It’s the prize that every club in Europe wants to win. It’s an indicator of the prominence of a football club across the continent. On February 14th, the Champions League returns for its knockout stages, and this year it is as wide open as ever as the competition begins to pick up the pace.
Due to the FIFA 2022 World Cup, the group stage ended in November, which was earlier than usual. But now, with international duties out of the way for the players, the road to the final in Istanbul on June 10th can continue and really heat up.
The knockout stages begin with the round of 16. UEFA have drawn eight intriguing ties that include some real heavyweights facing off at a relatively early time in the competition, but what teams are in with a chance of making the quarter-finals?
Some of the match-ups here will be real blockbuster games. In a repeat of last year’s final in Paris, the current holders, Real Madrid, will meet Liverpool. The two sides have played each other several times in the later stages of the competition over the previous five years, with Madrid getting the better of Jurgen Klopp’s side on all occasions. Both teams are playing poorly in their domestic leagues this season, so what impact will that have on this European Cup tie?
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“I don’t know how to analyse this particular match-up because we don’t really know what to expect from these teams. But, if you’re not performing in the league the way you should, I believe that they should turn it up in the Champions League because that’s their way to save their season or their year.”
Elsewhere, French and German league champions PSG and Bayern Munich will play one another in a repeat of the 2020 final. Both teams are finding it more difficult than usual to win their domestic titles at the moment, and that should keep their passion alight to succeed in this tie.
PSG are one of two Middle-East-funded clubs in the competition that are desperate to win their first Champions League title. The French champions, along with Manchester City, have come close over recent years but have agonisingly missed out at the final hurdle. But this year, with some of the usual favourites set to go out early, it could finally be the time for one of those two clubs to get their hands on the trophy.
“I think because some of the big hitters are leaving perhaps a little bit earlier than expected, that opens the door for the likes of PSG and Man City to get through to the final semi-finals relatively smoothly,” said Emma Sanders, BBC Sport Online.
“And then it’s just whether or not they can kind of turn up on the day when it matters. I think, for me, it’s one of those two to win it this year.”
Elsewhere in Europe, another team making headlines in Italy are Luciano Spaletti’s Napoli. The Serie A leaders have already beaten big European teams this season, including Liverpool and Ajax, during the group stages. They play Eintracht Frankfurt in the round of 16, and given their form, they could be a dark horse to make it all the way to Istanbul. First and foremost, they will work towards winning their first Italian league title since 1990.
“What matters the most for Napoli is to get the city title over the line. I think the Champions League has to be viewed as a bonus,” explained Nima Roodsari, co-host of ‘The Italian Football Podcast’.
“I don’t think you can play the way that Napoli has played, not just in the Serie A but also in the Champions League, and not have that echo throughout Europe. At home, at the Stadio Diego Maradona, they can beat anyone and have beaten anyone. So, I think a quarter-final is the bare minimum we can ask of them, and from there, it really is down to what happens on the day.”
So, it’s all to play for as Europe’s biggest club competition, the Champions League, resumes. Will Real Madrid claim an impressive sixth title in nine years? Or can dark horses Napoli shock the continent? We will have to wait and see.