After a few months of painful waiting, the flip-flopping of the Premier League title race and the Chelsea goalkeeper’s soap-opera antics, Europe’s most elite competition returned a couple of weeks ago. As always, the competition’s first round of last sixteen fixtures both conformed to and went against our expectations with Spurs, Real Madrid and PSG all in the driving seat whilst Porto and Roma left their clash wide open. Yet, in the space of two-nights, the competition has seen the exit of its holders, last years semi-finalists and, despite desperately looking on from the side lines, the departure of Neymar and co in this particular round for the third consecutive year.
Paris-Saint Germain 1 – 3 Manchester United (3-3)
Were this any other team, a 2-0 advantage, with added value given the initial win was away from home, many of us would not have batted an eyelid at this fixture. Yet, we cannot help but remember Barcelona’s famous comeback in the Camp Nou two seasons ago. Having suffered a 4-0 defeat in Paris, then manager Luis Enrique’s team looked certain to be heading for an early exit. However, three goals in the final seven minutes meant Barcelona finished the game leading 6-1, an exceptional comeback but one that seems to continue to play on the minds of the PSG players.
Manchester United arrived still unbeaten in the Premier league after the arrival of their saviour, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, but with an immense task on their hands as well as the burden of a severely depleted squad. This omitted key players such as Nemanja Matic, winger Anthony Martial and, not least, midfielder Paul Pogba whose sparkling form has been noted ever since the Norwegian’s arrival at the club.
Two minutes into the game however, early nerves were already on display for PSG as defender Thilo Kerner misplaced a pass which allowed in-form Romelu Lukaku to slide the ball past Gianluigi Buffon. However, for the remainder of the half, PSG looked to recover, remaining dominant and equalising a mere ten minutes later through Juan Bernat. Much like when Edinson Cavani netted on that fateful night a few years ago, it looked to be game over but a mistake from Gianluigi Buffon in the thirtieth minute allowed Lukaku to once again capitalise and move United a goal closer to the quarter-finals.
It seems not a game can pass us by in the modern-age that is not shrouded in controversy, particularly with the addition of VAR into this prestigious competition. The second-half was marked by Manchester United’s deep defending and PSG’s subsequent
inability to create anything clear-cut. In the dying moments of the game though, 19-year-old right-back Diego Dalot took on a speculative shot from distance that deflected out for a corner. Everything seemed simple. This, however, was not the view of referee Damir Skomina who awarded a penalty for a supposed handball by centre-half, Presnel Kimpembe. Regardless of whether or not this was a penalty, in my view it was not, Marcus Rashford coolly converted past Buffon to secure the victory and more than likely cement Solksjaer’s place as manager on a permanent basis.
Real Madrid 1 – 4 Ajax (3-5)
As any football fan will know, Sergio Ramos is not the most universally liked of characters. Most recently, his controversial decision to openly admit to deliberately committing a foul led to his banning for this game, which would prove to be the end of his team’s recent dominance in the competition.
After VAR, never shy of being in the spotlight, gave Real Madrid a helping-hand in a 2-1 win in Amsterdam, it seemed they would live to fight yet another day in the Champions League. However, within under twenty minutes of kick-off, the Dutch underdogs had taken a 2-0 lead, leaving them in the position of going through – a state which they never looked likely to drop for the remainder of the game. Ex-Southampton man, Dusan Tadic, proved to be too much for recent Balon D’or winner Luka Modric and his compatriots in midfield – his solo build-up and assist for the second goal bares repeat viewing.
Whilst the manner of the defeat may come as a surprise for some, this has been coming for Real Madrid after a season that has been consistently under the spotlight. Problems had been developing before the season begun what with the departure of Christiano Ronaldo to Juventus, Zidane’s step-down as manager and the subsequent appointment of then Spain manager Julien Lopetegui, who come November would not be there. Madrid now seem unable to paper over the cracks which European triumph has done for them in recent years. On top of this, Gareth Bale, who played a crucial role in the final last year, looks like he could be on his way out.
Nonetheless, in the era of the super-club, its an old cliché, but its refreshing to see the under-dog come out on top, putting in a performance in which effort, mentality and drive triumphed over the multi-billion-dollar giant. Given that this will be a major-confidence boost for the famous Dutch team, who knows where this year’s competition will take them.
Borussia Dortmund 0 – 1 Tottenham Hotspur (0-4)
For all of Mauricio Pochettino’s critics, his team does seem to just keep battling on, showing grit, determination and no sense of arrogance with their already substantial advantage. Dortmund’s famous ‘yellow wall’ is consistently billed as one of the toughest places to go in Europe but Spurs showed maturity in grinding out their 1-0 victory.
As one might expect, Dortmund came flying out the traps with Marco Reus in particular looking lively. However, some fantastic defending courtesy of Jan Vertonghen and Ben Davies as well as some good goalkeeping from Hugo Lloris prevented any possible nerves from becoming a reality. Lloris has come under some criticism recently, particularly after his performance in the recent 2-0 defeat away to fierce rivals Chelsea.
As for Dortmund, it would not be fair to say their season is collapsing, but exit from their domestic cup as well as this competition, means the Bundesliga title, which they have not won since Jurgen Klopp led them there in the 2011-12 season, is all they have left to fight for. Spurs, on the other hand, for all the criticism they take, continue to show signs of progress after suffering an early exit at the hands of Juventus last season.
Porto 3 – 1 Roma (4-3)
Remarkably, the game in which the victor was the least certain was the one which seems to have had the least attention paid to it. Having suffered a 5-0 thrashing to last years finalists Liverpool in the previous round of 16, it was natural to assume that Roma would dispatch of Porto relatively comfortably.
However, Porto’s away-goal allowed things to stay interesting. The game remained uncertain for the first 90 minutes with Porto taking the lead before a Danielle De Rossi penalty allowed Roma to equalise. An early second-half goal for Porto destined the game for extra-time, where a penalty in the 117th minute allowed the Portuguese team to snatch the lead and ultimately progress.
After last year’s success, Roma seem to be struggling slightly. The sale of Allisson, who did not concede a goal at home in last year’s competition before the semi-final, is likely having an impact. They also seem to be struggling domestically, currently lying in 5th, outside of the prestigious Champions League places. Porto on the other hand, progress to the quarter-finals for the first time since 2015. It’s fair to say other teams will likely be praying for Porto as they certainly look to be in the ‘easier’ bracket of the clubs that have progressed so far.
However, if this performance is anything to go by, it would not be wrong to say they should not be taken lightly.