Champions League and Europa League Draws: All Winnable, All Losable
This week’s draw for the first knock-out stage of the Champions League and Europa League handed the four remaining French teams some intriguing ties. None are straightforward, all are losable, but they are all winnable too, and will provide a good challenge to PSG, Lyon, Nice and Marseille.
PSG vs Real Madrid
It’s probably a safe assumption that this would not have been Unai Emery’s preferred Round of 16 opponent. Already reportedly under a lot of pressure at PSG, with some reports even suggesting he could be dumped this winter, he would surely have been hoping for a gentler opponent than the two-time defending champions – and a team he has not beaten at the Bernabeu in ten attempts. In view of QSI’s obsession with the Champions League, lose this tie and Emery will effectively be dead man walking by early March.
However, PSG are more than capable of winning it; bookmakers currently have Real Madrid at near evens to win at the Bernabeu, but have PSG as joint second favourite to win the competition as a whole behind Manchester City at 4/1, with Real on 13/2 behind Barcelona on 6/1. You can keep up with the odds as they develop with the William Hill Welcome Offer, as while PSG have not always convinced so far this season, the same – and more – could be said about Real Madrid.
Like PSG, the Spaniards’ defence has not always convinced thus far; unlike PSG, their attack has – in La Liga at least – been found wanting too, with even Ronaldo managing only four league goals this campaign to date. Granted, he is still turning it on for Zidane’s team in the Champions League; but the Neymar-Mbappe-Cavani triumvirate, so free-scoring in the group stage, is far more intimidating a unit – at this stage of this season – than Real’s forward line. Real legend Emilio Butragueno’s cryptic comment about expecting an easier tie at this stage, while encouraging warm-ballery conspiracy theorists, also made it clear that Real are worried about the draw too.
Much can change between now and the first leg on Valentine’s Day. For PSG, the hope will be that those changes will a) include the purchase of a decent defensive midfielder in January; and b) not include an upturn in Real’s form. Whatever happens, both teams will go into the tie with defenders capable of losing it with a mistake and attackers capable of winning it with a piece of magic. Based on the their summer dealings, bringing in two megastars upfront when everyone knew that it was further back where reinforcements were needed, this is arguably a test of PSG’s transfer policy. Hopefully – for the sake of Emery but also for QSI’s still-shaky credibility – the tie will be won by a piece of Neymar or Mbappe brilliance, rather than by a Thiago Silva-based ricket.
Lyon vs Villarreal
Lyon’s quest to go at least one step further than last year’s semi-final is made all the more meaningful by the fact that this year’s final will be held at their Groupama Stadium. An impressive second-placed finish behind Atalanta suggests that they continue to have the stomach for the fight – a fight which on paper looks far harder than last year’s, with teams such as Dortmund, Milan, Arsenal, Atletico and Napoli in the mix.
Villarreal can also be considered among the serious candidates. A team with good European pedigree going back to the days of the fantastic Riquelme, the Yellow Submarine reached the Europa League semi-finals two years ago. Well-placed in sixth in La Liga (although closer in points to 17th place than to fifth place), Villarreal will be looking to an ex-Ligue 1 man to fire them past Lyon. Cedric Bakambu currently sits in third place in La Liga’s goalscoring charts with nine goals to his name, to add to his three in five Europa League matches. With an impressive total Villarreal record of 47 goals in 104 appearances, he will no doubt relish the chance to show Ligue 1 what they let get away.
Both clubs have commented how they would have preferred to avoid each other, indicating that this could and should be an entertaining tie between two talented teams. As for every match that Lyon plays nowadays, they certainly have the ability to win this; it just depends which Lyon turns up.
Nice vs Lokomotiv Moscow
Lokomotiv are experiencing a recent revival after several years in the doldrums and currently sit eight points clear at the top of their domestic league, which begins its almost-three-month winter break today.
It is this break which Nice will hope plays to their advantage, this tie coming before Lokomotiv returns to league action. This could of course go the other way, however, as the Muscovites will be well rested, while Nice’s own winter break will already be a distant memory.
This arguably looks the easiest of the three French Europa ties but Nice, who are showing tentative signs of a revival, should still be wary – particularly of talented young playmaker Alexey Miranchuk and veteran Peruvian striker Jefferson Farfan, but also of three ex-Ligue 1 players : striker Eder (on loan from Lille), ex-Lyon left back Maciej Rybus and not least ex-Nice defender Nemanja Pejcinovic.
Nice should win this and, with their poor beginning to the season surely making European qualification through the league unlikely, it would be great to see them go all out for a long Europa run this coming spring.
Marseille vs Braga
For a tantalising moment it looked like Marseille were going to be handed a juicy tie vs Arsenal. It wasn’t to be but they have the next best thing: Braga, known as the Arsenalistas, who currently sit in Arsenal’s favourite position – fourth – in the Liga Nos.
The 2011 Europa League finalists are this year winning fans for their attacking style of football, with ex-Liverpool and -Brighton midfielder Joao Teixeira pulling the strings, promising young youth product Xadas posing problems down the right wing, and the goals shared around the squad.
Wins home and away against Hoffenheim in the group stage show that Braga are not to be taken lightly, and this tie could turn on how Marseille’s aging centre backs handle the youthful vim of their opponents. Marseille have already shown their good and bad signs against Portuguese opposition this season, with a hard-earned win followed by a defeat against Guimaraes in the group stages. They have flattered to deceive for much of the season – yet they sit in fourth place in Ligue 1 and are through to this stage of the Europa League without clicking. Once they do they will provide stern opposition and they should have too much for Braga here.