Like most European sporting events in the past year, the 2021 Union of European Football Associations Champions League (UCL) round of 16 is taking place behind closed doors. Despite the empty stadiums, fans will surely be glued to their screens to watch the top players in the world go at it.
Playing a two-legged tie without fans in the stands eliminates the very essence of a home-game advantage. Some teams cannot even play on their home turf due to COVID-19 travel restrictions; these games are being held on neutral grounds that serve as makeshift “home” stadiums in countries that allow for travel. As such, goals scored in “away” matches will continue to have more weight, acting as tiebreakers if aggregate scores end in a draw.
Of the 15 countries represented in the group stage, only six remain. Spain (ESP) and Germany (GER) lead the round of 16 in terms of representation, as four teams from each country go into the knockout stage. England (ENG) and Italy (ITA) follow suit with three clubs each, followed by France (FRA) and Portugal (POR), each with one team. Madrid is the only city represented by more than one club at this stage in the competition.
RB Leipzig (GER) vs. Liverpool (ENG)
Bundesliga title contenders and last year’s semi-finalists RB Leipzig face the reigning Premier League champion in Liverpool, who have been plagued by injuries this season and have recently lost four consecutive Premier League matches. Despite not being in top form, Liverpool will surely mount a challenge against Leipzig as they hope to reach its third Champions League final in four years and contend for a seventh UCL title.
Barcelona (ESP) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (FRA)
Perhaps the most intriguing matchup of this round, five-time UCL winners Barcelona and last year’s Champions League runner-up Paris Saint-Germain will square off. After a rough start to La Liga, Barcelona climbed its way to third place with the help of 18 goals from star Lionel Messi. Messi and his squad will have to keep up with the 22-year-old World Cup winner Kylian Mbappé and three-time Champions League winner Keylor Navas, as both are seeking revenge after their defeat in last year’s final.
Porto (POR) vs. Juventus (ITA)
The only Portuguese club at this stage of the competition, Porto will have to keep up its hot streak for a chance at a third Champions League title. This is no small task, however, as they will have to play against recent Italian Super Cup winners Juventus, who also seek their third European title and are led by the five-time UCL winner and five-time Ballon d’Or recipient Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sevilla (ESP) vs. Borussia Dortmund (GER)
Reigning Europa League champions Sevilla are currently fourth in La Liga due to an impressive six-game winning streak. The Andalusians face an attacking Borussia Dortmund, a team made up of experienced veterans and exciting young phenoms, including the goal-scoring duo of Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland.
Lazio (ITA) vs. Bayern Munich (GER)
This is a particularly exciting competition for Lazio, as it is the team’s first round of 16 qualification in over 20 years. Simone Inzaghi and his men take on last year’s champs in Bayern Munich, who recently became the second team in European football history to win six major trophies in the same year. Despite a few injuries and medical absences, Bayern has no shortage of outstanding players with the 2020 FIFA Best Men’s Player of the Year Robert Lewandowski leading the attacking line.
Atlético Madrid (ESP) vs. Chelsea (ENG)
One of the toughest matchups, this two-legged tie sees current La Liga leaders up against a recently revived Chelsea. Having been Champions League runner-up three times, Los Rojiblancos will look to finally win the competition with the help of La Liga’s number-two goal-scorer Luis Suárez. Under new manager Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea went on a tear, winning six straight games against Premier League teams. Like Dortmund, the Blues’ side features a mix of experienced players and young talent, including crucial academy graduates Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Borussia Mönchengladbach (GER) vs. Manchester City (ENG)
Gladbach’s inconsistent form has it currently eighth in the Bundesliga. However, the club made history this past December, making it past the Champions League group stage for the first time in 43 years. The German side faces current Premier League leaders Manchester City, who are on an incredible 17-match Premier League unbeaten streak. Despite having never won the Champions League before, Manchester City is among the favorites to win this year’s UCL title with the help of exciting players such as Kevin De Bruyne, İlkay Gündoğan and Phil Foden.
Atalanta (ITA) vs. Real Madrid (ESP)
Last but certainly not least, Atalanta will play 13-time Champions League winners Real Madrid. Currently Atalanta has the second-highest number of goals in Serie A with a total of 53 goals in the league. Real Madrid is led by legendary manager and former player Zinedine Zidane, who has won the competition with the club five times in various roles. Like Liverpool, Los Merengues have had their fair share of injuries this season, with nine starters currently unavailable. Nevertheless, the players will shoot for a 14th Champions League trophy, hoping to break yet another record.
Despite increased injuries, empty stadiums, compressed schedules and many other consequences of the pandemic, this year’s UCL round of 16 will bring extraordinary goals, unforgettable moments and a whole flurry of emotions to fans across the world. As for my quick predictions, I expect to see Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid in the quarterfinals.
Errata: This article originally stated that Lionel Messi has 16 goals and Sevilla is in third place in La Liga. Messi has 18 goals, and Sevilla is in fourth place in La Liga. The News-Letter regrets this error.