A night of intrigue lies ahead as the Champions League resumes after a break of more than two months on Tuesday. Neymar’s absence will almost certainly be felt in a heavyweight clash, while floundering Liverpool have a tough test.
Paris Saint-Germain vs Barcelona
As much as Mauricio Pochettino will probably be itching for kick-off in his first match in charge of PSG in the Champions League, the French champions know that a performance mirroring their recent showings in Ligue 1 could lead to a mirroring of the disaster they suffered at the Camp Nou in 2017.
4-0 up from the first leg on that night, PSG were thumped 5-1 in the most harrowing of the three successive defeats they have endured against Barca since the sides met in the knockout stages in 2012.
Neymar, as is now tradition, is out of the first leg of the round of 16, although he is hopeful of recovering from a thigh problem for the second leg on March 10, making it all the more important that PSG stay within competing distance if they lose in Spain.
Angel di Maria – a tireless inspiration in midfield for much of an inconsistent season – is also out with a thigh issue, yet neither the Argentina playmaker nor Neymar would be likely to save PSG were they to turn in another of the unconvincing displays that have characterized them in recent weeks.
Saturday’s late 2-1 win at home to midtable Nice was undeserved, following a 1-0 win at second-tier Caen and a 2-0 victory over ten-man Marseille, who have spent much of this season shambling from one on-pitch disaster to the next.
Worse still for Pochettino, bogey side Barcelona have hit something approaching their usual standards of league form, winning their last seven, including a 5-1 victory over Alaves that featured two goals from Lionel Messi on Saturday.
Messi’s stats barely need mentioning, not least because Leo will take the lion’s share of the pre-match attention as usual, taking on his suitors for next season with an unsurpassed record of 27 goals in 30 matches at this stage. Only Cristiano Ronaldo is more experienced in the round of 16, making two more appearances.
For all that, last season’s finalists with a former finalist at the helm have come closer to the title than Barca in recent seasons. Kylian Mbappe is overdue a run of form, particularly in the latter stages of the Champions League, in which he has scored only once in nine matches for PSG.
Everton flop Moise Kean is also worth a nod as the unlikely recent star of the show for his loan club. Kean has little pedigree in the competition, and perhaps the Italy prodigy and Mbappe will enjoy the element of unknown surrounding the level of impact they will have on a tie that is tough to call. If 50-50 fixtures equate to gold dust in the Champions League, Barcelona-PSG has plenty of it.
RB Leipzig vs. Liverpool
The second match on Tuesday, Liverpool’s trip to Leipzig, looks less finely balanced by most measures, although it’s decidedly less clear-cut than it seemed in December.
Leipzig are a dangerous team. They don’t have one clear goal scorer but instead have the goals shared amongst the team. They’ve got 5 players on 4 goals. Liverpool need to be on point tonight with better communication in defence. We can beat Leipzig but have to raise our game.
— Homes (@LFC_Wahome) February 16, 2021
Liverpool could justifiably look back on that as a bygone golden age by now. Since Christmas, the reigning champions have won two out of ten Premier League matches, with three of their five defeats coming in their last three matches.
In a week when he has had to bat off feasible suggestions that he needs a break, a trip to coltish Bundesliga contenders Leipzig seems like the sort of challenge Jurgen Klopp’s out-of-form side do not need following heavy defeats against Manchester City and Liverpool.
Or maybe this is exactly what Klopp would want, if he really wants to crack on with the program, presumably in the expectation that his previously brilliant side will be inspired by adversity and dangerous opponents.
Liverpool were ahead at Leicester – themselves contenders in the Premier League this season – before a disastrous final 15 minutes, and it was a similar story at City, where Klopp’s men drew level with the rampant leaders before a dreadful final 20 minutes that could have happened to any team.
The injury-forced defensive depletions remain a huge concern, but Leipzig are among the least obviously well-placed teams left in the competition who could ruthlessly exploit those difficulties, relying on former City defender Angelino to top-score for them with seven goals so far this season.
Their comfortable win over Tottenham at this stage last season showed what this high-pressure Leipzig side can do to uninspired opposition, and Liverpool need goalkeeper Alisson to restore the imperious form that has established him as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, rather than continuing as the apparent imposter responsible for game-changing howlers in their two most recent defeats.
A win for Leipzig would not be a huge surprise, yet of the two squads, Liverpool should have enough superior quality to advance, even with a poor result in Germany. If they have to navigate difficulties along the way, Klopp may see that as an opportunity to prove their enhanced resilience ahead of the now-daunting scramble to finish in the Premier League’s top four.