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UCL preview last-16 previews: Where each tie will be won and lost

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The narratives have changed since eight of Europe’s top sides went toe-to-toe just under three weeks ago.

This week’s four Champions League ties now look very different than before those opening legs.

The Athletic’s Thom Harris takes a deep dive into the last-16 fixtures coming up this Tuesday and Wednesday…


Benfica vs Club Bruges

(First leg result: Club Bruges 0-2 Benfica)

Benfica

Things couldn’t be going much better for Lisbon giants Benfica right now.

Eight points clear at the top of the Primeira Liga, and firmly in control of their European fate, perhaps the only blot on their copybook has been their penalty shootout heartache against Braga last month in the Portuguese version of the FA Cup, which was one of just two competitive defeats for them all season (Braga also beat them 3-0 in the league in the first game back after the World Cup break).

Having dried their eyes with £106million of Chelsea’s finest banknotes after selling Enzo Fernandez, manager Roger Schmidt’s side have won three domestic games on the bounce since that cup exit and also looked impressive as they cruised to first-leg victory in Belgium against Club Bruges, a huge step towards securing a second consecutive Champions League quarter-final.

Bringing a 2-0 lead back to their Estadio da Luz, where they haven’t been beaten in 10 months, should leave Benfica confident in their abilities to see this one through.

While Goncalo Ramos and Joao Mario continue to write the attacking headlines, Benfica’s ferocious full-backs are giving them a forward thrust in wide areas.

Particularly out on the left, where Alejandro Grimaldo — Alex to his friends — has been one of their finest creators, making more passes into the opposition penalty area than any other player in the Portuguese top flight, while contributing two goals and a league-high seven assists. And this is a full-back, remember.

Having also received 272 progressive passes throughout the domestic league season — 66 more than any other player in the division — the flying Spaniard also represents a crucial outlet for his side, allowing Benfica to build up and establish themselves in opposition territory with a ball out to the left.

The 27-year-old has been just as influential in Europe, notably sliding a pass through to allow Rafa Silva to sentence Juventus to a shock group-stage exit from the Champions League.

With two assists and two long-range screamers scored already in this season’s competition, don’t be surprised to see Grimaldo chomping at the bit for more tomorrow night.

Club Bruges

Bruges emerged battered and bruised from that first leg, and the data doesn’t look good for Scott Parker’s chances of masterminding a miracle in Lisbon.

Only able to generate a 0.3 expected goals (xG) figure while conceding a massive 2.9 one at the other end, the Belgians now travel to a stadium that has seen Benfica accumulate over 2.0 xG in all but two of their 16 matches there this season.

As if that wasn’t enough, of the 45 sides to have lost the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie by two or more goals in front of their own fans, only one has managed to progress to the next round — Manchester United, when they came back to beat Paris Saint-Germain at this stage four years ago on the now-defunct away goals rule.

A worrying feature of former Fulham and Bournemouth manager Parker’s so-far troublesome Belgian adventure has been his misfiring strikers, with some of Bruges’ standout players in earlier rounds struggling to find the net since his appointment in late December.

Bruges are without an open-play goal from a recognised centre-forward since October 29 — 19 games ago — when Ferran Jutgla volleyed home against struggling Ostend.

The goalscoring burden has fallen to midfielders Casper Nielsen and Hans Vanaken, while wingers Andreas Skov Olsen, who hasn’t played since January due to injury, and Noa Lang have been the primary sources of inspiration.

Lang was one of the few bright sparks in that 2-0 first-leg defeat, as he attempted 15 carries and won 18 ground duels in a spirited individual performance. However, he did not manage a single touch in the Benfica penalty area as he was marshalled safely into wide areas, unable to single-handedly provide the penetration he so often has, and that his side will so desperately need in Lisbon.

The Belgians have already won, heavily, on Portuguese soil this year — a 4-0 thumping of Porto in the group stage — but that was back in September and given their current struggles, they are probably odds-against repeating that feat down in the capital.

(First leg result: Borussia Dortmund 1-0 Chelsea)

Chelsea

Sometimes, for all the data analysis in the world, the most valuable conclusions are the most obvious.

In that regard, The Athletic brings you an exclusive: If Chelsea are going to make the last eight, they’re going to need to score here.

Graham Potter’s team nervously edged themselves to a 1-0 win against Leeds at the weekend but they still didn’t look as fluent as their manager would like.

And with just five goals from 149 attempts since the start of the calendar year, representing an expected goals underperformance of 10.1, their shocking finishing run is surely due a turn in the road.

If anything, then, the key to a Chelsea comeback could lie amid the intangibles.

Graham Potter’s side had eight shots on target in that 1-0 defeat in Germany on February 15 — their most without scoring ever in a Champions League match — showing that they clearly know the way through this Dortmund defence.

Joao Felix skied two glorious chances in Germany, while Kai Havertz attempted four penalty-box shots to no avail, now 12 attempts and 583 minutes without a goal. Particularly for the high-volume shot-takers, plummeting confidence and belief could make all the difference.

Breaking the duck may just be a case of sheer force of will. In front of a packed, supportive Stamford Bridge, with no option but to attack to save their Champions League lives, Chelsea certainly aren’t out of this tie.

Borussia Dortmund

Dortmund, on the other hand, took another big step in their title tussle with Bayern Munich, winning their 10th game in succession across all competitions against RB Leipzig on Friday. The sides are level with 49 points each at the top of the Bundesliga table, though Bayern’s goal difference is way better.

Scoring 27 times and conceding just eight in that remarkable run, they head to London with sky-high confidence, even though they are without a win on English soil in the Champions League since 2013 — the year they reached the final.

While Chelsea were caught out by the searing pace of Karim Adeyemi for the only goal of the first leg, it’s the form of Julian Brandt that has arguably been the biggest boost for head coach Edin Terzic this season, with the 26-year-old already just one goal away from matching his best goalscoring season in the Bundesliga.

Also an inspired creator, averaging 4.9 shot-creating passes per 90 minutes in the domestic league, Brandt showed glimpses of his exceptional technical quality in that first leg. Silky-smooth as he relentlessly received the ball between the lines, he also tested Kepa Arrizabalaga with a low drive, and created four opportunities for his team-mates.

In front of goal, only Erling Haaland of Manchester City and Leicester’s James Maddison are over-performing their expected goals numbers by a larger margin in Europe’s big five leagues, with Brandt finding the net eight times from an xG figure of 3.1. Such stats point to a clinical finisher in fine form, with his confidence reflected by a streak of 17 consecutive games in which the German has taken on a strike.

A side averaging over 2.5 goals per game in 2023 travelling to take on one averaging 0.42 means there shouldn’t be any reason for Terzic’s side to feel overawed. Looking to pounce on any confidence-related mistakes will surely be the Germans’ best route to their 10th appearance in the European Cup/Champions League quarter-finals.

(First leg result: AC Milan 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur)

Tottenham Hotspur

It’s been a typically up and down few weeks since Tottenham were defeated at San Siro, briefly recharging their top-four hopes with big wins over London rivals West Ham and Chelsea, but then being dumped from the FA Cup by second-tier Sheffield United and defeated 1-0 at Wolves on Saturday.

Home comforts have certainly helped Antonio Conte’s side push on since derby-day defeat to visitors Arsenal in January, winning their last three games on their own patch (champions Manchester City were their other victims) with five goals scored and zero conceded, renewing hopes of a second-leg comeback against the Serie A champions.

If Tottenham are to progress, they’ll need a plan B against Stefano Pioli’s aggressive back five, who aren’t afraid to hound and harry high up the pitch to close down the space for balls through to Conte’s forward-running wingers Dejan Kulusevski and Son Heung-min.

In particular, Simon Kjaer stuck to Harry Kane like glue in that first leg. Even if it did mean occasionally stepping onto the wrong side of the law, the Denmark international did not allow the England captain any time on the ball to turn and find his team-mates.

With fellow central defenders Malick Thiaw and Pierre Kalulu able to track those runs, and wing-backs on hand if they tried to go wider, Spurs consistently ran into a five-man red-and-black wall.

Fouled six times on the night, Kane consequently recorded his lowest passing accuracy in the opposition half all season, seeing just 46.2 per cent of his 27 passes find their target.

Spurs will be expecting to have more of the ball on Wednesday as Milan look to protect their lead, so we’re likely to see more time in the middle third for Kane, and less space in behind for his forward runners.

Without an early home goal, this has the potential to be a frustrating evening for Tottenham. Maybe Oliver Skipp has another thunderbolt up his sleeve after that goal against Chelsea last weekend?

AC Milan

After a mini-collapse following the World Cup break saw them concede three, four and five in successive outings during a run of seven winless games, solidity looks to have been restored across the AC Milan back line — even taking into account their narrow defeat at Fiorentina on Saturday.

Serie A’s reigning champions may find themselves 18 points behind a rampant Napoli but the faint whiff of a first Champions League quarter-final in 11 years saw belief come flooding back to San Siro on an electric European night against Spurs.

After keeping Kane quiet, Pioli’s men were almost faultless in a 2-0 win over Atalanta last weekend, conceding just three shots to Italy’s third-top scorers, allowing just 0.1 xG and zero shots on target. It’s the first time in seven years, and 318 competitive games, that Gian Piero Gasperini’s famous free-scorers from Bergamo have had so few goal attempts in a match.

Behind this remarkable turnaround has been not only the switch to a trio of centre-backs, but the sudden emergence of a particularly promising one, in the form of Thiaw.

Signed from Schalke at the start of the season having helped them win promotion from the German second division, the 21-year-old had only managed 232 minutes for his new club before being thrown in at the Champions League deep end against Spurs. In an unerring European debut, however, he made the most tackles by any player across the round of 16 to that point, winning the ball back seven times for his team.

Being hypercritical, the Germany Under-21 centre-back probably should have put the tie to bed too, but he headed a chance wide from six yards.

Bayern Munich vs Paris Saint-Germain

(First leg result: Paris Saint-Germain 0-1 Bayern Munich)

Bayern Munich

Speaking of Germans and missed opportunities, perennial Bundesliga champions Bayern may be slightly dissatisfied with the slender advantage they take into the home second leg of their glitz-and-glamour tie with Pars Saint-Germain.

Although Julian Nagelsmann’s side couldn’t carve out too many clear-cut opportunities, they were able to completely dominate the midfield battle, as Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka strode across the French turf without too much resistance from PSG’s flat 4-4-2.

Kimmich in particular, attempting four shots on goal, switching the play 10 times, and creating four opportunities for his team-mates, conducted the passing procession with his usual elegance and precision.

The Germans’ experienced No 6 hasn’t ever found his team-mates in the final third as often in a single Champions League game, with those 23 passes demonstrating the ease with which he was able to progress the ball through a passive home midfield and into his more-advanced attacking colleagues.

All in all, it was a composed, controlled performance by the visitors, although a terrifying late cameo from Kylian Mbappe, who didn’t start as he was coming back from injury, made it very clear Bayern might live to regret not killing this tie off while they had the chance.

Paris Saint-Germain

For Christophe Galtier’s side, the three weeks between the two legs against Bayern have been transformative.

That 1-0 defeat extended an unprecedented three-game losing streak for the French champions, but they now head into the decider against the German champions off the back of three consecutive wins, taking a huge stride to what would be a record 11th Ligue 1 title with a 3-0 away victory over closest challengers Marseille last weekend.

Mbappe’s return to full fitness — and to devastating form — has clearly been the catalyst, scoring four of their seven goals in seismic domestic wins over Lille and Marseille, including that thumping volley at the Stade Velodrome. He then scored an injury-time goal against Nantes on Saturday which took him to 201 for PSG, more than any other player in the club’s history.

Also netting twice in 33 minutes off the bench in the first leg, before seeing both disallowed for marginal offsides, the France striker has emphatically underlined his intentions to blow this tie open.

One man who will be particularly pleased with the return of the 24-year-old will be Lionel Messi, having provided both assists for Mbappe in that destruction of Marseille while scoring the other himself.

Almost the opposite of Kimmich, Messi sorely missed his partner’s verticality at home to Bayern, only able to move the ball into the final third nine times — the second-lowest tally of any Champions League match in his illustrious career.

It’s not often that one player can turn such a high-profile game completely on its head, but we’ve all seen Mbappe do exactly that before.

The first leg might not have quite lived up to the billing, but don’t give up on this heavyweight clash just yet.

(Top image: designed by Samuel Richardson; Joao Felix by Stuart Franklin; Harry Kane by Matthias Hangst; Lionel Messi by Frank Fife/AFP; all via Getty Images)

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