As the season reaches the halfway point in leagues throughout Europe, many of the top teams will once again start turning an eye towards European competition with the round of 16 matches due to kick off in mid-February.
Most of the teams left in the competition have been focusing on domestic competitions since early December, however, as we enter the start of February and the return from the international break, teams will begin to focus on European opposition and the quest to be crowned Champions League winners in 2023 resumes.
Who is playing who in the last 16?
The draw for the last 16 of the Champions League was conducted under a cloud of controversy, as teams had to be drawn twice when a glitch was found during the initial draw, with some teams being placed in the wrong pots.
Once the draw was finalized, however, some interesting ties were thrown up including:
Tuesday 15 February
Sporting CP vs Manchester City
Paris vs. Real Madrid
Wednesday 16 February
Salzburg vs. Bayern
Inter vs Liverpool
Tuesday 22 February
Chelsea vs LOSC Lille
Villarreal vs Juventus
Wednesday 23 February
Benfica vs Ajax
Atletico vs Manchester United
The stand out ties of the round that immediately jump out at you are the matchups between PSG and Real Madrid along with Inter Milan vs Liverpool.
The match between PSG and Real Madrid renews the long rivalry between Lionel Messi and Real – one that stretches back to Messi’s introduction at Barcelona and one that he has relied on over the years. Messi has played in 45 Clasico matches during his time with Barcelona – the same number of matches as his PSG teammate Sergio Ramos who was on the other side of those famous battles.
Messi is the highest scorer in El Clasico matches – notching 26 strikes in his 45 appearances including two hattricks. Both teams head into the match at the top of their respective tables and in good form and it will be an interesting game to see if PSG can finally make the breakthrough this season under Mauricio Pochettino and finally bring success in the Champions League that their owners crave .
Can Manchester United compete at the highest level?
This season has been a struggle for Manchester United. After finishing runners-up in the Premier League last season, they have struggled to form in the league this time around and sacked manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer in November following a run of terrible results. Since bringing in interim manager Ralf Ragnick, they have managed to steady the ship, certainly domestically, however, their performances are still not befitting of one of the giants of European football.
The draw against Atletico is another that pits a former Real Madrid player against a team he will be very familiar with. During his nine seasons with Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo netted 25 goals against Atletico, only notching more against Sevilla (27). Ronaldo has looked out of sorts over the Christmas period, notably showing his frustration when he was substituted during a recent victory over Brentford.
Despite his form, Ronaldo has been prolific in the Champions League this season, netting a goal in each of the five group games he was involved in before being rested for the final match in the group stages once United’s safe passage to the last 16 had been confirmed.
Whilst Ragnick’s United have hardly set the Premier League on fire since his appointment, they have shored up a leaky defence, tightening up at the back and he now seems to have found a formation that suits the team he has inherited rather than forcing the 4- 2-2-2 formation on the team that clearly wasn’t working. The new system and tighter defense may well suit the European style of football and it would be no surprise to see United make a run of it in the Champions League this season.
best of the rest
Defending champions Chelsea were dealt a friendly tie on paper with the first leg of their last 16 tie at home to Lille. Lille have struggled for form this season having won the French League in 2020-21 and currently find themselves in 10th place in the league, 21 points adrift of leaders PSG. It is a tie you would expect high-flying Chelsea to win, especially with the return to the side of Romelu Lukaku after a falling out with the club in late 2023.
Manchester City – beaten in last years’ final by Chelsea – will be hoping to claim their first-ever Champions League title in 2023 and their electric form in the Premier League this season suggests they go into their last 16 tie with Sporting as strong favourites. History, however, may provide Sporting with some hope. Whilst they have never beaten a Premier League club in the group stages of the Champions League, in the knockout stages, it’s a different story. Sporting have won all eight matches in the knock stages over two legs against Premier League sides and Manchester City should be wary of their pedigree in knock out matches.
Another team flying high in the Premier League is Liverpool and they face a potentially tricky tie against Inter in the last 16. Inter are currently sitting at the top of Serie A, four points clear of city rivals AC Milan with a game in hand as they look to defend the title they won for the first time in nine years last season. The goals have been free-flowing for Inter this season, scoring 53 goals in 22 league matches. Liverpool also head into the game in fine form and find themselves in second place in the Premier League behind runaway leaders Manchester City. While they are still outsiders for the Premier League title, they have a strong pedigree in the Champions League as they look to add to their six Champions League/European Cup titles.
With so many strong teams left in the tournament, the winner could come from anywhere, however, we must take into account current form and past history in the Champions League.
As we head into the last 16 ties, Manchester City are the current favorites with Betway to lift the Champions League trophy in 2023 at 3.50. Bayern Munich are second-favorites at 5.00 and Liverpool third at 6.00. Defending champions Chelsea find themselves at 8.50 and look like good money at this stage given their last 16 draw and record in the Champions League.
Manchester United remain an outsider for the title at 21.00 whilst City’s opponents Sporting are the absolute outsiders at 251.00.