Key thoughts and analysis as Champions League knockouts begin

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The Champions League knockout stage kicked off this week, with half of the remaining participants in action. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from the first batch of last-16 matches.

Is anyone scared of Bayern?

Bayern Munich used to be juggernauts of every competition they entered. They bullied their rivals into selling them their best players, attracted some of the best coaches, and when they stumbled, they’d quickly rediscover their balance.

Not so this season. Every defeat – and there have been six of them thus far – has eaten away at Bayern’s confidence. A total blackout against third-tier opposition in the German Cup set off an existential crisis that threatens to leave them trophyless for the first time in 11 seasons. Tuesday’s ineffectual 1-0 capitulation to Lazio in the first leg of their last-16 Champions League matchup – in which they failed to register a single shot on target – followed a listless 3-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen that extended the gap at the top to five points. Who knows how much farther Bayern will drop?

It’s incredible how quickly a historically well-drilled club can lose its way. Bayern used to personify German footballing excellence. But in the years since Karl-Heinz Rummenigge stepped down as CEO, there have been many messy boardroom-level breakups and public disagreements. Manager Thomas Tuchel also has a reputation for quarreling with upper management over transfers or the lack thereof. It doesn’t feel like the Bayern of old.

NurPhoto / NurPhoto / Getty

While Tuchel has legitimate excuses at his disposal – Bouna Sarr, Kingsley Coman, Serge Gnabry, Konrad Laimer, and Alphonso Davies are all out injured – which manager hasn’t had to deal with a thinning squad this season? Every team fighting for trophies has lost a significant number of man games due to the increasingly grueling schedule. It’s not an issue that exclusively affects Bayern (more on that later).

No wonder opponents feel emboldened to attack and harry Bayern. Lazio overran their German counterparts in midfield on Wednesday, pressing them into unusual mistakes, including the silly challenge that resulted in a red card for defender Dayot Upamecano and the winning penalty for Lazio. Bayern hadn’t lost a first-leg last-16 fixture in 12 years, and no team on record has ever fired 17 shots or more without hitting the target in a Champions League match. These are damning statistics. They may only be a sign of things to come.

KDB’s return emphasizes Foden’s growth

The concerns that Kevin De Bruyne’s return to fitness would dilute Phil Foden’s effectiveness or even reduce his game time at Manchester City soon evaporated.

Since De Bruyne’s comeback after five months of overcoming a hamstring injury, Foden has been present for 96% of the Belgian’s 366 minutes on the pitch. During that time playing together, Foden has scored five goals and assisted twice – the equivalent of a goal contribution every 50 minutes. The 23-year-old’s record across all competitions before De Bruyne’s return was a goal contribution every 134 minutes.

De Bruyne has also strutted back into gear following his spell on the sidelines, registering two goals and six assists over three starts and four substitute appearances.

Justin Setterfield / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The way the pair is combining for Pep Guardiola’s side is ominous for the rest of Europe and was highlighted by the one-two that led to Foden’s late goal in Tuesday’s 3-1 victory at FC Copenhagen. Foden knew exactly where to go when he slipped a ball toward the byline for De Bruyne and was there to tap it home when the subsequent pass rolled to the edge of the six-yard box.

Foden is underlining his growth in this City side. His superb run of form started months before De Bruyne was back in contention as he demonstrated his increased maturity and composure and improved decision-making. He alleviates pressure by wriggling free of opponents before passing to a man in space. He doggedly wins back possession in advantageous positions. He’s working harder for his teammates while still somehow bringing his creativity and finishing to another level.

Foden seems to have heeded Guardiola’s warning from last October.

“I think Phil has a free instinct as a footballer,” Guardiola said at the time. “He’s not a player who thinks so much when he plays; he’s a bird – fly wherever you want. But there is a step he has to gain and some duties he must do for the team.”

Foden has quickly developed into a leader capable of carrying the team on his back. He wants the responsibility. And with De Bruyne back in the team, Foden wants to ensure his influence is undiminished while proving he’s the celebrated playmaker’s equal.

When will Madrid hit breaking point?

Nobody is going to have much sympathy for Real Madrid – we’re not exactly dealing with plucky underdogs here, after all – but the constant barrage of injuries Carlo Ancelotti’s team has been forced to withstand this season is, quite frankly, preposterous. And it shows no signs of ending.

With Jude Bellingham nursing a sprained ankle, Ancelotti turned to crafty operator Brahim Diaz in his stead. The little Spaniard made the most of his opportunity, scoring a sensational winner in Tuesday’s first-leg victory over RB Leipzig. He, too, then suffered an injury, pulling up in the closing minutes of the 1-0 triumph with a calf issue – because of course.

Madrid lost Thibaut Courtois and Eder Militao to ACL tears before the season even started. David Alaba, almost inconceivably, sustained the same ailment in December. Antonio Rudiger is sidelined right now. Midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, who’s also missed time this season, is playing in central defense – and doing a very admirable job.

Club captain Nacho, left-back Ferland Mendy, midfielders Eduardo Camavinga and Arda Guler, and superstar forward Vinicius Junior have all been in the treatment room for varying amounts of time this season.

Quality Sport Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

And none of it matters. Not yet, at least.

Real Madrid keep rolling along. They’re five points clear atop La Liga – and a massive 10 points up on eternal rivals Barcelona in third – and are perfect in the Champions League thus far. Their slim, if contentious, win in Leipzig was their seventh in as many matches in this season’s competition. Only fellow favorites Manchester City boast a similar mark.

How long can it last, though? At some point, even for a team as loaded as Madrid, the talent drain will be too much to overcome if injuries persist into the latter stages of the competition when the opponents become more esteemed and the margin for error disappears. Even in a tournament they own, the vaunted Real Madrid mystique can only carry them so far. There has to be a limit. Right?

Quick free-kicks

Lunin cashing in on rare opportunity

When Courtois was lost for the season, Andriy Lunin was hardly a consideration as a short-term replacement. Real Madrid moved quickly to sign Kepa Arrizabalaga on loan from Chelsea, leaving Lunin, a mere spectator to his team’s success over the last few seasons, once again on the sidelines. But an injury to Kepa in November finally offered Lunin the chance he long deserved. He’s made the most of it, too, building on several star performances to cement his place in the lineup even with Kepa fit and available for selection again. The Ukrainian shot-stopper made two excellent saves in the final 20 minutes of Madrid’s win Tuesday in Germany to keep Leipzig’s pesky attackers at bay and tally his eighth clean sheet of the season. “It could have ended in a draw, let’s be honest,” Ancelotti said, according to Get Spanish Football News. “This was Lunin’s best game since I met him.”

Grealish can’t catch a break

Alex Livesey – Danehouse / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Guardiola arguably named Manchester City’s strongest lineup for the trip to Copenhagen. But above everyone else, Jack Grealish needed to prove he belonged in that XI. Guardiola said last week that the Englishman’s dip in form was the single reason for him playing around 20 Premier League minutes and starting just one match – an FA Cup visit from Huddersfield Town – in 2024. Jeremy Doku, a direct rival for Grealish’s position, has also excited onlookers since arriving from Rennes last summer. In a huge opportunity to rediscover his touch, Grealish was seeing plenty of the ball during the early exchanges in Denmark and completed all 20 of his passes. It was going well until a muscular injury ended his match in the 21st minute. Grealish will be hoping he’s not condemned to a lengthy layoff and has time to ensure this season isn’t wasted from a purely individual perspective.

Don’t write off Real Sociedad

Imanol Alguacil played a dangerous game in remaining committed to Real Sociedad’s aggressive press and high defensive line against Paris Saint-Germain and their pacey attack – but it was working. Before the interval, PSG completed 65% of their passes in La Real’s half and 83% across the whole pitch – the lowest halftime percentages of the Luis Enrique era – and Mikel Merino struck the crossbar in the 44th minute. The Basque side was dangerous. Eventually, the apparition of Hamari Traore decided the game. Traore was off the pitch recuperating from a knock when Kylian Mbappe scored at the back post – the area that the Malian would’ve surely occupied for PSG’s corner – and did his best hologram impression when Bradley Barcola ran through to score. A similarly strong start from Real Sociedad’s attack in the second leg, paired with uncompromising defending and buoyed by a raucous Anoeta home crowd, could quickly get Alguacil’s side back in this tie. PSG don’t tend to make their lives easy in this competition.

Stakes are higher this season

With the Champions League ditching its longstanding format and becoming a 36-team competition next season, two European leagues will each be allocated an extra berth in the 2024-25 tournament, getting five places instead of the usual four. A coefficient score will determine which two leagues get the additional spots, making results in the knockout stages of the Champions League, along with the Europa and Conference Leagues, more vital than ever. If the tournaments ended today, Italy’s Serie A (14.285) and England’s Premier League (13.875) would be the big winners based on the average coefficient of their European representatives, according to a thorough breakdown of the points system from Dale Johnson of ESPN. The Bundesliga and La Liga are very much still in the mix, though. Allegiances will be tested in the coming months. Are you willing to put your tribalism aside and cheer for a hated rival if their continental success could possibly give your team a better chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League?

Stat of the week

Good luck stopping Manchester City from retaining their title.

Tweet of the week

You can take the players out of Tottenham, but you can’t take Tottenham out of the players, apparently.

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Key thoughts and analysis as Champions League knockouts begin

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