Liverpool the team to beat as Champions League returns
Liverpool returned to the scene of their Champions League triumph when they visit Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday very much the team to beat for those hoping to succeed Jurgen Klopp men as European champions.
Liverpool is coasting towards a first Premier League title in 30 years having dropped just two points all season and is likely to be crowned English champions before the Champions League quarter-finals commence in early April.
Liverpool remains on course for a potential five-trophy haul this season. They have already lifted the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup and are used to reaching European finals under Klopp.
The German has overseen three in four seasons at Anfield, losing the Europa League final to Sevilla in 2016 and Champions League to Real Madrid two years later before getting over the line against Tottenham in the Spanish capital last year.
“I have no clue if we can win the Champions League again but we should be ready to go for it,” said Klopp. “What I know and what we showed last year is that we can beat the best.”
On the current form, Atletico is a little match for the holders.
For the first time in over eight years in charge, the future of Diego Simeone has been questioned with Los Rojiblancos languishing well off the pace in La Liga and battling just to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
A chronic struggle to score goals has hampered Simeone’s side all season.
Joao Felix has failed to deliver on his 126 million euro ($138 million) price tag and the Portuguese wonder kid is a doubt for Tuesday’s first leg.
By contrast, Liverpool has hit the money with almost every major signing in recent years.
With Alisson Becker, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah they have built a side capable of not just winning, but retaining the Champions League.
Simeone’s Atletico sides that came so close to winning the competition in losing two finals to rivals Real in 2014 and 2016 were built on the most miserly defence.
But even the Argentine would be impressed by Liverpool’s run of winning their last 11 league games by the combined score of 24-1.
Now or never for Guardiola’s City
Across the continent, no other side looks as well-balanced and settled heading into the latter stages.
Manchester City’s stunning two-season ban from the competition handed down by UEFA on Friday means it could be now or never if the English champions are ever to conquer Europe with Pep Guardiola in charge.
However, City is running into a rejuvenated Real Madrid in the last 16, who has shot to the top of La Liga on a 14-game unbeaten run.
Zinedine Zidane has again revived the Spanish giants in his second spell in charge and is yet to lose a Champions League tie after winning the competition during his previous three seasons in charge.
Paris Saint-Germain also begins their quest to overcome three years of heartbreak at the last 16 stages on Tuesday when they visit Borussia Dortmund.
Dortmund has the firepower to cause their former coach Thomas Tuchel more Champions League pain in free-scoring new signing Erling Braut Haaland, who already has eight goals in the competition this season as a Red Bull Salzburg player.
Barcelona lurch from one institutional crisis to another and have a new coach, Quique Setien, with no previous Champions League experience for a tricky tie against Napoli.
The success or otherwise of Juventus’ season will also be judged on winning the Champions League for the first time in 24 years.
A kind last-16 draw gainst Lyon should give Maurizio Sarri more time to turn the Italian champions into potential conquerors of Europe, but big questions are already being asked of Sarri’s suitability for that target as Juve are struggling to hold off Inter Milan and Lazio to preserve their domestic dominance in Italy.
Bayern Munich’s grip on the Bundesliga is also being challenged this season, but the German giants will be confident of gaining revenge for losing the 2012 Champions League final on home soil to Chelsea, who have won just four of their last 13 Premier League games.