European football resumes this week, with the first legs of the elimination rounds getting underway. The Champions League is in its Round of 16 phase, with Juventus, Napoli, and surprise package Atalanta all in action. Meanwhile, the Europa League’s Round of 32 consists of Roma and Inter Milan, who were jettisoned from the UCL after finishing third in their group. We’ll go through each match up, how the teams involved are doing, when and where it is, and who is likely to go on to the next round.
UEFA Champions League:
Atalanta vs Valencia
2/19, Gewiss Stadium,| 3/10, Mestalla
This should be a fantastic series, and very even. Both sides would look at a quarterfinal berth as a huge success, and were lucky to draw each other.
Atalanta have been wildly inconsistent of late, but are in 4th and set to return to the UCL next season. On the pitch, the Nerazzurri have the best offense in Italy, led by Josep Iličić, Dario Gómez, and Duván Zapata. That trio never found itself in the group stage, however, and combined for a measly two goals. Nonetheless, Atalanta finished ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb for second place, as Man City had 1st well wrapped up. Atalanta will need more from its excellent attack if it wants to make a run, which it has the potential to do. Potential is the key word there, because depending on which version of Atalanta appears, the series could end very differently.
Meanwhile, Valencia are in 7th in La Liga, but only two points out of Champions League places. Although the Spanish side won its group, it was not very convincing and also a somewhat weak group, with Ajax, Chelsea, and Lille. But at the 55,000 capacity Mestalla, Valencia are unbeaten and the Champions League occasion will lead to even more of an intimidating atmosphere for Atalanta to deal with.
Prediction: This could go either way, but I think that Valecia’s experience coupled with the Mestalla’s atmosphere for the second leg will give them a slight edge. But if Atalanta is playing at its best, it has the capability to tear apart Valencia’s defense and make this into a high scoring affair.
Napoli vs FC Barcelona
2/25, San Paolo| 3/18, Camp Nou
Two fading giants meet in this matchup. Both of these sides are in poor form, with former title challenger Napoli occupying a shocking 11th in Serie A while Barcelona’s Messi dependency is growing and a feeling of disenchantment surrounds the club. Nonetheless, Barcelona are still expected to challenge for the Champions League title, albeit mainly because of one man.
Napoli have played rather well against top opposition, beating and drawing Liverpool before claiming three points against Juventus, Inter and Lazio, as well. But losses to Lecce, Fiorentina, and many more have confounded its season to a mid table finish, absent of a miracle. If Napoli reverts to its previous level of play against quality sides, it could trouble Barcelona, but it would need to play better than it has in months for that to happen. As for how the Naples side got here, it finished just one point behind Liverpool in a very close race for 1st, but five ahead of Salzburg.
This will be Barcelona’s manager Quique Setién’s first UCL match with the club. He has five wins and two losses with Barcelona, which is two points behind Real Madrid for first in La Liga. Barcelona finished first in the group stage, and also eliminated Inter with a victory at the San Siro.
Prediction: One of these teams has Messi and the other does not. Napoli would really need to catch Barcelona on an off day if it wants a chance at going through. I see Barcelona advancing somewhat comfortably, instead.
Juventus vs Olympique Lyon
2/26, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, 3/17 Allianz Stadium
This seems a relatively simple draw for Juventus, and shouldn’t trouble the Italian champions too much. Juventus do have weaknesses, however, which could give some hope to Lyon.
Juventus have not played particularly well this season, which has put in doubt it’s chokehold grip on the Scudetto. But one of the reasons Cristiano Ronaldo was bought by the Turin club was to win the Champions League, not so much the league, which places further importance on this series. Juventus ended up in 1st place in its group, ahead of Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen. In Serie A Juventus is in the midst of an enthralling title chase, in which Inter, Lazio, and Juve are separated by a sole point. Should Juventus make a run in Europe, it will be interesting to see how those two competitions are balanced.
Lyon are currently in 4th in Ligue 1, one point and one place shy of third place, which was last season’s finish. In the Champions League, Lyon barely got through to the Round of 16, and needed a last day victory to edge out both Benfica and Zenit by one point. RB Leipzig handily won the group.
Prediction: Although Juventus are heavily favored, rightly so, the recent defeat at Hellas Verona and struggles in Serie A have exposed frailties in Turin. Lyon, though, are not the team to take advantage and Juventus will advance.
Ludogorets vs Inter Milan
2/20, Ludogorets Arena| 2/27, San Siro
Inter take on Bulgarian Ludogorets in the Europa League Round of 32. I, uh, hadn’t heard of that team before the draw, and wish I still hadn’t because that would mean we’d be playing in the UCL.
After ending up third in the group, behind Barcelona and Dortmund, Inter drops into the Europa League. It will be interesting to see how much value Conte places on this tournament, especially with the league title chase heating up. Looking at the quality of teams involved, however, Inter has the opportunity to make a real run and perhaps land in Pot 1 of next season’s UCL, if it wins the trophy in May.
I confess to knowing next to nothing about Ludogorets, so here’s some information I found after Google searching them.
Ludogorets is first in the Bulgarian league, and has a five point lead on second. In the Europa League, the team finished in second behind Spanish relegation fighters Espanyol, but ahead of CSKA Moscow and Ferencváros. Again, sorry about not knowing more about Ludogorets, but hopefully Inter easily take care of them.
Prediction: Inter have no reason not to win both games here, and the only real question mark is how much of the first team will be starting, and in turn how much they run up the score.
AS Roma vs KAA Gent
2/20, Stadio Olimpico| 2/27 Ghelamco Arena
AS Roma are the final Italian outfit playing in Europe, and take on the Belgian KAA Gent.
Roma have had a dismal 2020, with a record of 2W-1T-5L since the New Year. The side from the capital remains in the chase for a Champions League spot, but have fallen three points behind Atalanta, whom Roma plays Saturday. Roma also did somewhat poorly in the Europa League, finishing behind İstanbul Başakşehir, and narrowly edging out Borussia Mönchengladbach for second. But perhaps Roma can reverse its slipping fortunes with a streak of victories in the Europa League.
Gent are seven unbeaten in the Belgian league and in second place, but nine points out of Club Brugge in first. Gent also finished first in its group, beating out Wolfsburg and St. Etienne.
Prediction: Gent are not a team for Roma to take lightly, but the two sides will have vastly different levels of quality on display. That will be enough to send Roma through to the Round of 16.
I’ll be cheering a little extra for these teams. And if they move on, the Champions League quarter final draw will be March 20th, with the matches on April 7/8th and 14/15th. Meanwhile, the Europa League draw will be on February 28th, and the games on the 12th and 19th of March.
I hope you enjoy all the football!