PSG, Man United’s ties in the balance; Man City’s five-star display


The Champions League’s round of 16 is only at its midway point but we’ve already seen Manchester City fire five goals past Sporting CP, Dusan Vlahovic wastes no time in announcing his arrival for Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe stun Real Madrid with his late winner.

Manchester United had to rely on substitute Anthony Elanga to avoid defeat at Atletico Madrid, while Liverpool and defending champions Chelsea both took commanding 2-0 leads in their respective ties. The closest we came to a shock result was Bayern Munich’s draw at FC Salzburg while the tournament’s top scorer, Ajax’s Sebastien Haller, scored at both ends at Benfica.

We asked Gab Marcotti, James Olley and Graham Hunter for their views on some big questions.



Craig Burley and Steve Nicol are full of praise for Dusan Vlahovic after Juventus’ 1-1 draw with Villarreal.

What caught your attention from the first legs of the round of 16?

Marcotti: Man City. I know it’s a « Captain Obvious » thing to say but, among the favorites in the first legs, I thought they looked most impressive. Salzburg also proved — again — that if you have pace and energy and are well-coached you can nearly upend one of the heavyweights.

Olley: City were undeniably impressive, but elsewhere there was plenty of anticipation over how long it would take Vlahovic to make an impact in this competition for Juventus following his protracted €75 million January move from Fiorentina. The answer was 32 seconds. The 22-year-old scored the quickest goal ever by a Champions League debutant. Although it was only enough to earn a 1-1 draw at Villarreal, Vlahovic announced himself on Europe’s grandest stage in fine style.

Hunter: Lots of choices: Vlahovic taking to Champions League football like a duck to water, Joao Felix sending another message to Diego Simeone that he is « the real deal, » the reigning champions playing with authority, Mohamed Salah shrugging off AFCON disappointment in exchange for Euro magnificence, Real Madrid looking pathetic in Paris. But on the first night of the away goals rule not applying in UEFA competitions since 1965 — a ridiculous, negative change — the most wonderful part of this round so far has to be City’s 5-0 destruction of Sporting. The imperious attitude they showed, which seemed to say « we play this way, home or away, » was inspirational.



Ale Moreno showers Kylian Mbappe with praise after his performance in Paris Saint-Germain’s 1-0 win over Real Madrid in Champions League.

Out of Mbappe, Messi and Neymar, who is most important to PSG?

Hunter: Everything depends on context. For PSG’s future « signing credibility » they must show they’re capable of making Lionel Messi happy and successful. That’s vital to how PSG are perceived by other top players and key if they want to influence how many season-defining goals their Argentine maestro provides in the short term. For the team to open up opponents who just sit deep, and for them to ignite Messi, it’s probably an in-form Neymar who’s most important. But in all other terms — including age, development potential, goal supply and fighting off the rivals who most covet PSG’s star — it’s Mbappe by a long, long way.


Marcotti: Right now, it’s Mbappe. Not just because he’s in better form, but also because he’s not as supply-dependent as the others and he’s fully fit as well.

Olley: It feels almost blasphemous not to say Lionel Messi, but Mbappe has eight goals in his last nine games (Messi has three in nine, Neymar has only just returned from injury). Also, the uncertainty over the Frenchman’s future may be providing a fresh sense of purpose that can help PSG in the coming weeks.



Alejandro Moreno contends that Atletico Madrid’s performance is more a reflection of how poorly Manchester United has been playing.

Which ‘in control’ team is most at risk of their tie being turned around?

Olley: Manchester United aren’t necessarily in control of their tie with Atletico Madrid, but they are favorites to progress following Wednesday’s 1-1 draw in Spain. However, United were very lucky to escape the Wanda Metropolitano with that scoreline and Atletico have been better on the road in the Champions League this season, beating Porto and AC Milan in the group stage. Their willingness to concede possession to prioritize defensive stability is precisely the kind of conundrum United have repeatedly failed to solve at Old Trafford in recent times, so the warning signs are clear.

Hunter: There aren’t many « in control » ties, and only one that we can confidently declare to be over. But (and I can’t believe I’m saying this, given how awful Madrid were in their 1-0 defeat at Parc des Princes, and taking into account they’ll be missing Ferland Mendy and Casemiro) PSG are odd. They are really strong favorites to progress, yet very evidently brittle and they are only ever 48 hours away from a row, a crisis or a weird result. Karim Benzema wasn’t fit for the first leg but, hopefully, will be rocket-fueled for the return. Anyone who understands Los Blancos, at home under the floodlights and with stung pride, knows that, historically, magical things can happen. Unless of course Mbappe, Messi and Neymar finally click… anyway, bring it on.

Marcotti: It’s a really good question, especially with the away goals rule being scrapped, and maybe not as obvious as one might have thought. So I’m going to say Ajax. A 2-2 away draw under the old rules meant you were practically through. Now it means you have to win at home. And that can create opportunities for Benfica on the break.

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What is your favorite Champions League final host city?

Marcotti: I’d say Milan, because it’s my hometown, but that would show my bias. So I’m going to say Kyiv, where I saw Real Madrid beat Liverpool in the 2018 final and also watched Spain win Euro 2012 to claim their third consecutive major tournament. I love how the stadium is right in town and, given the current situation, my thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Kyiv that they may remain safe.

Olley: Wow, that’s tough — so many great cities to choose from. I might give a boring logistical answer here and say Madrid. Not that the Spanish capital isn’t great in its own right: it’s beautiful place, the weather invariably great and you have the choice of the iconic Bernabeu or the modern-day marvel that is the Wanda Metropolitano. But, importantly, both venues are on the metro system and the city center is well connected to the airport.

Hunter: I’ve been at 15 Champions League finals in 13 different cities so this is a tough choice. I could be influenced by being on a very liquid sponsor’s trip to Hampden when Zinedine Zidane scored THAT goal for Real Madrid. Or by when I’ve interviewed a participating player with the trophy in a locker room not long after the whistle (Wembley, Munich). Or the one where I arrived at the stadium in a rickshaw (Berlin). But my favorite must be the one that changed my life. Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich at Barcelona’s Camp Nou in 1999 was remarkable, in many ways, but my work that night was spotted by the (late) head of Sky Sports and he recruited me for their Spanish football coverage because of it.


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