Champions League round of 16: previews for this week’s matches
A look forward to the weeks Champions League last-16 ties: Paris Saint-Germain v Chelsea, Benfica v Zenit, Roma v Real Madrid and Gent v Wolfsburg
Paris Saint-Germain v Chelsea
In a repeat of last seasons quarter-final, Chelsea will be looking for revenge over French champions Paris Saint-Germain after being dumped out by Laurent Blancs team on away goals. Both meetings between the teams last year ended in draws and thats a result Chelsea have become accustomed to under interim manager Guus Hiddink. Their 5-1 win over Newcastle at the weekend did not fit the pattern of their recent performances. They drew six of their first eight league matches under Hiddink, who has made Chelsea hard to beat.
They have lost just once in 33 matches during Hiddinks two stints at Stamford Bridge, though theyll have to make do with a makeshift back four in Paris. John Terry was injured at the weekend, joining Kurt Zouma on the sidelines, so Branislav Ivanovic is likely to join Gary Cahill at centre-back, with Baba Rahman coming in at left-back. The young Ghanaian has occasionally looked shaky in his brief playing time but he has saved his best performances for the Champions League, earning a strong rating of 7.62 across three appearances in the competition.
With Nemanja Matic suspended, Chelseas defence could be exposed further, which is far from ideal against this Paris Saint-Germain attack. In a league where competition has proven hard to come by, despite being held to a stalemate with Lille at the weekend, they have steamrolled their way to the top. They are unbeaten after 26 league matches and have only dropped eight points from a possible 78. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still making light work of Frances top flight, despite his advancing years he has scored 21 goals and provided eight assists while Angel di Mara has also been in sparkling form (7.96 rating) with a point to prove after a forgettable spell in England. His tussle with Rahman may prove the key individual battle of the night.
Benfica v Zenit St Petersburg
These clubs are meeting for the fifth time in four years in the Champions League. Zenit have had the better of the fixtures, winning three, but Benficas one victory in that time proved the most decisive with an injury time goal from Nelson Oliveira now of Nottingham Forest taking the Portuguese club through on away goals at this stage of the competition in 2012. The man of the match on that day was Axel Witsel, who has since switched between the two clubs.
Andr Villas-Boas has confirmed he will be leaving Zenit at the end of a bitterly disappointing league campaign. Last seasons Russian Premier League champions sit fourth, having won just three of their last 12 matches, and will again rely on star man Hulk. The Brazilian earned the second highest group stage rating (8.79), courtesy of three goals and four assists, but will have to cope with abuse from the home support due to his Porto past.
Benfica suffered their first defeat in 15 league matches against Hulks old employers on Friday but they have been in sensational form lately, picking up 40 points from a possible 42 before that defeat to Porto. They will be strong favourites as a result, with all eyes on sought-after 18-year-old midfielder Renato Sanches, who secured an excellent rating of 7.41 across his two group stage appearances.
Roma v Real Madrid
Real Madrid were dumped out of the Champions League by Roma at this stage of the competition back in 2008, but they will be heavy favourites to turn the tables this time around. Roma, now back under the management of Luciano Spalletti, are on a four-game winning streak in the league, but in matches against strong opposition in recent years they have been found wanting to say the least. They qualified for the knockout stages despite winning just one game, and only Malmo conceded more goals than Roma in the group stages (16).
That no side scored more goals than Real Madrid (19) will be a concern for the hosts, with Zinedine Zidane set to embark upon the truest test of his credentials. The visitors will be without Gareth Bale once more but, while Cristiano Ronaldo has at times flattered to deceive in La Liga, he led the group stage scoring charts with 11, while Karim Benzema has had a direct hand in 18 goals in his last 12 appearances.
If Mo Salah passes a fitness test he may be the key man for the hosts on the counterattack. He comes into the game on the back of a man of the match display against Carpi at the weekend, when he scored a goal and provided two assists. Romas best hope is to use their pace on the break. They have been severely punished for attempting to go toe-to-toe with heavyweights, losing 6-1 and 7-1 to Barcelona and Bayern in the last two seasons, so will need to defend a lot better against Madrid.
Gent v Wolfsburg
Undeniably the least glamorous fixture of the round, the battle between Gent and Wolfsburg should still be an intriguing affair. Having reached the Champions League for the first time in their history, Gent were the surprise package of the group stages, winning their last three matches to secure safe passage with room to spare. Hein Vanhaezebrouck has every right to feel his side could go even further in the competition too, up against a Wolfsburg team that have been bitterly disappointing following the sale of star man Kevin De Bruyne last summer.
Dieter Hecking led Wolfsburg to an unlikely title challenge last season but they now find themselves in eighth place and 26 points adrift of Bayern Munich thanks to their woeful away record this season. They have won just one away match in the league all season, so should be considered underdogs against the tournaments outstanding underdogs this week.
Without suspended centre-back Naldo not only the teams highest rated player (7.53) but the only man to score more than once for Wolfsburg in the group stages holding midfielder Josuha Guilavogui and first-choice goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, Wolfsburg are vulnerable. Young keeper Koen Casteels will replace the latter on a return to his homeland having began his career with Gents Pro League rivals Genk.
For the hosts, targetman Laurent Depoitre has attracted plenty of interest from Premier League clubs, while Danijel Milicevic and Sven Kums are the key men in the midfield. Elsewhere a point of interest will be how Gent choose to line up, with all of their wins in the group stages coming when they switched to a back three.
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