Tuesday night brings with it two of the most enticing ties of this season’s Champions League last 16. Liverpool and Bayern Munich, two clubs with an impressive history in the competition, meet at Anfield.
And, in France, Lyon host Barcelona, who will be desperate to avoid a repeat of last year’s ignominious exit at the hands of unfancied Roma.
Liverpool vs Bayern Munich
Only a couple of years ago, Bayern Munich would have been strong favourites heading into a Champions League meeting with Liverpool. Now, though, they are not.
The Bundesliga champions have struggled domestically this season, trailing leaders Borussia Dortmund in the league by two points (having played a game more than their rivals). Given they have won the last six titles, failing to do so this season would be considered a huge disappointment.
Much of the blame has been directed at manager Niko Kovac, who took over in the summer following the departure of Jupp Heynckes. The Croatian has attempted to instil his own ideas, but the transitional period has gone on for far too long.
Bayern, in the Bundesliga, have already lost as many games as they did during the entirety of last season (four). They have conceded 26 goals in 22 games, too, a major concern ahead of their meeting with Jurgen Klopp’s free scoring Liverpool.
Clean sheets have been a rarity for Bayern, and there is a suggestion that they might collapse under the inevitable early pressure at Anfield. Kovac’s side have been in reasonable form of late, but Liverpool will be confident of exposing their clear vulnerabilities.
The Premier League leaders will not, of course, underestimate Bayern. They have been hampered by injuries this season and have shown signs recently that they are close to reaching their very best.
And Liverpool have themselves not been firing on all cylinders of late. The Reds’ form has stuttered somewhat in the league, with draws against Leicester and West Ham allowing Manchester City back into the title race.
They will have been buoyed, though, by a 3-0 victory over Bournemouth in their last outing. And Klopp’s side should be fresher than their opposition, having had an extended break following that win.
The opening minutes of Tuesday night’s first leg will be crucial. Liverpool, under Klopp, are notoriously fast starters, particularly in Europe. And Anfield on a Champions League night can cause jitters amongst even the most resolute of defences.
Bayern will need to be at their most sturdy if they are to come away with anything but a heavy defeat. The aim for Liverpool, meanwhile, will be to take a comfortable lead into the second leg at the Allianz Arena, always a difficult place to get a result.
Kovac’s visitors may find confidence in their European record this season: Bayern were unbeaten in the group stages and finished top ahead of Ajax, Benfica and AEK Athens with relative ease.
Liverpool had to navigate a far more difficult group, though, and won all of their home games, including impressive victories over Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli.
If the home side can repeat that level of performance on Tuesday, Bayern will be in for a long night.
Lyon vs Barcelona
The memories of last year’s embarrassing Champions League exit have not gone away. That defeat against Roma was a major blot on Ernesto Valverde’s otherwise excellent record in his first season as Barcelona manager.
His side, with a commanding 4-1 lead from the first leg of their quarter final, fell to a 3-0 defeat and crashed out on away goals. The response was inevitably vitriolic.
Some have not forgiven Valverde for that, but he has the opportunity to make amends now. On paper, the draw has been kind to Barcelona, pitting them against a Lyon side that, remarkably, qualified for the last 16 having won just one their six group games (they drew the other five).
That one win, though, came away at Manchester City, and Bruno Genesio’s side impressed in the reverse fixture against Pep Guardiola’s side too. But over two legs, Barcelona will be expected to have too much for their Ligue 1 opposition.
Lyon only earlier this month inflicted a first league defeat of the season on a rampant Paris Saint-Germain, which might give them some confidence ahead of their meeting with Barcelona. But they have been frustratingly inconsistent domestically, sitting in third in Ligue 1, 16 points off top.
Genesio’s side, while defensively vulnerable, will hope that their four-pronged attack can do enough to damage Barcelona. Maxwel Cornet was lively against Manchester City, and the emphasis will be on Memphis Depay to create chances (the Dutchman has 12 assists to his name in all competitions this season).
Nabil Fekir has been excellent this season, too, with 11 goals and five assists from 24 appearances. Barcelona, then, must be wary of the threat posed by Lyon in the final third.
The Blaugrana comfortably progressed into the last 16, topping a group including Tottenham and Inter without losing a game. And they are seven points clear at the summit in La Liga, well on their way to a second successive title under Valverde.
The key for Barcelona, though, could be the incredible form of Lionel Messi, who appears to be getting better with age. He has scored 30 goals in 27 appearances across all competitions this season, and Lyon can do little more than hope he has an off day on Tuesday.
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