After two months of focusing on domestic competitions, European play returns as the UEFA Champions League knockout stage begins to weed out clubs across the continent in search of a champion.
Only 16 clubs remain with their Champions League standing intact, and fans have had quite some time to stew over the matchups for this stage of the tournament.
With two legs — one at each club’s home ground — to decide the quarterfinal qualifiers, the biggest clubs across the top European leagues will be salivating at the chance to put themselves in a position to advance. Defending champions Manchester City appear as primed as ever to put forth a repeat performance of last year’s heroics. Still, the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Arsenal, and Inter will consider themselves up to the challenge.
“This is why the Champions League is so difficult to deal with,” Thierry Henry of CBS Sports in the United States told The Sporting News. “It’s not like ‘ok we drew ok we’re going to see them soon, let’s see’ no. You draw in the Champions League, or you have five minutes left and you’re not well, whoever you are you’re in trouble.
“That’s what football is all about.”
Yet it’s not always easy for the top sides at this stage of the year — just ask the likes of Borussia Dortmund or Liverpool, who found themselves out of the Champions League at this stage a year ago.
MORE: Where to watch every Champions League knockout match in USA
Odds for Champions League Round of 16
Odds as of Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, one day before kickoff of first leg matchups.
Predictions for Champions League upsets in Round of 16
The Champions League Round of 16 is crafted in such a way that the favorites are in a good position to advance, with group winners drawn against group runners-up. Often, there’s a significant gap in the talent depth between those two groups, and at this stage in the season, as injuries take hold and early-season form begins to slip, that gap can be exposed.
Given such, upsets can be hard to come by, but here are the best opportunities to seek out a surprise result, as well as those that might be enticing but are potential fool’s gold.
Best bet: Real Sociedad (+450 to advance vs. PSG)
One should be careful to jump on the bandwagon of the trendy upset pick, but of all the matchups, this appears the one most rife for an underdog to triumph.
“Sociedad is not an easy team to play,” said CBS Sports Champions League analyst Thierry Henry to The Sporting News. “What will be hard for Real Sociedad is they like to be on the ball. When you leave a lot of space for Paris to run into, with the likes of [Bradley] Barcola, Ousmane Dembele, and obviously Kylian Mbappe, you might be in trouble.
“Sociedad gave a lot of trouble to Inter Milan in the group [stage], so you can never call it out [early].”
Real Sociedad have fallen quite a bit off their prolific success through the first half of the season, but they’ll consider themselves up for this challenge against Kylian Mbappe and PSG. While their attacking edge has dipped significantly since the calendar turned to 2024, they remain a defensive force, conceding the second-fewest goals in La Liga and allowing just two goals through their six UCL group stage matches.
The French giants have established themselves as massive domestic title favorites at this stage in the season, and have not played a match with true do-or-die stakes in months. Their new-look squad with fewer superstar talents has done well internally, and they did well to advance through a difficult Champions League group. Yet the road results were spotty, with just a point from their three matches, and if they can’t break down their Spanish opponents in the first leg at home, they’ll be vulnerable for the return trip to San Sebastian.
It’s February, and Man City are a wagon. Again.
They always find their best when the title races heat up.
— Kyle Bonn (@the_bonnfire) February 10, 2024
Not enough value: RB Leipzig (+255 to advance vs. Real Madrid)
If there’s ever a time for Real Madrid to be pipped, it’s right now amidst a flurry of injuries. Los Blancos were already missing Thibaut Courtois, Eder Militao, and David Alaba to ACL tears, and they’ve been further beset by injuries to Antonio Rudiger and superstar Jude Bellingham.
MORE: Latest updates on Jude Bellingham’s ankle injury and when he is expected to return
Those absences have forced Aurelien Tchouameni back to the defensive line and Brahim Diaz into a playmaking role for at least the first leg in Germany, and both may be required in the return leg as well.
Yet the doubts stemming from those injuries have already been well baked into the betting market, and RB Leipzig’s +255 odds just aren’t juicy enough to trigger hope of an upset, with the Bundesliga side themselves in a poor run of form. Real Madrid has shown an uncanny ability to stake through adversity this season and in recent years, especially in Europe, and it will take a more enticing offer to pick against the Champions League’s most resilient club.
Stay away from: Napoli (+140 to advance vs. Barcelona)
If Barcelona had drawn almost any other knockout stage qualifier, the Catalan may have been primed for an upset. They still might — Xavi’s side has fallen short on multiple fronts this season, and those in which they remain afloat, they’re barely reaching above the water’s surface.
“Barcelona with Xavi saying he’s leaving, is always a team you’re looking at with some of their stars thinking ‘how are they going to finish the season'” said CBS Sports Champions League analyst Micah Richards to The Sporting News.
While they try to find their footing, Barcelona was fortunate enough to pull another club in Napoli desperate for any semblance of consistent form this year. Unlike Barcelona, who remain clinging to life amidst the La Liga’s top four, Napoli have completely bottomed out in the Serie A standings. Last year’s historic title charge seems to have emptied the tank of magic, and they are flailing about in ninth a full seven points adrift of the Champions League places.
Before the first round of UCL matches, Napoli looked bereft of any creativity against AC Milan at the San Siro on Sunday, cobbling together 12 shots worth a meager 0.67 xG in their 1-0 defeat. The Italians will get Victor Osimhen back from his journey to the AFCON final with Nigeria but will require rest at various stages after the arduous international journey and could be expected to dip in his production.
While Barcelona are not set up well to reach deep into this competition, they’ve been afforded a kind matchup in the Round of 16 leading fans to steer clear of this meeting between two floundering clubs.
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