Andy Brassell on the Champions League: City and Spurs face tricky tests while Juve are overlooked
We were gifted an exceptional last 16 Champions League draw today and Andy Brassell has digested the ties to pull out the following three takeaways...
Manchester City with chance to live up to favourite's tag
Pep Guardiola's side remain the outright favourites for the Champions League, despite the fact that City have only reached the semi-finals once (under Manuel Pellegrini in 2016) and the coach himself hasn't won it since Barcelona's 2011 triumph at Wembley. After a comfortable enough group stage, the stakes rise considerably against Real Madrid.
You will hear plenty in the build-up to the tie about how Zinedine Zidane is facing a completely different task to the one he undertook in his first spell in charge at Bernabéu, when they won that aforementioned tie with City on the way to Zizou's first of three straight Champions League titles. This is true. You will also hear and read that some of the central tenets of that three-peat, notably the Casemiro/Kroos/Modrić midfield, have seen better days. This is also true.
El Real remain very dangerous, however. Sérgio Ramos and Raphaël Varane remain formidable, Karim Benzema is enjoying an Indian summer as he approaches 32, Fede Valverde has revitalised the midfield and up-and-comers like Rodrygo and Ferland Mendy are beginning to weigh in. That's without mentioning Eden Hazard's return for this tie, Gareth Bale's continued presence and Madrid's excellent form in the back end of the group stage. If City can knock them over, then they'll be a serious contender.
My suggestion here is to back Real Madrid to win the first leg at 2.72
Mourinho back to having it all to prove versus Leipzig
Remember when the Champions League was José Mourinho's own private kingdom? If it feels like a while ago now, that's because it was. His biggest achievement this side of Inter's 2010 win was leading Real Madrid out of their six-year failure to progress past the last 16, and it's been a case of diminishing returns ever since. His last few meaningful knockout round ties in the competition - against Paris Saint-Germain with Chelsea and facing Sevilla as Manchester United boss - have ended in failure.
It wasn't just the destinations that were undesirable on those occasions but the journeys. The man who we thought of as all-knowing for so long was out-thought by two coaches who are hardly recognised as tactical masterminds; Laurent Blanc left his last job more than three years ago and Vincenzo Montella is hanging onto his post at Fiorentina having being dumped by Sevilla after four months.
Nobody's denying Mourinho's magnificent Champions League history, but he needed a rethink. To his credit it appears he has recognised that, with João Sacramento brought in from Lille to inject fresh ideas. Spurs will need them against Leipzig, for whom Julian Nagelsmann has done an outstanding job. There's more to Nagelsmann's game than pressing and counters - Leipzig can switch rhythms at will, like his Hoffenheim team but with more talent (which might even include Erling Braut Haaland by February). Mourinho outwitting the German would prove that he really has changed his spots.
A back of Tottenham and Leipzig to draw the first leg looks the play at 3.75
Juve looking good after kind draw
If Juve could have picked their own draw, they probably would have picked Lyon. The French side scraped into the knockouts after coming back from two down against Leipzig, which deserves credit, but under the shambolic reign of Sylvinho and now the unpopular Rudi Garcia they have gone from last season's inconsistent to this campaign's tepid. Maurizio Sarri's side shouldn't need any encouragement but if they did, Memphis Depay and Jeff Reine-Adelaïde both going down with ACL injuries this weekend would have given it to them.
Even after this stroke of luck, though, Juve aren't even in the top five of the tournament winner market, which is a surprise. Granted, they've not always played with great style under Sarri but the results are impossible to argue with, especially in a Champions League context. The attacking potency of Cristiano Ronaldo together with Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín gives them a lot of options. The three only started together in Serie A for the first time on Sunday.
Long-term, Juve's squad structure is financially unsustainable- they were trying to sell Dybala and Higuaín in the summer to balance the books - but their current squad shape resembles Real Madrid's 2017 squad. It won't work forever but it gives them a luxury bench for now, and a great crack at this season's trophy, for which they're generously priced.
The 13.00 available on Juve winning the tournament surely looks worth a bet even if only for a trade.
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