A new rule added to this year’s addition in the UEFA Champions League playoff is the removal of the away goal. Goals, whether they are scored at home or away, are equivalent to a single goal on aggregate. Therefore, the importance of scoring the goal at your opponent’s pitch does not exist.
The controversial draw for the Round of 16 has created some very interesting matchups in this round. PSG will take on Real Madrid, a potential homecoming for Kylian Mbappé. Three key players for Manchester City return to their home country to show their talent to the away crowd. Liverpool will have a front-row seat to a potential summer transfer signing in Inter’s Lautaro Martinez. The defending UCL champs will face off against last year’s Ligue 1 title winners. Finally, Cristiano Ronaldo looks to keep his UCL unbeaten streak against Atlético Madrid.
Paris St-Germain (1) vs. Real Madrid (0)
Real Madrid with their talisman, Karim Benzema, on the mend took on a full-strength PSG. Benzema suffered his injury on January 24th during a domestic game against Elche CF. He was subbed off in the match after some discomfort in his left leg. It was later determined that he had suffered a muscle cramp in his hamstring. He has dealt with hamstring injuries in the past and management at Madrid felt it was best to keep him out of play for several weeks to allow his hamstring to heal in the lead up to this match. Meanwhile, PSG was sporting a full lineup for only the second time in over two and a half months when Neymar Jr returned from his ankle injury.
The other headline of the match was Kylian Mbappé coming out party for Real Madrid and their fans. It has been highly speculated that Mbappé has already signed, in principle, a multi-million pound deal with the Madrid squad for next summer.
The match played out very tight until the dying minutes. PSG showed their plethora of weapons throughout the match with chances by Messi, Mbappé and Neymar. Thibeault Courtois stood tall in his goal, steering away the quality chances. Courtois’ counterpart, Gianluigi Donnarumma, had a relatively quiet night only seeing 3 shots and none of them on target. At the hour mark, Mbappé was taken down in the box by Dani Carvajal and was immediately awarded a penalty kick. Leo Messi took the penalty. His kick was directly to the bottom right corner but Courtois beat him to the spot, keeping the match a draw.
In the final minute of extra time, Mbappé showed exactly why he is deserving of the multi-million-pound contract. A behind-the-back pass from Neymar Jr left Mbappé with a one-on-one opportunity just outside the box. A second defender quickly joined the defence against Mbappé. A stellar through ball between the two defenders gave him open space towards the goal and he found the opposite corner of the goal to give PSG the first-leg victory at home.
Sporting CP (0) vs. Manchester City (5)
It was utter dominance from Manchester City against the defending Primeira Liga champions. In the 7th minute, City scored a controversial goal by Riyad Mahrez. The debate was whether Kevin De Bruyne was on-side when he passed it to Mahrez. The original call on the field was a goal and after a further review by VAR, the goal stood. By the end of the match, the Cityzens did not need this goal to give them a victory.
Bernardo Silva went to work after the first goal, scoring a beautiful half volley off the crossbar and into the goal. He scored the fourth and fifth goals to give himself a hat-trick in his home country but his final goal was disallowed due to an offside on the play. Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling registered a goal in the match to give City an incredible 5-0 victory over Sporting heading into the Etihad for the second leg.
RB Salzburg (1) vs. Bayern Munich (1)
It was a bit of David versus Goliath in the matchup between RB Salzburg and Bayern Munich. Both teams faced off against each other in last year’s UCL group stage where Bayern took both victories by a multi-goal margin. Going into the match, Bayern were double up in a loss in their previous domestic game against mid-table VfL Bochum. RB Salzburg was riding a two-game win streak.
David struck first off a counter-attack goal by the youngster Chukwebuike “Junior” Adamu. He scored his first goal in his first appearance at the Champions League tournament. Salzburg had several opportunities at goal but could not get by Ulreich for a second time. The offensive chances and possession were all Bayern. They managed 9 shots on target and 72% of the possession. It wasn’t until Kingsley Coman found the back of the goal in the 90th minute. A Bayern cross into the box with a glancing header by Thomas Müller towards goal somehow found a running Coman to the left of goal who found an open space on the near post.
A heartbreaking result for Salzburg, who now has to travel to Munich without their much-deserved lead.
Inter Milan (0) vs. Liverpool (2)
The difference in talent quality determined the result of the opening match. Inter Milan lost three of their top six scorers from a season ago. Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and Christian Eriksen were a large part of last year’s squad that ran away with the Serie A title. The current squad is in second place in Serie A, in a tight battle for the top spot to their city rivals. On the other side of the pitch, Liverpool is fielding a team with many top players in the Premier League and around the world. The headliner of which is potentially the top striker in the world, Mo Salah. His running mates at the front are Sadio Mané and up-and-comer Diogo Jota. On the back end, the Reds are sporting some versatility in Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. Those are only the headliners, Liverpool also sports a lot of talent behind them.
Both teams had quality chances in the first half, hitting the woodwork on several occasions. It took until the 75th minute to break the tie, Firmino took a glancing header at the Trent Alexander-Arnold corner that completely averted the keeper into the opposite side of the goal. Another cross from Alexander-Arnold led to the second goal and final for Liverpool. Virgil van Dijk beat the two defenders surrounding him and headed the ball to the penalty spot. Mané was the first player to the ball but he let a goal facing Salah take the shot on goal that maneuvered through the sea of bodies and into the goal. The Inter keeper had no sightline to the ball and could not make the save.
Chelsea (2) vs. LOSC Lille (0)
As the defending Champions League winners, Chelsea competed in the FIFA Club World Cup tournament in Abu Dhabi. Alongside domestic league matches, Chelsea has put in a lot of miles in roughly a week and a half. Meanwhile, Lille has only been playing domestic fixtures since the group stage of the UCL. It would seem that Chelsea is in the perfect spot for Lille to take advantage.
It was the group from Stamford Bridge that struck first in the match off a brilliant header by Kai Havertz. A perfect opportunity for Havertz to show his importance to the squad after their £100 million man, Romulu Lukaku, has struggled to meet expectations and started the match on the bench. N’Golo Kanté beautifully set up Christian Pulisic for the second goal for Chelsea. Kanté drew both defenders to him and nicely kicked it out to Pulisic on his left side, giving Pulisic a free shot on target which he made no mistake. This was a crucial goal for Chrisitan Pulisic after not scoring a goal for his club since January 8th in a FA Cup draw. Lille could not answer any of the goals and will return home trying to overcome a 2-0 deficit on aggregate.
Villareal (1) vs. Juventus (1)
In the first match that these two franchises have ever played against each other in their histories, the matchup seems relatively even. Juventus is in the fourth position in Serie A and Villareal sits sixth in LaLiga. Juventus’ recent acquisition and superstar Dusan Vlahovic scores the fastest goal by a starter in Champions League history. He scored a brilliant goal, accepting the high pass off his chest and quickly making a half turn to put his first touch into the opposite corner of the goal at 32 seconds into his UCL debut. Villareal found their equalizer in the 66th minute, when Dani Parejo was not checked in his run into the box and Étienne Capoue found him, which led to an easy tap-in by Parejo. The first small mistake by the Juventus defenders caused the equalizer and eventually the final result of the match.
Atlético Madrid (1) vs. Manchester United (1)
This matchup was between two struggling teams. Manchester United came into this match riding a two-game win streak but there have been many rumours and poor play surrounding the club since the appointment of Ralf Rangnick. Rumours of the captaincy changing hands based on the decision of the players have circulated. Players discuss their hardships in training to the media, likening them to the training sessions in the comedy series, Ted Lasso. Consistent poor play by key individuals on the team has also contributed to the disappointing results of the team. On the other hand, Atlético Madrid is also riding a winning streak but has yet to beat teams higher in the table since the last round of the Champions League. Losses against Barcelona, Sevilla and Real Madrid have pushed them down to the fifth spot in the table and out of next year’s UCL spots.
An awful defensive blunder led to Atléti’s first goal. A cross behind the “sleeping” defenders of United allowed a free-running João Félix to make a beautiful diving header to the ball that bounced off the woodwork and into the opposite netting. The goal marked a dominant first half for Atlético Madrid. In the meantime, United looked completely out of sorts in the half. Defensively they were out of shape and seemed to have no idea where they should be. A veteran center-back like Raphaël Varane should not look as if he was playing his first professional match. Atléti almost came out of the half with a two-goal lead when Šime Vrsaljiko’s header hit Victor Lindelöf’s face onto the ground and off the post, staying out of the net.
Another substitution marked a critical moment in the match for the second match in a row. In United’s domestic match on the weekend, both substitutes Fred and Anthony Elanga scored the two goals that gave back United’s lead over Leeds. In this match, Elanga was substituted in for Marcus Rashford. In the 80th minute, he scored the critical equalizer for Manchester United. He broke through the defensive line and a mistake by the center-back of Atléti gave Elanga a free shot at goal, which he nicely placed just outside the reach of the keeper and into the opposite corner.
Both teams will reconvene in Manchester for the second leg of the draw on March 15th.
SL Benfica (2) vs. Ajax (2)
Ajax seemed to have been robbed of a chance to walk away from the Portuguese capital with a victory. They went undefeated in group play winning each of their six matches topping the table in their group. Meanwhile, Benfica just managed to beat out Barcelona for the final spot in Group E by one point. In domestic league play, Benfica is sitting in third behind the other two “Big Three” teams. Ajax is leading the Eredivisie with a five-point gap over PSV Eindhoven.
An 18th-minute goal by Dŭsan Tadić opens the scoring for Ajax. An errant clearance by the Benfica keeper led directly to the goal. An equalizing own goal by Ajax brought the game to a draw in the 26th minute. Benfica’s Jan Vertonghen had a clear lane at goal when his defender tripped just inside the box. Vertonghen made his run closer to the net and fired it across the goal line, finding the deflection off Sebastian Haller. Another mess by Odysseas Vlachodimos leads to another goal by Ajax. The initial shot on goal was not handled well by Vlachodimos and came directly to the feet of Sebastian Haller who directed the ball into the opposite corner. Haller redeemed himself for his early blunder at the other end of the pitch. Ajax almost put the game out of reach for Benfica near the end of the first half but it struck the woodwork. In the 72nd minute, the substitute, Roman Yaremchuk, tied the match. A brilliant strike by Gonçalo Ramos made for a difficult save for Remko Pasveer. The save led to a high arching rebound that Yaremchuk beat his defender and the keeper to and headed the ball in the empty goal.
Ajax will look to win their home fixture in a month’s time after they doubled up their opponent in shots on target and led in possession. The removal of the away goal rule will help Ajax to move on to the quarter-finals.