Liverpool the team to beat as Champions League returns
LONDON, UK – Liverpool returns to the scene of its Champions League triumph when it visits Atletico Madrid on Tuesday, February 18 – very much the team to beat for those hoping to succeed Jurgen Klopp and his men as European champions.
The Reds are coasting towards a first Premier League title in 30 years having dropped just two points all season and are likely to be crowned English champions before the Champions League quarterfinals commence in early April.
Liverpool remains on course for a potential five-trophy haul this season. It has already lifted the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup and is used to reaching European finals under Klopp.
The German has overseen 3 in 4 seasons at Anfield, losing the Europa League final to Sevilla in 2016 and Champions League to Real Madrid two years later before getting over the line against Tottenham in the Spanish capital last year.
"I have no clue if we can win the Champions League again but we should be ready to go for it," said Klopp. "What I know and what we showed last year is that we can beat the best."
On current form, Atletico is little match for the holders.
For the first time in over 8 years in charge, the future of Diego Simeone has been questioned with Los Rojiblancos languishing well off the pace in La Liga and battling just to qualify for the Champions League next season.
A chronic struggle to score goals has hampered Simeone's side all season.
Joao Felix has failed to deliver on his 126 million euro ($138 million) price tag and the Portuguese wonder kid is a doubt for the first leg on Tuesday.
By contrast, Liverpool has hit the money with almost every major signing in recent years.
With Alisson Becker, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, Sadio Mane, and Mohamed Salah, it has built a side capable of not just winning, but retaining the Champions League.
Simeone's Atletico sides that came so close to winning the competition in losing two finals to rivals Real in 2014 and 2016 were built on the most miserly defense.
But even the Argentine would be impressed by Liverpool's run of winning its last 11 league games by the combined score of 24-1.
Now or never for Guardiola's City
Across the continent, no other side looks as well-balanced and settled heading into the latter stages.
Manchester City's stunning two-season ban from the competition handed down by UEFA on Friday means it could be now or never if the English champions are ever to conquer Europe with Pep Guardiola in charge.
However, City is running into a rejuvenated Real Madrid in the last 16, which has shot to the top of La Liga on a 14-game unbeaten run.
Zinedine Zidane has again revived the Spanish giants in his second spell in charge and is yet to lose a Champions League tie after winning the competition during his previous 3 seasons in charge.
Paris Saint-Germain also begins its quest to overcome 3 years of heartbreak at the last 16 stage on Tuesday when it visits Borussia Dortmund.
Dortmund has the firepower to cause its former coach Thomas Tuchel more Champions League pain in free-scoring new signing Erling Braut Haaland, who already has 8 goals in the competition this season as a Red Bull Salzburg player.
Barcelona lurches from one institutional crisis to another and has a new coach, Quique Setien, with no previous Champions League experience for a tricky tie against Napoli.
The success or otherwise of Juventus' season will also be judged on winning the Champions League for the first time in 24 years.
A kind last 16 draw gainst Lyon should give Maurizio Sarri more time to turn the Italian champions into potential conquerors of Europe, but big questions are already being asked of his suitability for that target as Juve is struggling to hold off Inter Milan and Lazio to preserve its domestic dominance in Italy.
Bayern Munich's grip on the Bundesliga is also being challenged this season, but the German giants will be confident of gaining revenge for losing the 2012 Champions League final on home soil to Chelsea, which has won just 4 of its last 13 Premier League games. – Rappler.com