Best of enemies Messi and Ramos team up against Real Madrid, Chelsea meet Lille in the ‘Joe Cole derby’ and Ronaldo LOVES playing Atletico… but can Man United really threaten them? Why we can’t wait for the Champions League to return
- The first half of the last-16 Champions League ties get underway this week
- Paris Saint-Germain meet Real Madrid in one of the stand-out fixtures
- Liverpool face Inter Milan and next week, Man United play Atletico Madrid
- Sportsmail looks at some of the major talking points in Europe’s top competition
The Champions League, finally, is back this week in a move that signals the season ramping up into the business end of the campaign.
Europe’s elite cross paths once again with the first half of the last-16 ties taking place this week and the others getting underway next week.
Sportsmail looks at some of the major talking points ahead of kick-off tonight.
Chelsea’s defence of their Champions League title continues against Lille in the last-16
MESSI, RAMOS AND MBAPPE TAKE ON MADRID
In their pomp at Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos often clashed in El Clasico showdowns between Spain’s two major sides.
But this week, they combine their talents to try and down Ramos’s former side in arguably the stand-out tie of the round between PSG and Carlo Ancelotti’s men.
For the French giants, Champions League glory is their ultimate aim and has been for several seasons. Messi’s arrival is geared towards finally landing the trophy for the first time.
For many years, Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos were Barcelona and Real Madrid enemies
Now, they are playing together for Paris Saint-Germain and will face Madrid this week
There is also the sub-plot of Kylian Mbappe, the PSG striker who is strongly linked with a summer move to Madrid on a free transfer when his current deal expires.
Speaking last week to Amazon Prime, Mbappe was coy over what playing Madrid now means to him.
‘Have I made a decision over my future? No,’ Mbappe said. ‘Playing against Real Madrid changes a lot of things. Although I have the freedom to do what I want in this moment, I am not going to speak with a rival or do that type of thing.
‘I am concentrated on winning against Real Madrid. And then we will see what happens.’
PSG striker Kylian Mbappe has been linked with a summer move to Madrid on a free transfer
THE JOE COLE DERBY
The draw for the last-16 took two takes after an error over the placement of Manchester United’s ball. But one fixture that came out both times was Chelsea v Lille – a tie which has been labelled the ‘Joe Cole derby’.
The BT Sport pundit enjoyed seven years at Chelsea, winning three Premier League titles at Stamford Bridge. He spent a year with French side Lille in the 2011-12 season.
And Cole has warned Thomas Tuchel’s men, the defending champions, not to underestimate the French side who are 10th in Ligue 1.
Chelsea hero Joe Cole spent a season with French side Lille in the 2011-12 campaign
Cole spent seven years as a Chelsea player, winning three league titles at Stamford Bridge
‘Chelsea will be very, very happy with that but I’d put a word of caution on that because Lille are a very exciting, strong, aggressive team,’ Cole told BT Sport when the draw was made.
‘They have nothing to lose. Chelsea are the champions and are the hunted. When Lille play, it can be one hell of an atmosphere. It’s going to be a tough one.
‘They’re probably breathing a sigh of relief to avoid Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and I get that, but you can’t discount this Lille team. Lots of good, young players who will be fearless so Chelsea must be wary of an upset.’
UNITED’S LAST SHOT AT A TROPHY
They’re rank outsiders but the Champions League this season now represents Manchester United’s last shot at silverware and they have a hard last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid.
The first leg, next week, is away at the Wanda Metropolitano. Atletico haven’t enjoyed the season we are used to seeing from them – like United, they are currently fifth in the standings and are battling to make the top four and qualify for next season’s tournament.
Cristiano Ronaldo is currently enduring a six-game goal drought at United but has two games against Brighton and Leeds to rediscover his goalscoring touch.
And he loves a game against Atletico – with 25 goals against them in 35 games, the 37-year-old has scored more against Simeone’s men than any other team in his career. So don’t rule United out of this one just yet.
Ronaldo has struggled lately at Manchester United but loves playing Atletico Madrid
CAN LIVERPOOL REPRISE THEIR EUROPEAN MAGIC?
Jurgen Klopp’s men are among the favourites to lift the trophy for a seventh time in their history and they begin the knock-out stages with a trip to the San Siro this week to meet Serie A holders Inter Milan.
It probably represents Liverpool’s best chance of glory this season, considering they trail Manchester City by nine points in the Premier League, albeit with a game in hand.
Jurgen Klopp and Mohamed Salah will lead Liverpool’s bid for a seventh European Cup
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE ODDS
Man City 11/4, Bayern Munich 4/1
Liverpool 11/2, Chelsea 9/1
PSG 11/1, Ajax 20/1, Real Madrid 21/1
Man United 24/1, Juventus 31/1
Atletico Madrid 45/1, Inter Milan 59/1
Villarreal 249/1, Benfica 249/1
Lille 399/1, Sporting Lisbon 499/1
Red Bull Salzburg 499/1
According to Betfair
Inter are second in Serie A, a point behind leaders AC Milan with a game in hand. This is not likely to be a straightforward tie for Liverpool – as former Reds and Inter boss Rafa Benitez has warned.
‘It’s a more balanced game than what many think,’ Benitez told Football Italia.
‘Their 3-5-2 can create trouble to teams that are not accustomed to facing it. On the other hand, Liverpool play with an offensive and aggressive 4-3-3.
‘They have intensity and I expect two exciting matches. The team that will be able to keep the ball possession for a longer time will prevail.
‘Both have the technical abilities to make the opponents run.
‘Simone Inzaghi is a coach with clear ideas, it was not easy to replace Antonio Conte, who had won the title, but he has done a great job by finding the harmony of the group, obtaining excellent results.’
CITY SHOOT FOR GLORY AGAIN
Like PSG, Champions League glory is the ultimate goal for Manchester City – whatever Pep Guardiola may say. They were runners-up last season, edged 1-0 by Chelsea in the final after a Kai Havertz goal.
They ramp up their bid for European glory with a tie against Sporting Lisbon, a match which they should be quite comfortable with.
But with every year that passes, a little bit more pressure falls onto Guardiola and City once they reach the knock-out stages.
They have a handsome nine-point lead at the summit of the Premier League standings so can afford to focus on Sporting without feeling negligent of domestic matters.
It’s a chance for City to lay down an early marker and show the rest of Europe that this time around, they really are the team to beat.
Man City will use last season’s Champions League heartbreak to inspire them this time around
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