It feels like forever since we've had a Champions League game, despite the group stages ending only 33 days ago. Now with American Football ending with the Super Bowl, the original football can take it's rightful place, front and center, where it rightfully belongs. Things are kicking off with a bang as Matchday 1 of the Last of 16 kicks off with Liverpool visiting RB Leipzig, well technically the game is in Budapest due to COVID restrictions in Germany, however UEFA is remaining that RB Leipzig will be the home team. In the other game on Tuesday, PSG, without Neymar, visit Camp Nou to take on a Barcelona team who is having a bit of a rough go of things since the start of February. Here's my things to watch, and predictions for Leg 1 of these matchups.
Liverpool vs RB Leipzig
Puskas Arena (Neutral Site), 3pm EST
This game couldn't be happening at a better time for RB Leipzig, if they have dreams of making a deep run in this years Champions League. With Liverpool still without all-world CB Virgil Van Dijk, England CB Joe Gomez, and now Joel Matip, the defense for the defending EPL champions has been a mess. With the closing of the January transfer window, reinforcements were brought in, however most believe this was a last ditch effort to get someone to help in the center of this defense. Ozan Kabak, coming on loan from FC Schalke 04, and Ben Davies, signed from Preston of the English Championship, have been the two guys brought in by Liverpool brass in hopes of getting some help and allowing Jordan Henderson to move back into the engine room of the midfield where the Reds have been lacking a strong control man since the back line shuffling began. All of this is to not sell short the big 3 up front for Liverpool, Mane, Salah, and Firmino, who haven't been on top of their game this season, mostly due to the precise nature in which Liverpool's team flows from back to front, any adjustment from the status quo sends the entire mechanism into disarray as this season has proven. While not on top of their game, they are still deadly when they are working together and Firmino is pulling the strings from his false 9 role. Look for Leipzig to pressure this Liverpool team, much like we've seen Liverpool do to foes since the arrival of Klopp, hoping to squeeze this already stressed team into making early mistakes, and have the attack, led by Yussuf Poulsen and Justin Kluivert, ready to capitalize on any chance this Reds team gives up. Alisson will have to be on his toes if he has any hope of keeping Leipzig off the scoreboard, and Liverpool in this one, don't be surprised if we see the type of performance that has Alisson in conversations as on of the best keepers in the world today. This game should be free-flowing, with moments of bottle-necked play in the midfield as Sabitzer and Thiago will be battling it out for dominance in the center of the park.
With the defensive woes shown from Liverpool, I have them giving up a 1st half goal to the high pressure of the RB Leipzig team. However, unlike the rest of their season, where the Reds have yet to be able to comeback from a halftime deficit, this Liverpool team, who's freed up from worrying any other competitions, comes out with a vengeance in the 2nd half, and between the big 3 up front manage to find a very important away goal that ties the game 1-1, where we see it finish in a draw. This 1-1 result however, sets up a classic European night game in Anfield for Leg 2, with Liverpool having the advantage on the away goal rule, and trying to push through to make a deep run towards another Champions League Final in Istanbul.
Prediction: Liverpool 1-1 RB Leipzig
PSG vs Barcelona
Camp Nou, 3pm EST
The last time these two teams met up in the Champions League, we saw the tale of two legs, with PSG beating up on Barcelona, in Paris, 4-0, and then in Leg 2, Barcelona came out with a 6-1 victory at Camp Nou, scoring 3 times in the final 7 minutes to move on to the Quarterfinals of the 16/17 competition. Unfortunately, for both teams, these are two different squads, with Barcelona being without Coutinho, Pique, Ansu Fati, Araujo, and possibly a darling from that previous matchup, Sergi Roberto might miss out due to an ankle injury. On the flip side, PSG and Mauricio Pochettino's squad is missing one of it's biggest pieces, in the dynamic Brazilian playmaker Neymar, who is dealing with an abductor injury that has the potential to sideline him through Leg 2 as well. A shame considering some of the fireworks we could have seen while he faced off against his former team in Camp Nou. Also missing out is Angel Di Maria, who recently picked up a thigh injury, while former Barca man, Rafinha is dealing with an injury that has him a game time decision, same for Marco Veratti. Pembele has also been ruled out in another blow for Pochettino's squad.
All of the injuries aside, PSG still has a variety of playmakers around the field, including the wunderkind, Kylian Mbappe, in the side, along with former Serie A top scorer Icardi. This PSG attack will still be one that causes tons of problems for this Barca team and a defense that has had a very rough start to the month of February. Despite going 3-1 over that span, they have given up a total of 9 goals. Which if they were playing certain teams you'd understand, however this was against the weakest stretch on their schedule, given these goals up against the following teams Granada (3), Real Betis (2), Alaves (1), and in their lone loss, to fellow Champions League competitor Sevilla, gave up 2 goals without scoring. It's safe to say that this defense will have it's work cut out for it, as tracking the runs of Mbappe and Icardi is never easy, and considering the speed of Mbappe, one false step will have you seeing taillights as he goes on to make the keeper look a fool. Ter Stegen, will be asked to stand on his head in this one, and like Alisson for Liverpool, could look to have the type of performance that we all have come to know from the Barcelona keeper. Not to be outdone, the combo of Messi and Griezmann will look to undo this PSG defense, led by Marquinhos and Kimpembe. Messi is still Messi, despite all the pundits claiming otherwise, and hopefully we see the type of inspired performance from Griezmann that forced Barca to part with Suarez. An x-factor out there for Barcelona is the opposite wing from Messi and who they employ to help take the load off Messi and Griezmann, if it is Dembele, can we finally see the type of performance from the youngster that has him rated so highly in many analysts minds, or will we see him continue to struggle in the big games.
Look to see Messi get involved early and often, with a few of those patented dicing runs through the PSG defense, ending in a shot on goal. I have Messi putting one chance away, and getting an assist to Griezmann, as the Frenchman who's never played for a French team continues to spite the French press and French teams whenever they meet in the Champions League. For PSG, I have Mbappe breaking through for a goal as well, which will be the only one scored by the Parisians, however it will prove to be crucial in the return leg in Paris as that away goal will come into play in the final decision between these two powerhouses.
Prediction: Barcelona 2-1 PSG