Champions League matchups as Chelsea resumes title defense
A look at the last-16 first-leg games being played in the Champions League this week:
CHELSEA VS. LILLE
It’s the only matchup that stayed the same after the Champions League draw had to be redone after a glitch. Chelsea will be even more delighted now. The European champions can still host a side that has endured an alarming collapse, with Lille going from French champions least season to midtable now, 23 points behind Paris Saint-Germain at the top. Chelsea, by contrast, has recovered from a wobble to win back-to-back Premier League games to make its hold on third place more secure.
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel just needs to get record-signing Romelu Lukaku to be more prolific. Aside from two goals in this month’s run to the Club World Cup title, the striker hasn’t scored a goal against top-tier opposition since December in England. He only managed seven touches of the ball in Saturday’s 1-0 win at Crystal Palace — the fewest by any Premier League player in 90 minutes since Opta started logging the data over the last two decades. Tuchel blamed the lack of overall fluency on his players looking “a bit drained, a bit exhausted” after the Abu Dhabi trip.
Lille is also encountering frustration in attack with striker Jonathan David’s goals drying up. The Canada forward had a bright first half of the season with three Champions League goals in the group stage and 12 goals in the French league this season. But he is experiencing a drought and has not scored in his last six league games. Lille coach Jocelyn Gourvennec does at least seem to have stabilized the defense and heads to London on the back of two clean sheets.
VILLARREAL VS. JUVENTUS
Juventus hopes to return to the quarterfinals after being eliminated by Porto and Lyon at this stage in the last two seasons on an away-goals rule that has now been scrapped. It had advanced past the round of 16 three straight times before that. Massimiliano Allegri’s team is coming off two straight draws in the Italian league and has only one win in its last four games in the competition.
Villarreal, playing in the last 16 for the first time in 13 years, enters the match with forward Arnaut Danjuma in top form after he was sidelined for nearly two months because of an injury. Making only his third appearance with the Spanish club since returning, the Dutchman scored a hat trick in Villarreal’s 4-1 win at Granada in the Spanish league on Saturday. That extended the team’s unbeaten streak to four matches in all competitions and left Unai Emery’s reigning Europa League winners near the Champions League qualification places.
ATLÉTICO MADRID VS. MAN UNITED
If Ralf Rangnick is to win a trophy during his interim reign as Manchester United manager, it can only be by delivering the club’s fourth European Cup. The German’s team has already exited the FA Cup, but he has overseen a recovery in the Premier League since Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s firing, taking 25 points from 12 games to take United from sixth to fourth.
A sign of the 63-year-old Rangnick’s top-level coaching inexperience is that the game at Atlético is the first time he’s managed a team in the Champions League knockout phase since his Schalke side was beaten in the semifinals in 2011 — by Alex Ferguson’s United. Rangnick has been beset by reports about the challenges coaching United and it was significant that he referenced the “unity” on display in Sunday’s 4-2 win at Leeds in the Premier League. He said the result was “the best reply that they could give to some articles last week that there was some disruption in the locker room.”
Atlético is led by the longest-serving coach remaining in this season’s Champions League. But fresh from marking a decade in charge in December, Atlético is enduring one of its most turbulent moments under Diego Simeone. The team is inconsistent — much like United — and Simeone is feeling the heat. There was an encouraging 3-0 win at Osasuna in the Spanish league but Atlético had lost four of its last six games in all competitions before Saturday, including eliminations from the Spanish Super Cup and the Copa del Rey.
Like United in England, Atlético is currently chasing the fourth and final Champions League qualification place in Spain. Simeone is likely to face Man United without Daniel Wass and Matheus Cunha because of injuries, while Thomas Lemar remained in isolation with the coronavirus. While Atlético is the defending Spanish champion, United hasn’t won a trophy since the 2017 Europa League under Jose Mourinho.
BENFICA VS. AJAX
Ajax sparkled in the group stage, winning all six games as Sébastien Haller became the first man to score 10 goals in his first six games in the competition. The Dutch leaders are as dominant domestically, winning the last seven matches to establish a five-point lead at the top of the Eredivisie.
Benfica reached the last 16 by helping to eliminate Barcelona with a win and draw against the five-time European champions. But Benfica’s confidence isn’t so high now after winning only twice in five games in all competitions. The latest setback was a 2-2 draw at relegation-threatened Boavista in the Portuguese league after leading 2-0 until the 74th minute. The result was another blow for the Portuguese powerhouse that is only third in the league standings, behind rivals Sporting Lisbon and leader Porto. It’s a slump overseen by Nélson Veríssimo, the “B” team coach who took over after Jorge Jesus was fired at the end of last year despite the results against Barcelona.
Only one matchup looks a done deal after last week’s first batch of first legs with Manchester City winning 5-0 at Sporting in Lisbon. Liverpool is well placed to advance after winning 2-0 at Inter Milan. But Paris Saint-Germain only edged Real Madrid 1-0 at home and Bayern Munich drew 1-1 at Salzburg.
AP Sports Writers Tales Azzoni in Madrid and Jerome Pugmire in Paris contributed to this report.
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