Paris Saint Germain and Valencia were also both defeated. In this article I will be looking at these four teams and analysing their chances of turning around these results in the second leg and reaching the quarter-finals.

Liverpool

Domestically, what Liverpool are doing right now is frightening. They are 22 points clear at the top of the Premier League table and are still yet to lose in the competition this season after dropping just two points all season long, in their one and only draw of the campaign, with Manchester United at Old Trafford. But in Europe, they’ve not quite been at their sensational best. In the group stage, they were beaten away to Napoli who drew with them at home as well, while Red Bull Salzburg gave them a fright on Merseyside too in a 4-3 thriller that Liverpool just edged. Then, on Tuesday night, they were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, the venue where the six-time European champions won their most recent crown. Atleti manager Diego Simeone out-thought his opposite number and the hosts were good value for their victory. Saul Niguez scored the only goal of the game after just four minutes and the remainder of the match followed a predictable pattern in which Los Rojiblancos displayed their trademark work-rate, defensive ability and tactical nouse to grind out another clean sheet. Jurgen Klopp’s team struggled to break their opponents down and create clear-cut chances in an attempt to silence the partisan Spanish fans. They will have to improve in three weeks’ time but given the setting for the second leg is Anfield and the fact that the home crowd there has helped Liverpool on so many European nights over the years, the Champions League holders will fancy their chances. Their formidable front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane were all kept quiet in Madrid and so, will have to step up, while their defence will have to be wary of the threat that Atletico will pose on the counter-attack and from set-pieces as Simeone’s men will be looking for a vital away goal. But, Liverpool have been in this sought of situation on numerous occasions, most recently in April against Barcelona in May. One thing is for sure though, Atletico’s defence won’t cave in the way that Barca’s did in that famous encounter and so, while the Reds are still probably slight favourites to progress, as they only need to win by two goals, the encounter will be a nervy one for both sets of supporters and one full of tension throughout.

Tottenham

Recently, Tottenham have been hit pretty hard. The loss of Christian Eriksen in January was a big one while their two best players, Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son are both on the treatment table. They missed the first leg with RB Leipzig and will likely miss the return fixture in Germany. Without them, Spurs look bereft of goals. Lucas Moura, Giovani Lo Celso and new signing Steven Bergwijn are all showing signs of promise but that wasn’t enough on Wednesday night and it won’t be enough in a few weeks. Unless Jose Mourinho can get these players as well as Dele Alli, who reacted angrily to being substituted against Julian Nagelsmann’s side, playing with confidence and scoring goals before the second leg, it looks very unlikely that they will make it to the last eight, unless their opponents collapse under the pressure. Leipzig, who are currently making a serious title challenge in the Bundesliga too, played some great stuff at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium and were perhaps unlucky to only come away with a victory by just one goal. Marcel Sabitzer, Christopher Nkunku and Timo Werner, who scored the winner from the penalty spot, were in top form and if they and their teammates play like that again, they will make the quarters for the first time in their history.

PSG

Like Liverpool, Paris Saint Germain are likely to win their respective domestic title this season. They are ten points clear of second-placed Marseille but even if they win Ligue 1 for the third season in a row, the season will still be a disappointment for the club’s owners if they exit the Champions League at the round of 16 stage once again. Their match with Borussia Dortmund wasn’t full of quality and manager Thomas Tuchel would have been upset that his team were unable to beat his old side. At 1-1, I think he’d have taken the draw but superstar Erling Braut Haaland won the game for the hosts with a left-footed rocket. The goalscoring machine opened the scoring in the tie before Neymar’s equaliser and so, the match finished 2-1 to Dortmund. Because they got an away goal and that the return game will be played in Paris, PSG will still back themselves to impress but they will have to be much better. Defensively, Tuchel’s outfit will have to be stronger and not give up as many chances to Haaland, Jadon Sancho and co. Meanwhile, going forward, they need to start delivering on their promise in Europe. On paper, a frontline of the mercurial Neymar, the world-class Kylian Mbappe and the revitalised Angel Di Maria, with lethal strikers Mauro Icardi and Edinson Cavani options off the bench, is tantalising but these players need to show why. PSG bosses will be hoping they do so in three weeks because if not, it will be yet another year where the French juggernaut have failed to reach the semi-finals.

Valencia

At the moment, Valencia are only 7th in the league this season and they only just scraped out of their Champions League group, at the expense of Ajax. So, losing 4-1 to Atalanta away from home perhaps isn’t as big a shock as it looks, especially because their Italian counterpatrts are the second top-scoring team in Europe’s top-five leagues this season, behind only, Manchester City. Stunning strikes from Josep Ilicic and Remo Freuler and a brace from Hans Hateboer put the hosts 4-0 up before Denis Cheryshev scored a consolation goal for his team and that’s how the match finished. Somehow though, the tie might still not be over. Despite their clear attacking prowess, Atalanta’s defence can be leaky, having conceded 32 goals in just 24 league games in 2019/20. Valencia will have to hope that these defenders have an off night in Spain and that their own players, especially attacking talents like Cheryshev, Goncalo Guedes and Kevin Gameiro play better in front of their own fans, who will be desperate for their team to turn the tie around. The support they will receive and the away goal that Cheryshev scored might just be enough to inspire an unlikely recovery a few weeks from now. One that would deny Atalanta from reaching the quarter-finals on their first appearance in the competition.

The first matches between these eight sides were fascinating and are tantalisingly poised heading into the second legs. It will be very interesting to see if any, some or all four of these teams can produce comebacks in front of their own fans in the second legs next month to make the next stage. Additionally, it will be intriguing to see if next week’s matches featuring the other eight sides left in the tournament follow a similar pattern to the one that these encounters did.