The 2015-16 UEFA Champions League resumes this week with the Round of 16 kicking off.
Sportsnet’s soccer panel of broadcasters, writers and pundits offer their picks and predictions below…
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN vs. CHELSEA
Gerry Dobson, Sportsnet : Premier League title? Nope. Champions League spot for next year? Probably not. Champions League title this year? Also probably not, but at least there is a chance. And that chance, save for their FA Cup possibility, is Chelsea’s only real shot at glory this year; the only way to salvage a miserable campaign. But let’s even hold off on that because a very difficult knockout battle with PSG looms.
Yes, Chelsea remain unbeaten since Guus Hiddink took charge, but that streak is misleading. Too may draws. They did look like the Chelsea of old on the weekend when they dispatched Newcastle 5-1 with a slick, thundering attack that brought back memories of better years. Then again, it was Newcastle. Injuries are becoming a problem. Dependable Kurt Zouma will be sorely missed on Tuesday, as will captain John Terry.
For their part PSG are a formidable opponent with recent history on their side, if that means anything. They beat Chelsea at the same stage a year ago. Laurent Blanc’s team is crushing opponents domestically this year. 32 straight games without defeat in Ligue, which is pretty amazing. PSG have to be considered favourites for the first leg and perhaps the entire affair. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 27 goals. This team is good back to front and everywhere in between. They lead the French league by 24 points for goodness sake.
Prediction: PSG wins 3-1.
BENFICA vs. ZENIT SAINT PETERSBURG
Dan Riccio, Sportsnet 590 The FAN: Benfica was on a roll until a 2-1 loss at home to Porto this past Friday. Prior to that, the Lisbon-based outfit had won 11 straight in all competitions. Despite that tough loss, they should feel confident against a Russian side who hasn’t played in two months.
Zenit coach Andre Villas-Boas will say the Russian league’s break isn’t an issue, but just look at their record in the Champions League. They’ve never advanced past the round of 16. Benfica will be the more match-fit side, and the fact Benfica is playing at home will be too much for Zenit to overcome.
Prediction: Benfica wins 2-0.
MORE ON THE UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Window closing on PSG’s old guard in Europe || Photo gallery: 10 to watch in Champions League || Photo gallery: Round of 16 matchups || Molinaro: Barca team to beat in Champions League || Sportsnet panel: Champions League picks and predictions || Does Zidane have the nous to manage Real Madrid? || Cometh the hour, cometh Cavani for PSG || Analytics: Europa League vs. Champions League
AS ROMA vs. REAL MADRID
Noah Love, Sportsnet.ca: With Barcelona firmly in control of La Liga (four points up on third place Real with a game in hand), Zinedine Zidane’s true task for the remainder of the season is to win the Champions League. This is a considerable mountain to climb when you factor in that Real is, at best, the third-best team in the competition, and at worst somewhere around fifth (Barca and Bayern Munich are locks, Paris St-Germain and Atletico Madrid are in the mix).
Zidane’s first knockout stage test is a tough one. Roma’s season has been like so many others in the Serie A: inconsistent. But Luciano Spalletti is blessed with an arsenal of attacking talent that few teams in Europe possess, led by Miralem Pjanic and Mohamed Salah. Real is in decent form, having steamrolled through a slew of non-tests in La Liga over the past few weeks.
The Madridistas will have to make do without Gareth Bale but the replacement options are, as always, world class. It’s not really a question of which of these squads is better, it’s just whether Real will beat itself, as it has had a tendency to do now and again this season. Regardless, the first leg in Italy should be a slog.
Prediction: A 1-1 draw.
GENT vs. WOLFSBURG
Thomas Michalakos, Sportsnet.ca: Both clubs are counting their lucky stars following the Round of 16 draw. When you consider the alternatives, this was the best-case scenario for all parties involved. On paper, Wolfsburg are without a doubt the stronger of the two sides. The Bundesliga is a much more competitive and a higher standard compared to the Belgian Jupiler League. However, you can chuck all of that nonsense out the window.
The criteria for Champions League success are measured purely on timing and current form. Gent sit tied for the lead atop of their domestic table, having won three out of four matches since returning from the winter break. Wolfsburg have struggled in the same time frame—collecting only four points in as many matches—with their first win coming over the weekend. If that’s not bad enough, the German club has also proved to be extra dreadful away from the Volkswagen Arena (two wins all season), while their Belgian hosts on Wednesday hold a near perfect record on home soil.
Prediction: Gent wins 2-1.
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