The Numbers Game - Champions League Round of Sixteen

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 Naz Majeed

No one is totally sure when the UEFA Champions League will resume, or even how it will resume. With some Round of 16 ties done and dusted (goodbye, Liverpool), while others are still well in the balance, what we do know is that every team that has not been eliminated outright will want a chance to progress. Here we look at what the stats suggest is their best chance at doing so.

Bayern Munich v Chelsea, Bayern Munich lead 3-0 on aggregate

For Chelsea, the primary objective is clear: Score at least three goals. How straightforward that is is a wholly different matter, but regardless of where they find their goals, their overall task will become that much harder if they fail to stop Bayern’s Thiago Alcantara.

 

Behind only Julian Brandt for secondary assists in the top 5 leagues in Europe, Thiago’s close control, appreciation of space, and eye for a killer pass has wreaked havoc on sides all over Germany for years now, and it is perhaps only a matter of time before his genius is truly appreciated by those unfamiliar with the former Barcelona man, son of World Cup-winning Brazilian Mazinho. Shutting down the midfield maestro must be top of Frank Lampard’s list of priorities, even more so than keeping an eye on Robert Lewandowski.

Still, all eyes will be on Robert Lewandowski, and Bayern will want the Polish hitman to continue his stunning form this season, having scored a goal every 48 minutes in the Champions League, that strike rate being far and away from the best in the competition among the top 20 scorers (Erling Halaand is next at a goal every 55 minutes). As the top scorer as well, and with a shot conversion rate superior to that of Harry Kane, Kylian Mbappe, Mohamed Salah, and Timo Werner, it can be almost guaranteed that Lewandowski will have some say in this tie.

Barcelona v Napoli, 1-1 on aggregate, Barcelona lead on away goals

The above stat is quite a remarkable bit of trivia, and Barcelona fans watching the first leg at the Stadio San Paolo would have predicted as much, given the poor display that the Catalans put on show. The first half in particular was particularly one-paced, and without the injured Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele (and Ansu Fati on the bench) Barcelona had just two attackers (albeit forwards of the quality of Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann) and their first 45 minutes provided little in the way of entertainment.

 

Playing a nominal or asymmetrical 4-4-2 (the No. 4 Arturo Vidal and No. 4 Ivan Rakitic playing very close together on the right) rather than their more expansive 4-3-3, Barcelona were unable to break down a stubborn (and struggling) Napoli side, Quique Setien’s set-up ineffective against Gennaro Gattuso’s own rigid low block. The Blaugrana would surely be better served reverting back to the formation that better suits Lionel Messi and Frenkie De Jong, especially as a 4-4-2 is less than optimal in getting the most out of Griezmann either. This does, of course, require fit forwards, but Luis Suarez may be able to return in time for the second leg.

Napoli, meanwhile, would take another draw, though a 0-0 result would see Barcelona go through. Gattuso and his side then would need to score. Their goal scored by Dries Mertens came at the end of a 22-pass move that their opponents would have been proud of. Still, they have looked less than impressive all season and need to be at their best to progress.

Juventus v Lyon, Lyon lead 1-0 on Aggregate

Take 2, then for Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo.

After being eliminated by Ajax last season, the Old Lady are on course for a repeat of the nightmare, having lost away to Lyon in the first leg. One glaring issue, then, is the fact that they were less than efficient in front of goal.  One aspect of their game that Maurizio Sarri could immediately improve for the reigning Italian champions is to shift free-kick responsibilities to Paulo Dybala or Miralem Pjanić.

 

Ronaldo has scored several free-kicks over the course of his career, but his overall record is actually rather mediocre, whereas at least two of his team-mates possess above-average dead-ball delivery and are seen as free-kick specialists in their own right. Dybala himself scored a free-kick against Atletico Madrid to secure top spot during the Group Stage. If Sarri is able to ease Ronaldo away from such duties remains to be seen, of course, with the manager having a history with players disobeying his instructions.

 

 

Lyon, meanwhile, needs to remember that even if Ronaldo is not on free-kicks, they come up against the man who has broken almost every record he has set out to break in the Champions League. It is probably over-simplistic to say “stop Ronaldo”, but do that and a team that is set up to feed Ronaldo will have to come up with an entirely new game plan. The French side should take note as well, though, that Ronaldo is not the only player that is performing well for Juventus this season.  

Manchester City v Real Madrid, Manchester City lead 2-1 on aggregate

Manchester City’s away victory at the Bernabeu was seen as a seismic shift in the balance of power in European football, even as the Blues battled against a UEFA decree to ban them from the competition for the next two seasons. Should City progress and win the Champions League, it would raise many awkward questions that no statistics can feasibly answer, but until then, they should rely on improving one glaring facet of their game.

Alongside the first-choice goalkeeper being strangely error-prone this season, Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones have also contributed to City ranked 8th in the Premier League this season for the number of individual mistakes leading to chances for the opposition. This figure puts them even worse off than Newcastle, often seen as the side that makes the most errors. The goal they conceded (before rallying to win) against Real came from a series of errors as well, and even the best coach in the world will not be able to take his side to the trophy if his tactical brilliance is undermined by individual errors. There is no easy way to fix this, but the most immediate solution is to instruct his side not to over-elaborate, and to simply keep it simple. If this is actually in Pep Guardiola’s DNA remains to be seen.

As for Real Madrid, Eden Hazard’s lack of form or fitness has meant that the burden of goalscoring has once again fallen to Karim Benzema, and the often-underrated Frenchman has done well in carrying a Real Madrid side that has a few players looking past their sell-by date, as well as a few who lack the experience needed to consistency deliver.

But Benzema has consistently delivered, and while Real fans may be drooling over the potential of the prospect of Vinicius and Rodrygo, their best bet in overturning Pep and City may lie in their French forward.