The Champions League is back in action! The round of 16 kicks off today with two big matchups; here is what to watch for in the Tuesday matchups:
Benfica vs. Zenit St. Petersburg (Zenit leads all time series 3-0-1)
We have a big showdown starting in the Estadio de Luz as the reigning Portuguese champions Benfica host the reigning Russian champions Zenit St. Petersburg in the first leg of this round of 16 tie. Here’s what you need to know:
Zenit St. Petersburg
Zenit is currently sitting in 5th place in the Russian Premier League, 7 points off the lead and still looking to fully find their domestic form from last year. However, their European form has been excellent, as they went 5-0-1 in the group stage with their loss coming on the final match day when they had already clinched the top spot in Group H. Continuing that form will be a test though. Zenit will be shaking off a lot of rust in this game. They haven’t played since they lost that final group stage game, and that was on December 9th! This is their first game of 2016 which gives Benfica a competitive edge. Zenit will be relying on their star man Hulk to get them rolling. With a competition leading 4 assists in the group stage, they will need his creativity to get back in the flow. And look for him to be setting up Artem Dzyuba, who is the third leading scorer behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski with 6 goals.
Benfica is in better domestic shape them Zenit right now as they are sitting just 3 points off the top spot in 2nd place. They have also been in excellent form as of late. While Zenit has been enjoying the Russian league break, Benfica put together an 11 match unbeaten run. They were looking to make it 12 but were held by their biggest rivals Porto over the weekend. So while Zenit needs to bounce back from not playing, Benfica needs to bounce back from that tough loss. However they should be confident in how they fared in the group stage, a comfortable 2nd place finish in Group C to Atletico Madrid. Look for Nicolas Gaitan to spark his side. With 2 goals and an assist in the group stage, the Argentine will be leading the charge to gain the advantage with the first leg of the tie in Portugal.
Pick to advance: Even if Benfica is able to get an advantage starting at home, Zenit can snatch an away goal and take care of business in Russia. Zenit to the next round.
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Chelsea (Chelsea leads series 2-3-1)
These two European giants meet in the knockout stage for the 3rd consecutive year. Both previous matchups were intense, exciting, and too close to call. Two years ago, Chelsea moved on after losing the first leg 3-1 in Paris with a late goal in the second leg to advance on their away goal with the aggregate 3-3. Last year, PSG took extra time to knock out the Blues in London while being a man down for most of the match. On paper, these two sides are as evenly matched as can be. However, these two club are in very different states right now. Here’s what to watch for:
After their nightmare start to the English season, Chelsea appear to finally be turning the corner. They are twelve games unbeaten in all competitions since Gus Hiddick took over, granted 6 of those are ties. With their dreams of repeating as English champions being gone, the Champions League is their main focus now. It won’t be easy getting past PSG, or even this first leg. Chelsea are missing two of their top defenders in young Kurt Zouma and their captain John Terry. That leaves a hole in their defense that could be their undoing. Chelsea will have to keep pace with PSG to have a chance then. After their thumping of Newcastle this past weekend, they are confident in doing so. Pedro played his best game in a Chelsea shirt. Diego Costa is scoring goals again too. If those two, along with Willian who was by far their best player in the group stage with 5 goals (and for most of the season) and Eden Hazard can link together, we should be in for an exciting tie.
PSG is looking forward to hopefully playing a competitive match for once and be given a challenge. Not to completely knock the French League, but PSG is running away in that race and it’s not even close. If PSG wasn’t in a group that had Real Madrid in it, they probably would have won their group and this matchup wouldn’t even be happening. But it is, and while PSG respect Chelsea and know they are a formidable opponent for them, they are smiling big at the thought of knocking them out for the 2nd straight year. Coming in with a 22 match unbeaten streak (with 20 wins), PSG knows it’s do or die in the UCL for them as well. They know they are capable of winning this competition and that is what is expected of them at this point. They’ve made big strides the past couple years in this competition and it’s time to take the next step. To do that, they will have to put Chelsea and the drama that Serge Aurier created by bashing manager Laurent Blanc and teammates on social media behind them. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was rested and didn’t play this past weekend in a league game, and Angel Di Maria led the club through the group stage and look to continue their form and lead them past Chelsea to the next round.
Pick to advance: PSG could get too big a lead in this first game at home for Chelsea to overcome. PSG advances.
Featured Image courtesy of UEFA.com