The draw for the Champions League round of 16 is set, and even though the first games will not be played for two months, we already know that at least one true European power will be eliminated before the quarterfinals kick off, and a couple more elite clubs could be in trouble. This is because the Champions League draw pitted some of the best teams in the world against each other in early clashes. According to Soccer Power Index, six of the nine best teams to make the knockouts have been drawn against each other. These three matchups — each of which consists of two games, one at each club’s home grounds — should give the Round of 16 a new level of drama.
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Juventus
Juventus has made the Champions League finals twice in the last three seasons, while Tottenham’s last semifinals appearance in a major tournament came in the 1984 UEFA Cup. SPI nonetheless projects this as a close match, giving Juventus a small 56 to 44 percent advantage in chance to advance. By the underlying numbers, not too much separates these two teams. Spurs may be sixth in the Premier League standings, but the clubs are bunched tightly together, and just four points separate Tottenham from third-place Chelsea. By expected goals, a statistical measure of the quality of chances created and conceded, Tottenham fares even better. The North London side’s plus-17.5 expected goal difference is second-best in the league behind Manchester City.
Meanwhile Juventus, despite a 12-2-2 record in Italy, looks somewhat more vulnerable than it has in the past. Through 16 matches in Serie A, Juve has conceded 19 clear scoring chances, which are defined as opportunities in which a player is expected to score, like when a shooter is one-on-one with the goalie. That works out to a little over one clear chance conceded per match, which isn’t bad, but over the last three seasons, Juventus has averaged 20 clear chances conceded per full season — or roughly 0.5 per match. The defense, shorn of superstar Leonardo Bonucci, has not yet fully come together. Tottenham will be hoping that the defense does not cohere before this February clash.
Chelsea vs. Barcelona
SPI ranks Barcelona as the best team in the world, and the Blaugranes had the misfortune to draw Chelsea, the world’s ninth-best team. Despite the big names here, SPI projects this matchup to go chalk. Chelsea’s chance of making the quarterfinals dropped from 41 to 24 percent after the draw was announced, while Barcelona’s moved only slightly, from 79 to 76 percent.
These two sides’ statistical profiles offer a study in the importance of generating quality chances. This year, Barcelona has outshot its opponents 230 to 162. Chelsea’s shot difference is nearly identical: 240 to 170. However, Barca has outscored its opponents by 31 goals, easily surpassing Chelsea’s plus-15 goal difference. The reason is chance quality, as measured by expected goals. Barcelona has created so many good scoring chances that the club averages 0.16 expected goals per shot. This is not to say Chelsea is just wildly firing everything at net — its 0.1 expected goals per shot attempt is about average but inferior to the otherworldly Barca number. All this is to say that Barcelona deserves its large edge in goals, and this is a big part of the reason that SPI projects Barcelona as big favorites.
The hope that Chelsea fans will be clinging to is that the last time the Blues were huge underdogs against Barcelona, they pulled off an all-time upset in the 2012 Champions League semifinals, en route to an unlikely trophy. This year, Chelsea would need another dose of that good fortune in the round of 16.
Real Madrid vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Spurs-Juve and Chelsea-Barca are fun, but this is the clear marquee matchup of the first round. Real vs. PSG is a matchup you might expect in the semifinals, and it wouldn’t have been half bad as a final. How rough a draw was this for PSG and Madrid? Before the draw, the two teams combined for a 30 percent chance of winning the Champions League, according to Soccer Power Index. Now the teams’ combined chance is only 22 percent. Real Madrid fell from 17 to 13 percent, and PSG dropped from 13 to 9 percent. Manchester City, which was fortunate to draw FC Basel, has moved up to third in the SPI projections for eventual champion, tied with Real Madrid and ahead of PSG.
Here’s how the draw affected each team remaining in the tournament based on its projected chance of reaching the semifinals, reaching the finals and winning it all:
|BEFORE DRAW||AFTER DRAW||DIFFERENCE|
Madrid and PSG both have oodles of world-class talent, but even with over 40 percent of the season done, both clubs are difficult to evaluate. Real Madrid stands a disappointing fourth in La Liga. Its struggles appear to be mostly with finishing, as Real has scored 27 non-penalty goals but created 35.5 expected goals. If the finishing improves, Real should be fine, and SPI continues to view this side among the world’s best. But any vulnerability in a team that should be as dominant as Real Madrid is a little worrying.
PSG pose a harder question still. The Parisian side has dominated Ligue 1 and holds a nine-point lead over second-place Lyon. But Ligue 1 is just not that good. There are no other Ligue 1 sides in the SPI top 20, while Italy has five clubs among the world’s best, Spain has four, and England has its big six. The test will come in the Champions League, which is the only competition where PSG matches up against clubs of similar strength. This showdown with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real, these 180 minutes across two tilts, is why PSG spent untold millions on Neymar last summer and is scheduled to deliver another dump truck worth of cash next summer to turn the loan of Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe into a permanent addition. The duo’s combined 15 goals and 11 assists in Ligue 1 are nice, but given the money the team has spent and the weakness of its league, Neymar and Mbappe can only truly pay off in the Champions League. An opportunity to prove their worth comes early in the round of 16.
Whoever emerges from this matchup will be one of the favorites for the trophy, having demonstrated their strength and eliminated a top contender.