THE UEFA Champions League excelled itself in the first leg stage of the last 16. There were 34 goals in eight games, that’s an average of 4.25 per tie. These are the sort of figures we can only dream about in major football competitions. Just consider that in 2016, the average goals per game of the European Championship was a paltry and totally uninspiring 2.12 – hardly the stuff that TV broadcasters are looking for.
Goals aside, the last 16 has already given us thrills aplenty and the sort of quality that has been missing from recent tournaments and finals. It has, quite simply, been brilliant.
Let’s not kid ourselves that the second legs will be equally captivating. A couple of ties are already over – Arsenal are as good as on the tube home and Barcelona won’t need to book their hotels for Cardiff – but there are still games to be won and aggregates to be turned around.
But the performances of Paris St. Germain, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich demonstrated once more the gap between the truly top clubs and, for example, the English Premier League. Arsenal’s capitulation is another reminder that getting to the last 16 is one thing, but being able to compete is another. Manchester City may have recovered in spectacular fashion against Monaco, but against a more lethal attack, their defence may have left them staring at a heavy defeat. And while Real and Barca usually get all the plaudits, Atletico Madrid’s 4-2 away win is another indication of their European pedigree – can you imagine a similar result coming from an English side? Just look how tamely Tottenham have gone out of Europe not once but twice this season!
We cannot claim that the Champions League is a sort of footballing utopia where all is perfect, because it is not. We have written before that the UCL is a vast, all-consuming machine that has done as much damage as it has good. There are irritations such as the sheer size of the competition, the pomposity that is the CL hymn, the Gazprom advertisements, the group stage and the way the competition has demeaned the Europa League. But at its best, which is what we saw in the first leg of the round of 16, it is compelling stuff. Why? Because it is old-fashioned two-legged knock-out fare at its finest.
What can we expect in the second legs? Here’s the GOTP last eight prediction:
Bayern Munich – Arsenal to win by a small margin, but unable to dent the armour
Sevilla – Leicester to be beaten again at home?
Paris St. Germain – Barca mount a brave attempt but not enough
Juventus – Steady stuff against Porto
Dortmund – 1-0 down, but they should scrape through against Benfica
Atletico Madrid – 4-2 up, so expect another win against Leverkusen
Manchester City – It might be tight, but they should edge out Monaco
Real Madrid – A two-goal lead should be enough against Napoli.