After everything that transpired in the semifinals of last year’s Champions League, we should have been prepared for the unexpected when this year’s UCL round of 16 got underway last week.
It was nevertheless stunning to see both Liverpool and Paris St. Germain fall in Leg 1 on the road to open round of 16 action on February 18. Prior to the opening round of knockout play, Liverpool (+400 as of February 17) was the favorite to win the tournament in futures, and PSG (+700) held the fifth-best odds.
As it turned out, the Reds’ 1-0 loss at Atlético Madrid and the Parisians’ 2-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund were just two of several notable upsets we would see, as Juventus lost 1-0 to Lyon and Barcelona drew Napoli 1-1.
The question is which, if any, of these teams – all of which were among the top six to win it all, per the futures odds – could fail to reach the quarters. We’ll start with the team in the most danger, PSG, and work our way down to the team whose elimination would be the most surprising.
PSG: Here we go again? – Leg 2, March 11, 4 p.m.
Fans of the Ligue 1 juggernaut must already be shaking their head in disgust. A year ago, it was a very unimpressive – and I say that with all due respect, of course — Manchester United that managed to knock out Kylian Mbappé and Co. Before that, it was Real Madrid in ’18 and Barcelona in ’17 who prevented the Parisians from even reaching the final eight of this tournament.
This year, while the other teams in their group had a lot to do with it, it was hard not to be impressed with the Ligue 1 champs after they captured 16 of 18 possible points in group play and posted a differential of plus-15. More than anything – since big-time offensive production is nothing new for this team – it was the defense, which allowed just two goals in those games, that made you think this year’s PSG was different. Domestically, they’ve done a solid job stifling their opponents (24 goals allowed in 26 games).
Yet there Dortmund was in front of that vaunted Yellow Wall, with Erling Haaland scoring twice to lead his team to the Leg 1 upset. The real question is how did Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di María only manage one goal (on three shots on target) against an opponent that has allowed 33 goals in 23 Bundesliga games this year.
And more importantly, can those guys lead their team to the two- or three-goal (minimum) output they’ll need at home on March 11? If they manage to dominate the first half and get most of the heavy lifting done by halftime, I think they’ll manage to go through. But if the outcome is still up in the air late, it’s easy to see PSG’s miserable recent history weighing it down as Haaland, Jadon Sancho and the rest of Dortmund’s young stars become the latest club to deny Paris St. Germain European glory.
The line here has PSG at -115 to go through compared to BVB at -107, which tells you how much confidence Vegas has in Neymar and Co. getting the monkey off their back.
Juventus: Is Cristiano Ronaldo enough to overturn the 1-0 deficit? – Leg 2, March 17, 4 p.m.
In a word, yes. Juve strikes me as unlikely to go much past the quarters of this tournament, but if they could overturn a 2-0 hole vs. a seasoned Atleti squad a year ago, they can certainly manage a 2-0 result in Leg 2 vs. the seventh-place team in Ligue 1. Not only is Lyon 28 points behind first-place PSG, the club is also 18 points behind second-place Marseille. And they’re missing Memphis Depay.
The Serie A leaders have the easiest task of the four teams on this list, but they strike me as more likely to suffer a stunning elimination than either Liverpool or Barcelona.
Vegas likes CR7’s team (-139) to advance, but not overwhelmingly so, as Lyon is +112 to complete the upset.
Barcelona handles Napoli at home, right? – Leg 2, March 18, 4 p.m.
The Catalans are extremely beatable (to put it nicely) on the road, as they showed us once again vs. Napoli this week. But they remain an absolute force at Camp Nou, which is where Leg 2 will take place.
If Barcelona were healthy – and I don’t even mean up top, where they still miss Luis Suárez, and could use Ousmane Dembélé – I’d be all in on them in this one. But they’ll be missing midfielders Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets for Leg 2 due to suspension. In addition to those losses, the status of Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto and Gerard Piqué is also unclear due to those players’ injuries. I like Lionel Messi to will them to a victory despite all those absence, but it’s not going to be easy, even at home.
The line is Barcelona at -500 to go through, while Napoli is +360, which is skewed awfully far in the direction of the Catalans.
Liverpool will remind us that there’s no place like Anfield, but it won’t be a breeze – Leg 2, March 11, 4 p.m.
A little-known fact about Liverpool is that they tend to play pretty well in front of their home fans on European nights. The beating they gave Barcelona is still reverberating throughout Europe, or at least throughout Catalonia. I’m convinced we’re in for another tremendous performance from Jurgen Klopp’s team.
Atleti is simply too overmanned to replicate what they pulled off in Leg 1, but with a healthy Joao Felix, Koke and Kieran Trippier, they’re going to make life difficult for the Reds. I’d be shocked to see them capitulate the way Barcelona did a year ago, but I’d be even more shocked to see Liverpool bow out in the round of 16.
Liverpool is a slight favorite to go through at -122, while Atleti (+100) is even money to pull off the upset of the year.