After a hiatus of over two months, our HPS Champions League watchability rankings are back ahead of the Round of 16 leg 1 matches.
Games are scheduled as follows over the next two weeks, with the home teams listed first.
Note: a few of these games will be played at neutral sites due to the current bans Germany and Spain have on travelers from the U.K. The neutral-site contests have asterisks.
- Tuesday, February 16, 3 p.m. Eastern: RB Leipzig-Liverpool*; Barcelona-PSG
- Wednesday, February 17, 3 p.m.: Sevilla-Borussia Dortmund; Porto-Juventus
- Tuesday, February 23, 3 p.m.: Atlético Madrid-Chelsea*; Lazio-Bayern Munich
- Wednesday, February 24, 3 p.m.: Atalanta-Real Madrid; Mönchengladbach-Manchester City
The tiers used for the group play editions are no use here, as all these games are must-see, or something like that (see Nos. 5-8 on this list). Each team’s odds to advance appear up top, with leg 1 odds mentioned in the breakdown.
1. Barcelona (-112) vs. PSG (-112)
There were plenty of options to top this list, but I couldn’t take myself seriously if I led with anything other than this one. It’s a shame Neymar will miss leg 1 – fingers crossed he’s back for leg 2 – but his clash with his old team was just one of a million interesting storylines in this one. For leg 1 at Camp Nou, Barcelona is favored at +105 over PSG at +225.
There’s plenty of on-field intrigue here. For example, how does PSG contain Lionel Messi and Co. up top? Can Barcelona’s makeshift back line prevent an outburst like the one Barcelona allowed vs. Bayern Munich in last year’s UCL quarters??
Drama, Drama, Drama
Let’s start with what this means, big picture, though. Because Ligue 1 has a broadcast situation that makes Barcelona’s front office look stable, PSG’s looking at a really tricky summer (and yes, I’m aware their owners are not exactly cash-strapped). Barcelona’s also in justtt a bit of debt and in serious danger of losing Lionel Messi. So yeah, the loser of this one is staring down an unbearable immediate future, especially with both teams far from assured – at least for right now – of any domestic hardware.
And oh yeah, the on-field battle here – you can’t beat that line — is pretty damn compelling in its own right. Pochettino has PSG playing well – they’re 7-1-1 in all competitions since he took over – but can they outscore Barcelona without Neymar or Angel di María. You would certainly hope so against a back line of Jordi Alba and a lot of unproven pieces. Between PSG surely exposing the cracks in the Barcelona defense and the involvement of Messi and an in-form Griezmann up top for the Catalans, goals should be plentiful.
I could go on, but missing this one would be a big mistake.
2. Atletico Madrid (-105) vs. Chelsea (-118)
This one, or any of the match-ups ranked between 3 and 5, could be the top game, I swear. That’s the beauty of the Champions League. I’ll try to be a little more original going forward, but it’s really staggering to have this many great match-ups at this stage.
Chelsea, along with PSG, is the team whose new manager could make the most noise over the months ahead. Thomas Tuchel won’t have it easy, though, as Atleti has been the best team in Spain for months. Their domestic form this season, combined with the issues their always-stout defense causes opponents every year in this tournament, makes them a team nobody wants to see.
But maybe, just maybe, Chelsea is catching them at a good time. They’re also lucky they don’t have to travel to Atleti’s Wanda Metropolitano (leg 1 will be played in Bucharest), which could be part of the reason the line for leg 1 is Atleti +163-Chelsea +195.
Joao Felix and underrated winger Yannick Carrasco are two of a growing list of players who might either miss this game or be rusty after testing positive for COVID-19 and missing time in recent weeks.
Hopefully, we get to see Luis Suárez and Felix vs. Chelsea’s improved, but still so-so defense and the Blues’ endless list of attacking threats against a full-strength back line for Los Rojiblancos. Either way, though, expect a good one.
3. RB Leipzig (+250) vs. Liverpool (-315)
Liverpool has all the pedigree in the world after the last couple years, but the current version of the Reds has suffered one (or five) injuries too many for me to believe they’ll go far in the Champions League. RBL has seemingly not missed a beat despite Timo Werner’s exit last year, as more and more fans realize this is one of the best-coached clubs on the continent under Julian Nagelsmann.
It’s baffling to me that Leipzig is both +250 to advance and +245 to win leg 1 (Liverpool is +110), but I guess that’s understandable given Liverpool’s accomplishments in ’19 and ’20. I’d like Leipzig a lot more if they were playing at home in Germany (this one will be played at Budapests’ Puskas Arena), with or without fans, but still think they’ll triumph over Jurgen Klopp’s depleted back line.
4. Sevilla (+116) vs. BVB (-143)
Julen Lopetegui’s team gave us our latest reminder of what a solid squad he has this week, when they handled Barcelona in leg 1 of the Copa del Rey semifinals without Lucas Ocampos. Barcelona entered that game in-form offensively, but Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann failed to generate much against a Sevilla back line that was without preferred left back Jesus Navas or first-choice right back Marcos Acuna.
Navas and Acuna should be back to help star center back Jules Kounde against the goal-scoring machine that is Borussia Dortmund. BVB has plenty of star power, but their play in the Bundesliga (they’re in sixth on 32 points through 20 matches) has left a lot to be desired. Sevilla strikes me as the better team, even if they lack household names. The La Liga side is great value at home in leg 1 – the line is Sevilla (+145)-BVB (+195) – and/or to advance.
5. Atalanta (+200) vs. Real Madrid (-250)
Atalanta, to this point in the season, does not appear as potent as it was a year ago. But the veteran roster that nearly upset PSG in last year’s UCL quarters is nearly intact. The one exception is crafty midfielder Alejandro Gomez, who recently left for Sevilla.
Real Madrid is not what it was a year ago, when Zinedine Zidane’s team was impenetrable down the stretch in La Liga. I can’t pick them confidently in Champions League knockout play due to their inconsitency this year, and it doesn’t help that Sergio Ramos will miss several weeks due to knee surgery.
Atalanta will make sure these games aren’t goalless – and they probably won’t be 1-0, either – but don’t be surprised if one or both match-ups turn into slogs. With everything at stake for Zidane and RM, though, both these games should be entertaining, even if they lack a ton of attacking flair (Zidane’s team has lacked it for a while and although Atalanta certainly does not, I don’t see them lighting up Thibaut Courtois).
Atlanta is +160 at home in leg 1 (RM is +155) and the Italians, or the draw (+270), both seem like good bets.
6. Porto (+375) vs. Juventus (-500)
I have far less to say about the last three games on this list. Maybe a “not-so-must-see” tier would have been a good idea after all. The overall line is indicative of the gap between a team featuring CR7 and a team featuring … whoever leads the way for Porto. The good news is that the line for leg 1 is Juve (-103)-Porto (+330), which means a close game is a decent possibility.
7. Monchengladbach (+700) vs. Manchester City (-1,250)
8. Lazio (+550) vs. Bayern Munich (-835)
I should have learned my lesson last year when I wrote off Lyon vs. Juventus as a cakewalk for the Serie A champs (we all know how that actually played out). But I don’t have it in me to make a case for either of these match-ups being anything other than a blowout.