The UEFA Champions League group stage is always interesting but the level of play and excitement goes up in the knockout stage. Being second best isn’t good enough, and the road to Istanbul gets clearer with each round. Though the task is simple in theory, achieving it is easier said than done: defeat the club in front of you and keep your dream of European glory alive. These are the eight matchups football fans look forward to this year in order of their first leg. For each leg I will provide a few talking points as well as give my prediction.
Atlético Madrid (4th in La Liga) vs Liverpool (1st in PL)
Atlético Madrid are a strong side known for resilient defense, but that defense only becomes a notable advantage when you have the offense to keep it afloat. Joao Felix’s injury is one of the factors that denies Atlético major teeth on the attacking front, whereas Liverpool are as healthy, balanced, and lethal as ever. Liverpool face a tough test in Atlético on their first knockout game in their Champions League title defense but it’s a test they’ll surely pass.
Prediction: Liverpool advances 3–2 on aggregate
Borussia Dortmund (3rd in Bundesliga) vs Paris Saint-Germain (1st in Ligue 1)
Both sides boast exciting players but this is another case of one team that has a massive injury and is in indifferent form coming up against another peaking at possibly the right time. PSG’s flameouts in the Champions League are well documented and Dortmund is surely thinking if last year’s Manchester United could knock out PSG, why can’t they? However, this isn’t last year’s PSG. Dortmund’s defense has also been regularly exposed domestically.
Prediction: PSG advances 5–3 on aggregate
Atalanta (4th in Serie A) vs Valencia (7th in La Liga)
Given that only teams from Europe’s biggest leagues remain, Atalanta and Valencia may not be underdogs in the sense that Ajax were last season, but they’re the closest thing to them in this year’s knockout stage. There’s very little to split between these teams and both will be playing hard knowing that this is their best chance to reach the Quarter Finals. I think I trust Atalanta’s strikers a bit more to get a key away goal in this tie.