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The Best Round Of The Champions League Is Here

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Now that I have spent the last 10 minutes making sure I know how to spell Mönchengladbach, I am eager to convene today’s gathering of the best soccer brains on the internet. We’re taking a break from the English Premier League this week to discuss the Champions League, which starts again Feb. 16. There are 16 teams remaining, and is it just me or are the matchups pretty enticing for a Round of 16?

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): Yeah, this feels relatively stacked.


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ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): When no one is good … everyone is good?

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Feels like the round of 16 in the Champions League never disappoints but that’s probably just because you’re desperate to be done with the group stages. But yeah, there are some pretty great matchups this year.

[Our Club Soccer Predictions]

grace: Coronaball aside, Champions League knockout stages are consistently the best games I watch all year, so I’m excited.

cwick: So let’s spend our time talking about the juiciest of those matchups, starting with …

BARCELONA vs PSG

cwick: Two storied sides, two new coaches since their previous Champions League campaigns, two teams in third place in their respective leagues. Barcelona has a 67 percent chance of moving on, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model. What should people be watching for?

grace: Whether PSG Coach Mauricio Pochettino has had enough time and buy-in to develop a specific plan for this, or whether it’s just gonna be about who has the best individuals on the day.

ryan: It’s sort of soccer’s version of Mahomes vs. Brady, with Mbappé vs. Messi.

cwick: What’s Kylian Mbappé’s version of Mahomes’s impossible sidearm throw to the end zone?

ryan: Trying to beat Barcelona without Neymar or Angel Di Maria?

tchow: This first leg gets clouded a bit cause Neymar won’t be playing. Otherwise, Neymar playing against his former club would be the story.

grace: Barça, for all its troubles, has the best xG difference in La Liga, per FBRef. They’re in better shape than many assume.

ryan: I feel like we’re underselling this. IT IS MBAPPÉ VS. MESSI!

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grace: With Neymar out, I wonder if the smart play might be for PSG to get grindy and just hit Barça on the counter with Mbappé.

ryan: Barcelona has struggled against pace in the Champions League for what seems like forever. Even without the two main guys to get him the ball, Mbappé is the ultimate pace problem (in addition to everything else that makes him so great).

cwick: Last year we spent a whole chat sorting through Barcelona’s mess, and how it could right its ship. Yet now it is way above PSG in FiveThirtyEight’s SPI metric. So is it righted?

ryan: I think it’s righted — for now. It has the best xG differential in La Liga, Lionel Messi is back to being Messi, Antoine Griezmann actually looks alive, Frenkie de Jong is starting to come good on his potential. But beyond this season? Yikes.

For example:

grace: It’s “righted” in the same way as the train line in China that works on a pirated version of Adobe Flash. Nonetheless, I’d put it as slight favorites here. It’s basically kind of stable for the time being.

ryan: PSG also hasn’t looked like the totally dominant PSG of previous seasons. There’s a legit title race going on in Ligue 1. Toss in the injuries to Neymar and Di Maria, and I’m with Grace (and SPI).

grace: It’s a question of whether Pochettino can pull a rabbit out of a hat.

tchow: I wouldn’t be so sure though. Barcelona is also dealing with some injuries of its own and its defense has been pretty spotty. I think Grace and Ryan have the right game plan for Poch though. Barcelona has the highest possession and is the highest passing team left in the Champions League. Just let it have the ball and hope to hit it on the counter.

ATLETICO MADRID vs. CHELSEA

cwick: OK, to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid vs. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea. We spoke about this match a bit during our last chat and how interesting the tactics will be as Tuchel figures out how to beat Simeone’s fortress. Our model has it basically even, with Chelsea slight favorites at 56 percent. The match has been moved to a neutral location in Bucharest because of European COVID-19 travel rules. Does that sort of thing matter right now?

ryan: I think it matters a tiiiiiny bit on the margins; you lose whatever percentage of home-field advantage comes from getting to stay at home.

grace: I think it matters more than it might because Spain and the UK both have not insignificant travel times to Romania.

ryan: Probably doesn’t matter in enough of an asymmetrical way for us to really worry about it in terms of projecting the outcome.

tchow: So you think Atletico Madrid will win too?

ryan: If this one ends 0-0 after 180 minutes, I would not be shocked.

[Will A New Manager Matter For Chelsea?]

grace: I can see a scenario where Callum Hudson-Odoi breaks a record for most touches at right wing back while he’s the only person in space against Atleti’s compact block.

tchow: I will fully admit that a Hudson-Odoi RWB transformation and a revitalized Marcos Alonso was not what I predicted under a Tuchel Chelsea.

ryan: Chelsea has morphed into an uber-possession-heavy-bad-shots team under Tuchel so far. That’s the worst kind of team to be to break down Atleti. At the same time, Atleti is generating the fewest non-penalty xG per game of any of the non-Porto teams left in the tournament.

grace: I can see how Tuchel might go about it, stretching the play with the wing backs to break down Simeone’s style, but I just don’t think it’ll already be as well-drilled on it as it’d like to be.

tchow: It’s just tough for me to see Chelsea beating this Atletico Madrid team over two legs. Everyone is familiar with Simeone’s defense but that system this season is formidable thanks to an extremely effective striker in Luis Suárez. I’m sure people think Atletico leading La Liga has more to do with Real Madrid and Barça struggling but I don’t really think that’s fair.

cwick: FiveThirtyEight’s model, which has Barcelona and Real Madrid as better teams than Atleti, disagrees.

ryan: It’s sort of tricky. It’s wildly over-shooting its xG on both ends of the field so far this year and is on the verge of walking away with La Liga. Simeone’s teams always tend to overperform the models, but not like this. It’s probably not as good as its record.

grace: In the numbers, Atleti is kind of the same as ever. Last year it was fighting for top four and this time it’s a favorite for the title, because the football gods decided thus.

cwick: If there were any player I could see making a blood sacrifice to appease the football gods, it’d be Luis Suárez.

ryan: Are we sure he hasn’t done that already, like, at least three times?

cwick:🦷

tchow: I’m positive that’s already happened. You don’t bite people for no reason.

grace: He didn’t do it one time and it ended with Liverpool blowing the league title, so he’s made sure to do it every time since.

ryan: He’s waiting until Atleti has mathematically clinched La Liga this time.

LIVERPOOL vs. RB LEIPZIG

cwick: Speaking of, let’s talk about a foundering Liverpool side. As I mentioned — and was laughed at for mentioning! — a few chats ago, it needs help scoring goals! And it’s going up against an RB Leipzig side that is best in the Bundesliga at preventing good looks for their opponents, judging by xGA. FiveThirtyEight gives Liverpool a 62 percent chance at moving on.

tchow: Honestly shocked we didn’t start with this matchup but maybe that says all you need to say about how Liverpool fans feel about the state of their club at the moment. As a neutral observer, though, this is one of the most enticing matchups in my opinion. I have no idea what will happen.

ryan: I think this is a pretty good matchup for Liverpool. It has no center backs, and RBL’s leading goal-scorer in the Bundesliga+Champions League is a fullback.

tchow: This might sound ridiculous but is it possible that RB Leipzig has the best fullback in this matchup? Angeliño has been ridiculous. (Man City’s Angeliño, I might add.)

grace: Leipzig has been really good and, as Chadwick mentions, uncharacteristically great on the defensive side. Liverpool has needed to find a way to get higher up the pitch somehow, and having its new center backs should help? Even if they’re center backs who have never played for the club.

I feel fairly confident that Liverpool would take a draw in the first leg if offered right now, then try to better integrate this new look defense before the second leg in a few weeks.

ryan: I still don’t really understand how RBL is doing what it’s doing. It’s getting goals from basically every position in the starting 11; no one else has more than four in the league. Might work well over a long season, but these matches so often get decided by a couple of individual moments, and RBL just doesn’t really seem to have a guy set up do that. Liverpool has a bunch.

cwick: To Tony’s point, though, it does feel like this is a lost Liverpool season regardless of what comes next. Does it have any chance in the Champions League even if it makes it past Leipzig?

tchow: All you Liverpool fans have already won one recently. Now you’re just getting greedy.

ryan: It absolutely could win another! SPI rates it as the fourth-best team in Europe right now, and that sounds about right.

cwick: Which really gets at this “nobody is good this year” idea.

[Liverpool Can’t Buy A Goal, And Its Title Defense Is On The Ropes]

grace: Liverpool isn’t worse in terms of xG from last season, but variance has swung hard in the negative direction. It could absolutely break for it in the Champions League knockouts. This sport is definitely stupid enough for that to happen.

cwick: Depends on its blood sacrifices.

ryan: The Virgil Van Dijk sacrifice was more than sufficient, imo.

tchow: It is the Lunar New Year today and it is the Year of the Ox. Maybe Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s being on the team means it’s in the cards for Liverpool.

cwick: It’s very fashionable to be AOC right now.

grace: Jürgen Klopp has noted left-wing views, that’s why he signed AOC.

ryan: I wonder if he’ll use Liverpool’s Green, New defenders after signing them each to a Deal.


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DORTMUND vs. SEVILLA

cwick: OK, on to Dortmund vs Sevilla. A lower-tier matchup but, uncharacteristically, we haven’t heard Ryan talk about Erling Haaland in a while. FiveThirtyEight has it basically even, with Dortmund slightly favored. Is this a weaker Dortmund side than last year, when it lost to PSG in the round of 16 but finished second in Bundesliga?

grace: Borussia Dortmund — a team no one would guess has the best xG difference in the Bundesliga!

ryan: FBref just released a cool new player-scouting tool and it sums up Erling Haaland perfectly. He runs into the penalty area and then he shoots — and that’s it:

cwick: is that not what a striker is supposed to do??

ryan: That’s why he’s so good! Keep it simple, stupid. Also, imagine if he figures out how to do all the other stuff.

tchow: I think this is both a weaker and more unstable Dortmund side than last year. It’s sixth in the Bundesliga right now and has also just gone through another manager firing. But Haaland in the Champions League is something else entirely. On the other hand, this Sevilla team did just beat Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal so…..

grace: Haaland does his one thing better than anyone in the world, Jadon Sancho is having an underwhelming year but it’s still a great year by anyone else’s standards. Giovanni Reyna is coming along nicely. Jude Bellingham looks legit. Youssoufa Moukoko could be the next Haaland, if such a thing is even possible.

ryan: Dortmund seems like a legit darkhorse pick to me. It’s declined a little bit since firing Lucien Favre, but it’s super-talented and it’s way better than what the Bundesliga table suggests.

grace: Sevilla, on the other hand, I’m just not sure is all that. Dortmund has had a meh year but with upside, Sevilla less so.

ryan: Sevilla is just so … meh. They’re averaging 1.5 goals per game in league play — worst of the remaining teams.

tchow: From a roster standpoint, Dortmund seems to have all the necessary weapons. Is Edin Terzić the right (caretaker) manager to put all those pieces together, though?

ryan: Roberto Di Matteo did it with a much worse team!

grace: He’s been around Dortmund for a while without ever being the guy it’s turned to before. Look, every third person on the street in Germany is a genius tactical thinker, but I don’t see a huge reason to think Terzic is particularly special.

ryan: He might not need to be, though. Dortmund’s talent is that good. I wouldn’t pick it to win, but it’s capable of knocking off anyone in the field.

tchow: You don’t have to score a lot of goals if you also don’t let in goals. Isn’t that how football works?

ryan: My favorite zen koan: It’s easier to win when you score more than one goal.

[The Mewis Sisters Are Playing Soccer Together Again. This Time, It’s At The Highest Level.]

grace: Tony favors the José Mourinho tactical approach.

tchow: That’s the rudest thing you’ve ever said about me.

cwick: We’re running out of time and Tony has a Lunar New Year’s dinner to attend to. Of the four remaining matchups, two are likely to be blowouts: Manchester City vs. Mönchengladbach and Bayern Munich vs. Lazio. So, take your pick of which to discuss: Juventus vs. Porto or Atalanta vs. Real Madrid?

tchow: We gotta do Atalanta, no?

ryan: Obviously.

grace: Porto isn’t very good this year so Atalanta-Real.

ATALANTA vs. REAL MADRID

tchow: Atalanta is the unofficial club of FiveThirtyEight soccer chats.

grace: It traditionally is, but the team has been kind of … not quite itself this year?

tchow: Yes, Grace, but we can’t just ditch the club cause it’s having an off year.

tchow: I have this hypothesis that last year’s Atalanta squad could beat this season’s Real Madrid in this matchup.

cwick: Tony always trying to find the time travel angle.

grace: This was supposed to be the year Atalanta tightened up, but it just seems to have shaved a bit off the attack without adding defensive solidity.

ryan: It’s funny. Real and Atalanta have pretty much exactly the same goal-differential in league play this year: plus-0.9 per game.

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grace: I’m just bored of this Real team. It’s the same players under the same manager doing a lot of the same stuff and it’s just getting dull.

ryan: It got walloped by City last year and really wasn’t too impressive in the group stages this season. SPI doesn’t love Atalanta — shame on you, algorithm — but I see this as a 50-50 matchup.

tchow: It would be one thing if it was doing the same stuff and it was working. But it’s been so inconsistent this season. It ended up winning Group B but it was a lot closer than it should’ve been. I think having Eden Hazard in and out of the lineup this season certainly doesn’t help and he’s gonna miss this first leg against Atalanta.

ryan: Sergio Ramos is likely out for both games, too. Atalanta seriously might have the two best players in this matchup: Duvan Zapata and gangly ole Josip Iličić.

grace: The year is 2030 and Karim Benzema is still Real Madrid’s top scorer.

tchow: And Luka Modrić is still its No. 10.

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Chadwick Matlin is a deputy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Grace Robertson is a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. She writes for a number of sites including StatsBomb.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.

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