Matchday 1 of the Champions League Round of 16 is in the books making it time to reflect on the four matches. It was hard to be truly impressed with any of the sides, but some sides are in for deserved criticism.
The German champions didn’t really need to be at their best against underwhelming hosts in Paris, though in totality the display wasn’t as coherent as Julian Nagelsmann would have liked from his team. Substituting Alphonse Davies for Joao Cancelo is a luxury few clubs have as Bayern flexed their muscles thanks to a deep squad which is only going to get stronger with the return of Sadio Mane. They had to ride out the last 15 minutes, but ultimately return home in a strong position thanks to a fairly comfortable victory.
Watching Milan in January made me fear for them in this fixture, but the week leading up to the game proved yet again that football is not immune to unexpected events having a dramatic impact on its outcomes. The Rossoneri midfield has been bypassed at will in recent Serie A games, but Rodrigo Bentancur’s unfortunate season-ending injury meant the San Siro welcomed a Spurs midfield featuring Pape Matar Sarr and Oliver Skipp. Add to that Hugo Lloris’ injury and all of a sudden the hosts weren’t the only side worrying about having inadequate backup between the posts. On such margins can a tie turn, especially in this competition which remains a beacon of unpredictability despite increasing stratification across the game.
Milan were more dogged than dominant and there may even be some regrets at missed chances to add to the scoreline. Nevertheless, several factors make this result a significant achievement for Stefano Pioli. This was Milan’s first knockout tie in the Champions League since 2014. They are also suffering from a horrible injury crisis. Their squad is built on a budget that would have Spurs fan loving Daniel Levy. And to top it off, Milan have had several chastening experiences against English sides in Europe over the last five years. The San Siro faithful were delighted at the final whistle, and rightly so.
Dortmund’s victory over Chelsea in the first ever meeting between the two sides came down to three factors. First, Chelsea’s profligacy. Second, an inspired goalkeeping performance from Gregor Kobel. Third, a fantastic solo goal from Karim Adeyemi, which actually came from a counter from another missed Chelsea chance. Some will say that Dortmund have rarely had the kind of gritty 1-0 win that you need at times in this competition, but there’s a thin line between being extremely lucky and being tough to beat. You don’t always need to be good to progress in the Champions League, a theme that feels even more apt this year, but it’s hard to see Dortmund’s lack of nous in game management taking them too far.
With Enzo Fernandez in the side, Benfica could really have dreamt of doing something special in this year’s competition, in a similar vein to Ajax in 2019. That last minute sale definitely reduces the potency of this team, but there is still more than enough quality in this side to beat Brugge, which they did. The Liga Nos leaders know all too well the pitfalls of being the favourites against a side with nothing to lose. It was Benfica after all, who as underdogs in the round of 16 sprung a surprise on Erik ten Hag’s heavily fancied Ajax side last year. Roger Schmidt ensured his side didn’t suffer the same fate as they rode out a tricky first half, before clinically killing the tie in the second. Benfica leave Belgium with a place in the quarterfinals virtually assured.
There isn’t anything new to say about this PSG defeat, yet again at the moment in their season when they face their biggest challenge. The only difference this time is that many could see it coming considering how poorly PSG have been playing in 2023. The French champions were never going to be balanced enough, even against a Bayern side who are yet to truly find their groove this year. They roused themselves in the last 15 minutes after the introduction of Kylian Mbappe, who admitted himself that he probably shouldn’t have played. That a barely fit Mbappe was PSG’s driving force for their best period of the game, tells us quite a significant story. In theory, playing on the counter in Munich might suit Christophe Galtier’s side, but that relies on Bayern underperforming and Gianluigi Donnaruma being flawless, which the Italian has been anything but in his knockout appearances for the club. It’s hard to see anything but another failed attempt to land the prize they covet the most.
In a competition rife with opportunity, many Spurs fans might have felt a deep run in the Champions League was a possibility, even legislating for Antonio Conte’s underwhelming record in Europe. And then, the aforementioned injuries struck at the worst possible time for Tottenham. That being said, the young duo in midfield of Sarr and Skipper actually played well. What’s most galling for Conte is that several of his available key players underperformed with the exception of, well, the exceptional Harry Kane. Spurs are lucky in a sense to return to London only a goal behind, and considering their options in attack, should still believe they can progress. However, the North London side have been so inconsistent this season, that one can’t have too much faith in them. It’s hard to consistently win matches at the highest level when so many in the side play as passengers.
There are a lot of big picture challenges at Chelsea and lots of doubters that Graham Potter has to turn into believers. However, their performance in Germany deserves very little criticism, with the exception of their finishing. Joao Felix’s pass and move combinations have added a layer of penetration hitherto unseen for the Blues this season and if only the Portuguese would have buried a sitter in the first half, we’d be talking about a different outcome. Enzo Fernandez linked play really well with Chelsea’s attackers, and were it not for Gregor Kobel’s heroics, the Argentinian himself would have been on the scoresheet. You’d have to back Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on the strength of their improving performances. The caveat being that Chelsea haven’t scored two goals in a game many times this season. Better sides have been eliminated for missing chances in the history of this competition.
First of all, Brugge’s squad bares little comparison to Benfica’s. Add into the mix, Scott Parker taking on Roger Schmidt in the dugout, and there was bound to be only one winner. The Belgian side’s only hope was coming out of the blocks and making a fast start, which they did, but didn’t capitalize on their chances. Unless Benfica self-destruct, it’s hard to see how they can get anything in Portugal.
I enjoyed Club Brugge’s story in the group stages this year, and at the time felt their progression was just reward for some enterprising displays against the biggest sides in recent years. However, it now seems clear that qualifying for the round of 16 as quickly as after the third game meant they met their expectations too early and simply haven’t looked a Champions League side since then. It just goes to show, there is a balance to be sought between a good underdog story and having quality in the knockout stages when you most want to see it.