Can PSG exorcise Barcelona demons without Neymar?February 16, 2021
The Champions League returns after a two-month hiatus as the first legs of the round of 16 begin this week, highlighted by RB Leipzig facing Liverpool and a rematch of the infamous 2017 matchup between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.
However, matches involving English clubs have moved to neutral venues due to travel from Britain being banned in most countries over concerns about a COVID-19 variant. Despite this change, away goals remains the primary tiebreaker.
It’s a bizarre wrinkle, but it adds another layer to some tasty matchups.
With Leipzig, Liverpool, PSG, Barcelona, Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund, Porto and Juventus all scheduled for this week’s action, here is one storyline to watch for each game.
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Barcelona
Can PSG exorcise its demons without Neymar?
When the draw was unveiled, many were immediately gripped by the Paris Saint-Germain revenge tour against Barcelona.
Most fans remember that infamous win for Barcelona over PSG in the round of 16 during the 2016-17 Champions League. Barca overcame a 4-0 deficit from the first leg, then scored a late flurry of goals to win the second leg 6-1 – 6-5 on aggregate – to advance to the quarterfinals.
Ironically, Neymar was a major protagonist for Barca during the improbable remontada. Four years later, the Brazilian superstar is representing Paris, albeit he’s sidelined for yet another knockout-stage matchup.
Two months ago, PSG would’ve been seen as a favourite. However, Barcelona has comfortably won every league game in 2021 based on their expected goals output and Lionel Messi’s rich vein of form has predictors feeling uncertain now.
Neymar’s absence, plus Angel Di Maria’s, further complicates PSG’s quest to exorcise their demons from 2017. Moise Kean and Kylian Mbappe helped the Parisians overcome Nice this past weekend, and they’re going to be the dangermen for Mauricio Pochettino’s side, especially given the attack’s recent decline.
Given Sergino Dest’s propensity to push high up the pitch, it wouldn’t be surprising if Pochettino tries to exploit that aspect of Barcelona’s system. Their pass map from the win over Nice shows how much PSG’s buildup favoured the left flank, with Mbappe mainly occupying that side.
That could be PSG’s road to victory and the first step in overcoming the traumatic defeat in 2017.
RB Leipzig vs. Liverpool
Will Leipzig replicate tactics from Man United win?
Even though the match was played more than two months ago, RB Leipzig’s 3-2 win over Man United in the group stage might provide the blueprint for coach Julian Nagelsmann to stymy Liverpool.
In that December victory, Leipzig demolished United in the first half by quickly hitting cross-field passes from the right flank into Angelino, who set up or scored all three goals. Most of the Germans’ progressive passes in the final third targeted the left, and the Spanish wingback was heavily involved in the team’s buildup as well when glancing at the pass map from that game.
Given Liverpool’s current defensive frailties, and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s willingness to push high up the pitch, that could be an issue for the Reds.
In fact, the individual battle between Alexander-Arnold and Angelino will likely make or break the matchup. Their impacts in the final third for their respective clubs are indescribable, but their statistical radars help paint the picture.
But should Leipzig replicate their tactics from the United game in December, it would be a paradoxical twist because the diagonal switches to a full-back have been a staple for Liverpool over the past few years. It’d be a Shakespearean tragedy if that was their downfall.
Sevilla vs. Borussia Dortmund
Can En-Nesyri expose Dortmund’s defence?
There are few European-based strikers in better form than Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri, and with Dortmund failing to keep a clean sheet since Jan. 3, this could be a woefully lopsided matchup.
Luis Suarez is the only player who’s scored more non-penalty goals in La Liga this season than En-Nesyri. He’s also third in non-penalty expected goals in the league, behind only Karim Benzema and Lionel Messi. But the Moroccan is more than just a composed finisher. He’s strong in the air, presses intelligently and regularly recovers possession in those situations as well, which is backed up by his statistical radar.
Sevilla also enters this matchup on a seven-game run without conceding a goal and has suffered just one defeat since Dec. 5, which came against La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid. All the more reason why En-Nesyri is in a prime position to secure a place in the quarterfinals for the Andalusians.
Juventus vs. Porto
Who will be Juventus’s creative spark?
If there’s one major criticism of Juventus’s campaign thus far, it’s the team’s inconsistent chance creation.
Cristiano Ronaldo is Juventus’s leader in shot-creating actions (SCA) – defined as the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls – in Serie A this season, per FBRef.com. Juan Cuadrado is next on the list but he’s ruled out with an injury. Alvaro Morata’s 12 goal-creating actions (GCA) leads all Juve players, and he’s integral to the team’s buildup, as is Federico Chiesa (47 SCA and seven GCA).
But Dejan Kulusevski is the player who should start in place of the injured Cuadrado to unlock Porto’s disciplined defensive shape.
Whether it’s as a right wingback or behind Morata and Ronaldo, Kulusevski possesses the improvisation to keep Porto’s defence on its toes.