Champions League last 16: Four storylines to watch out for
What’s next in wantaway Sanchez saga; can Barca make history?
If Real Madrid are to progress they will have to do so in front of the fearsome Napoli fans at the Stadio San Paolo. Photo: Carlo Hermann/Getty Images
What’s next in the Sanchez v Wenger saga?
Arsenal (1) v Bayern Munich (5) – Tuesday, 7.45pm
This is looking increasingly like a classic ‘footballer wants away from top club’ episode. It has all of the hallmarks and all of the clichés.
First Arsene Wenger dropped Alexis Sanchez for his side’s crucial clash with Liverpool at Anfield.
Sanchez was seen smirking on the bench during the game which sent the rumour mill into overdrive. Was he happy that his team was losing? Would this inch him closer to an inevitable summer move away from North London?
Arsenal then went and duly lost the game with Sanchez barely acknowledging his manager as he left the pitch at full-time following a cameo substitute appearance.
The rumour mill was now ready to explode. Sanchez had officially become ‘wantaway’. Juventus and Paris St-Germain are the early favourites to go ahead and take him away in the summer.
Just hours after the Liverpool defeat, reports came out that the Chilean had been dropped following a ‘training ground bust-up’ (those clichés just keep on coming) in which he had stormed off the pitch before engaging in an argument with a teammate in the dressing room.
On Monday morning Wenger came out to dispel those rumours, saying “I explained after the game I decided to go for a more direct option, that was the unique reason for my decision.
“They [the rumours] are completely false. I understand you have to fill newspapers.
“All the rest, his attitude — he’s a committed player and sometimes has excessive behaviours but you have that many times in the history of every squad.”
The pair were even photographed in a completely unstaged handshake on the training ground prior to Wenger’s press conference.
So that’s that, then. Everything is sorted and we can all move on.
But no, wait! There’s a new, modern twist to this saga!
Shortly after Wenger’s comments, Sanchez took to Instagram to post a picture of himself celebrating a goal in an Arsenal jersey with the message “The true warrior fights not because he hates the ones in front of him, but because he loves those behind him. Let’s go Gunners. The only failure is not trying.”
What does this mean? Is Sanchez accusing fellow teammates of not giving it their all and saying that too much responsibility is left at his feet? Or is it simply a rallying cry ahead of their toughest task yet this season?
All could be revealed on Tuesday night when they take on that task – a task in the form of a second leg against Bayern Munich in which they already trail 5-1.
Will Sanchez play? Will he sit on the bench and smirk? What will be post on Instagram afterwards?
There is no doubt that this tie is over and that Arsenal will go out at the last 16 stage of the Champions League for the seventh year in a row, despite this year finishing top of their group.
However it is still an intriguing prospect, if only for the latest development in the Sanchez ‘wantaway’ saga.
Real Madrid are far from home and hosed just yet
Napoli (1) v Real Madrid (3) – Tuesday, 7.45pm
There were spells in the first leg of Napoli’s clash with Real Madrid where the Italians showed just how dangerous they can be.
They boast immense speed in the attack and are well capable of catching any team unawares, as seen when Lorenzo Insigne shot first time on the half turn from 35 yards past Keylor Navas to stun the Bernabeu and put the Neopolitans 1-0 up.
However, Napoli will still fancy their chances, particularly with an away goal in the bag and the fact that they come into the game off the back of a huge 2-1 win away to Roma.
That win at the weekend – thanks to two goals from the in-form Dries Mertens – was crucial for a side that had lost three of their previous four games and means they stay in touch with their rivals from the capital in the race for second place; Juventus already look to have sewn up a sixth title in a row with an eight point lead at this stage.
What Real Madrid will also have to battle against is the fearsome Stadio San Paolo where 60,000 fans create one of the best and most hostile atmospheres in Europe.
It’s an intensely tribal experience in Naples as they see themselves as constantly battling against the rich clubs of the north. Their levels of fanaticism can be seen in the fact that Napoli still attracted average crowds of 51,000 even when they were in the third tier of Italian football. Over 10,000 travelled to Madrid for the first leg despite their allocation only reaching 3,000. On top of that over 700 turned up outside the Real Madrid hotel on Monday to give the visitors a not so nice welcome.
An intense rivalry between the ultras groups in the Curva A and Curva B only adds to the highly charged nature of big matches in a city where Diego Maradona still enjoys god-like status.
If Napoli are to pull off one of the biggest results in their history and knock Real Madrid out on Tuesday night the 11 players on the pitch will need to channel some of the Argentine’s magic.
Can Barcelona possibly turn it around?
Barcelona (0) v Paris St-Germain (4) – Wednesday, 7.45pm
No team has ever come back from a four goal deficit in the second leg of a Champions League tie but creating history is hardly alien to Barcelona over the last 10 years or so.
However this is a team in transition and a team that knows its manager – Luis Enrique – is leaving at the end of the season.
If they are to pull this off it will be the shock of all shocks. However, they do come into the game off the back of a 5-0 win over Celta Vigo on Saturday – in which Lionel Messi looked at his very best – and a vital 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid the previous week – in which Messi got the late winner.
The trend here is that Messi is in form.
And it’s worth remembering what a Messi in form can do. It brings to mind the story from August 2014 when Gerard Pique said that Barcelona would “win everything because Messi is absolutely on it”.
They went on to win the treble that season.
When Messi is in form it lifts the whole team. They believe they can do anything and beat anyone.
While the Argentine underperformed in the first leg he has come right back to the top of his game since then and might just be able to provide one of those nights when we all simply sit back and soak in the genius.
However, it’s a huge ask. And it’s an ask that gets even bigger when you remember how easily PSG tore the La Liga table-toppers to shreds at the Parc de Princes three weeks ago.
Since then they have drawn one and won three – including a hugely impressive 5-1 humiliation of historic rivals Marseille away from home – but still sit three points behind Monaco in Ligue 1.
But manager Unai Emery has made it clear that the priority this season is the Champions League. While a fifth league title in a row would certainly be welcomed, it’s come to a stage where their Qatari owners are demanding a return for their investment on a European stage.
If Adrien Rabiot and Marquinhos can perform as well as they did in the first leg, while boosted by the return of Thiago Silva, they should be able to keep the Barcelona attack quiet enough to book a place in the quarter-finals.
Are post-Klopp Dortmund enjoying a resurgence?
Since Jurgen Klopp left the Westfalenstadion Thomas Tuchel has been quietly going about bringing Borussia Dortmund back to a level where they can once again upset the status quo of Bayern Munich winning the Bundesliga year-on-year.
After getting to the Champions League final in 2013 following league wins in 2011 and 2012, Klopp’s side struggled to maintain the levels of intensity he demanded from them before he left for Liverpool in 2015.
Tuchel then came in and guided Die Borussen to a runners-up spot last season as well as a German Cup final.
In the Champions League group stages this season they were extremely impressive, managing two draws against Real Madrid as well as banging in 17 goals in their four other matches which included 6-0 and 8-4 wins over Legia Warsaw.
Domestically they have also been free-scoring, notching up five away to Hamburg and Wolfsburg as well as six on two occasions – one at home to Darmstadt and one on Saturday when they thumped Bayer Leverkusen 6-2 at home.
Don’t forget that Leverkusen are also still in the Champions League last 16 so they are no mugs.
While Tuchel’s side were unlucky to lose 1-0 away to Benfica in their first leg clash three weeks ago – they missed a penalty with the game at 0-0 and came up against an inspired Ederson in the Benfica goal – they will be confident of progressing at home in front of the famous ‘yellow wall’.
Incidentally, the southern terrace which houses the ‘yellow wall’ was closed for Dortmund’s home win over Wolfsburg three weeks ago as punishment for crowd trouble which marred their game against Red Bull Leipzig two weeks previous.
It certainly won’t be closed on Wednesday however as Tuchel’s side look to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2014, although they will have to do it without Marco Reus who picked up an injury against Leverkusen which rules him out until April.