After a three-month slog, the group stage of the UEFA Champions League is finally over. After finishing second behind Barcelona in a Group D where all four teams underwhelmed, Juventus now wait until Monday’s draw to hear who their opponents will be for the Round of 16 in February and March.
Finishing second in the group is a bit of a setback, although not as much as it may have been in years past. The new seeding system for the group stage draw, which placed the winners of Europe’s seven strongest leagues along with the holders in Pot 1 rather than simply the seven with the highest UEFA coefficient, has pitted a lot of the continent’s high elites against each other in the groups, making them highly competitive. Like last year, there are several teams in the runner-up pot on Monday that one would normally expect to see in the winner’s pot. Bayern Munich and Real Madrid finished second in their respective groups for the second year in a row. Knockout stage regulars Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid have found themselves demoted to the Europa League.
The point is, whether Juve had managed to pip Barca for the top spot in the group or not, they would still be facing the prospect of a heavyweight fight even at this early stage. And in reality, a lot of the heavyweights in the seed pot this year are so in name only. All the teams that Juve can play have weaknesses that can be exploited, and some, like Liverpool and Manchester United, are big names that haven’t played up to their history in a long time.
As per UEFA rules, teams from the same group cannot play each other in the Round of 16, so Barcelona is not a potential opponent. Similarly, teams from the same country cannot play each other in the Round of 16, so Roma are also off the board. That leaves six possibilities.
In this space, we’re going to quickly run down each team, in order of least desirable matchup to most desirable matchup.
On paper, PSG have been a powerhouse this year, but the question about Les Parisiens is always the level of their competition.
Don’t get me wrong, their attack is tremendous. The attacking trident of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe is a terrifying thing to behold. Together they’ve combined for 31 goals and 12 assists in Ligue 1 and and another 16 goals and and seven assists in the Champions League.
But who have they been beating?
Yes, they ran circles around Bayern Munich at the Parc des Prince in September in a 3-0 win, but the Bavarians pegged them back on Tuesday with a 3-1 home win. They beat the everloving stuffing out of the Celtic and Anderlecht to the tune of a 21-1 aggregate over four games ... but it was Celtic and Anderlecht. The competition is similarly feeble in France. Monaco has been stripped of the players that made them so exciting last year (including Mbappe), and no other team in France can come remotely close to their resources.
When the competition ramps up, PSG doesn’t always rise with them. Their infamous collapse against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in last year’s Round of 16 was yet more evidence to add to their file. They can walk over inferior competition, but when they face down a team with similar talent levels, they’ve never managed to bring up their game over two legs.
That being said, they’re still not the team you want to see in this round. Yes, Juve shackled a front three that was better when they blanked Barca over two legs last year, but there was a lot more cohesiveness with Leonardo Bonucci in the side last season. The defense has seemed out of joint for much of the year, and though they seem to at last be coalescing, it remains to be seen whether they will be at the same level.
Juve is capable of winning a shootout with PSG. Thiago Silva is not the player he once was, and Marquinhos, while a solid player, has never really become the elite defender PSG were hoping for when they paid Roma €31.4 million for him as a 19-year-old in 2013. Add to that the fact that our old friend Dani Alves is famous for things other than his defense, and the attacking talent at Massimiliano Allegri’s disposal can certainly put up numbers in a two-legged tie.
PSG are eminently beatable, but in the form the two teams are in right now, you’d rather face them a little further down the line when the defense has (hopefully) had more time to cook.
The other team to truly run over its competition in the group stage this season was Manchester City. The boys from Eastlands ran riot on Group F until playing an underpowered team against Shakhtar Donetsk after confirming themselves at the top of the group.
This team is a nightmare to defend against, even more so than it was two years ago when Juve beat them home and away in the group stage. With the likes of Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus up front and Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva pulling strings behind them, there are weapons absolutely everywhere, and now that symphony being conducted by Pep Guardiola, who now has a team at his disposal that can better do the things he asks of it.
Allergi has matched up against and beaten Guardiola in the past. In 2013 he beat the Blaugrana 2-0 with an AC Milan team made up largely of spare parts, although they collapsed three weeks later in the second leg to lose the tie. Against Bayern Munich two years ago, Juve was 90 seconds from knocking Pep out of the competition before Bayern’s last-second equalizer forced extra time. Allegri set up the team for the second leg brilliantly — especially considering the fact that they were missing Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic, and Claudio Marchisio — but also made several mistakes in both the first and second legs that ultimately led to the team’s elimination.
Guardiola also made some errors in that tie — ones that Allegri masterfully exploited—so the coaching matchup truly is even. The reason City are a slightly better matchup than PSG comes down to defense. Nicolas Ottamendi is a weak link in the back line that can be exploited, and the team has had a tendency to collapse over the years when injury-prone captain Vincent Kompany isn’t in the lineup.
Add that to an underwhelming history in Europe and I’d rather take the trip to the blue side of Manchester than to France.
And now the other end of Manchester.
Paul Pogba’s first meeting with Juventus since being sold back to Manchester United two summers ago would almost certainly be the dominant storyline in this tie, but the matches themselves would likely be very close.
Domestically, the Red Devils are in second place, eight points behind their crosstown rivals. They’re second in the league in goals scored and own the EPL’s best defensive record. When they’re on they’re a tough team, but they’ve had some pretty puzzling lapses once in a while. They lost 2-1 to newly-promoted Huddersfield Town in October and fell to Basel at the last minute in the Champions League last month.
United have gotten younger fast at striker, going from the likes of Wayne Rooney (returned to Everton) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (still with the team but in a reduced role after an April knee injury), to young guns like Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford. There’s a lot of talent there, but these youngsters are also prone to inconsistency. Lukaku went six weeks without a goal in October and November, and Rashford hasn’t really gotten going 100 percent all year.
Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli will be familiar with Lukaku after shutting him down at Euro 2016, and most of the team knows Pogba’s tricks. Whether they can stop him from doing them is another question entirely — but if they can, they’ll have gone a long way to stopping the supply lines to Man U’s front line. Without Pogba at full form the rest of the midfield, while talented, can be matched up fairly well.
It’s worth noting that all of Man U’s reverses have come on the road. With the first leg of the round of 16, if Juve can establish an advantage at the J Stadium they can set themselves up to ride out the return at Old Trafford.
Tottenham employ one of the best No. 9s currently in the game in Harry Kane. They also ran Real Madrid out of Wembley Stadium at the beginning of November en route to winning their group. They went unbeaten in 11 games from August to October, and for the first two months of the season looked like one of Europe’s best squads.
Why face them rather than Manchester United? Since October 25 they’ve only won four times. More worrying, Real Madrid aside they’ve fared poorly against big teams this year: they’ve lost to Chelsea, Man U, and Arsenal, as well as a 2-1 reverse against former English champions Leicester (it’s still fun to say that).
Tottenham is in a down phase right now. Their play against the bigger teams in their league has left a lot to be desired, and their matchups with Real coincided with a trough in form for Los Blancos as well. There’s no one area where Tottenham truly exceed Juve on paper — in fact most categories would at least lean toward Juve when the team is on form. This is where we start getting into draws that would actually be favorable.
We all know what the storyline would be here.
The wounds of the Heysel Disaster of 1985, a human crush precipitated by rioting Liverpool fans that eventually killed 39 Juventini and injured 600 more people at the ‘85 European Cup final, have not — nor will they ever — heal for Juventus fans. For the vast majority, hatred for Liverpool still runs deep, and rightfully so.
A draw against the Merseysiders would be the second meeting between the two since Heysel. The first, the quarterfinal of the ‘04-05 Champions League, finished as a 2-1 aggregate Liverpool win. It would be a wonderful thing to even that score by knocking Liverpool out of their first trip to the knockout round since 2009.
Beyond the sentimental reasons to want a Liverpool matchup, there is one big competitive one: their defense is laughable.
A rundown of Jurgen Klopp’s top three center backs: Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren, and Ragnar Klaven. Joe Gomez and Alberto Moreno man the flanks. The Reds have given up more goals domestically this season than 14th-placed Bournemouth, 11th-placed Southampton, and rock-bottom — rock bottom — Swansea. This is a defense that Juve’s attack can run riot over on a mediocre day and probably score twice against on a bad one.
Their attack is a dangerous one, led by Philipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Saido Mane, and an old Juve foe, Mohammed Salah. But if Allegri can whip the defense into shape it’s nothing they can’t handle, and it’s equally as likely that Juve will be spending so much time torturing that poor defense that they simply won’t get many chances. Juve’s midfield matches up well with Liverpool’s on paper as well, and it could be difficult to even get the strikers service.
If you want to talk about the easiest group this year, look no further than Group G. Besiktas ended up winning pretty handily and set a record for a Turkish team in the group stage with 12 points. But in this day and age that record was only going to be attained against a group like this one: Porto, Red Bull Leipzig, and a badly depleted Monaco side.
Currently fourth in the Turkish Super Lig, the club’s best known players are Portugal internationals Ricardo Quaresma, who has combined for a goal and four assists between domestic and continental competition, and Pepe, who came over from Real Madrid after parting ways with the Spaniards in the summer. Former Inter man Gary Medel makes up some depth, and their top scorer, Cenk Tosun, has spent all his life in the Turkish leagues. He gets supplied by Brazilian attacking mid Anderson Talisca, a 23-year-old who scored four times and supplied four more in group play.
Matching these teams up on paper sees Juve superior to them in every category. Going to Turkey is never a fun experience, but the away leg may not matter if Juve take care of business and build up a commanding first-leg lead. If Juve play to their potential, a matchup against the Black Eagles should be a cut-and-dried affair.
Besiktas, without question, is the best matchup Juve could hope for in the next round.