After a short winter break, the Champions League excitement is beginning to rise once again as the high-intensity Round of 16 is just a month away.
Europe’s finest teams and some of the world’s best players will come face to face as we approach the business end of the competition, and one club has already made a bold, or some might say even a shock, move.
Barca sack Valverde
I’m not sure how many fans and pundits saw this one coming but Ernesto Valverde has been sacked by Barcelona upon returning from the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia. The timing seems odd with the Blaugrana top of La Liga, and his replacement Quique Setien isn’t exactly a big name in Europe’s highest echelons.
It’s the first time in 17 years the Catalans have sacked a head coach mid-season, and Valverde must be wondering what he’s done wrong after winning La Liga in both his full seasons in charge.
There have been lingering doubts over his ability to succeed in European competition, but to replace him with former Real Betis boss Setien has had Barca supporters scratching their heads.
The 61-year-old was linked with Premier League strugglers Watford, while Barca had been courting Xavi. In fact, Setien has been rumoured to have been Barcelona’s fourth choice.
But he will be in charge for the Blaugrana’s Round of 1 tie against Napoli. The Italians are no pushovers and those fans who booed Valverde during Barca’s Supercopa defeat to Atletico Madrid will hope they haven’t persuaded the board to drop a clanger!
While the sacking of Valverde has dominated the week’s Champions League 2020 news the runners and riders have been battling for dominance in their domestic leagues.
The Premier League stands out in European football as the one competition which can pretty much pick its winner now. Okay, PSG are looking good to win Ligue 1 with a five-point advantage over Marseille, but that’s nothing compared to Liverpool’s 14-point lead over Manchester City (with a game in hand).
Serie A is a fierce two-horse race between Juventus and Inter Milan, though Lazio are coming up on the rails, and La Liga is a fight between Barca and Real Madrid.
The Bundesliga is more competitive than it’s been for years. RB Leipzig, who have a winnable Champions League tie against Spurs, are top and four points ahead of third-placed FC Bayern, and six ahead of Borussia Dortmund.
All this means that reigning European champions Liverpool might just have an advantage. The league is in their grasp after a record-breaking start, no team in any of Europe’s major leagues has ever bettered the Reds’ 20 wins and a draw. That incredible form and momentum could carry the Reds through Europe.
Jurgen Klopp’s team left it a little late to confirm qualification but the Reds held their nerves to win a tricky tie in Salzburg, beating Red Bull 0-2.
Tie of the Round
When the draw for the knockout phase came out of the hat, Real Madrid against Manchester City was the one which caught the eye.
The Sky Blues are in devastating form at the moment, destroying Aston Villa 1-6 at the weekend and, before that, blowing Manchester United away in the first half of the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final.
With the Premier League all but lost, the Champions League has become Guardiola’s main priority.
But ZZ’s team is in confident mood, having just won the Spanish Super Cup and keeping pace with Barcelona at the top of La Liga.
Round of 16 Draw in full
Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool
Borussia Dortmund vs Paris Saint Germain
Tottenham Hotspur vs RB Leipzig
Atalanta vs Valencia
Chelsea vs FC Bayern
Napoli vs Barcelona
Real Madrid vs Manchester City
Lyon vs Juventus
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