Here’s what you need to know when the Champions League returns

Lionel Messi during the match between Olympique de Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at the Velodrome

Lionel Messi during the match between Olympique de Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at the Velodrome
Picture: Getty Images

It just feels like Champions League late to return to the knockout stage, but this is a normal time of year. What’s not normal is cramming a World Cup between the group stages and the knockouts, which makes this season seem like it’s already gone forever even when most leagues are only halfway through. The density exhausted us all.

Also after we have already made our way through a World Cup means that some of the shine has been taken off again with the Champions League. Every year, this is usually the biggest pressure atmosphere, and international tournaments are saved for the summer. This time, the Champions League faces Argentina-Holland finals or the final in our minds, and we might not be so thrilled when PSG got wet again in stoppage time of the second game (it will still be funny though).

So where are we? How did we get here? Is this our beautiful woman? Let us fulfill you:

Aren’t these just the usual suspects again?

That. Unless you consider Barcelona the usual suspects. Do the last two seasons take away from that? It’s a personal choice. Anyway, they’re not here. And Juventus actually poked their noses through their brains given their ferocity faceplant on and off the field. But apart from them, yes, all four Premier League participants are in the round of 16, along with Munich, PSG and Real Madrid.

So one of the usual suspects will win, right?

Well, probably. But this time there are more weaknesses than there were. None of the regular crew looks invincible. PSG just got their ass kicked in the league by Monaco after losing to Marseille in the French Cup. Neymar is screwing up againand Kylian Mbappe it’s not healthy.

They also have Munich in this round, thanks to their failure to beat Benfica in their group. Munich is the bookies’ favorite at the moment, but their form in the Bundesliga has been, by their standards, somewhat difficult. They drew three games in a row before last weekend’s win, and found themselves in a fair race for the title. They missed not having Robert Lewandowski around with an automatic goal, Sadio Mané it was awful and they may find themselves unable to translate their dominance in possession into tangible measures on the scoreboard.

Manchester City have problems off the pitch too, although Pep Guardiola would love nothing more than to turn it into some kind of rallying cry to finally get them over the hump in Europe. They tried it a few times a few years ago, the last time they were under investigation (and being plural tells you a lot) and they lost the final to Chelsea. On the pitch, City haven’t looked unstoppable either, with Erling Haaland putting up video game numbers yet still something of a wobbly cog in the previously buzzing City machine. Their midfield has aged a bit and can counter them with speed thanks to that and Haaland’s presence depriving them of another man in the midfield.

Liverpool… well, not to mention them. Chelsea is a completely new team even from the group stage and right now they look like a bunch of ingredients that haven’t congealed into a meal. If they can stay in the competition long enough, they might rally, but that’s real, considerable value right now.

Real Madrid were dogged by Barcelona in the race for the La Liga title, and they often looked like pedestrians in front of the goal. Karim Benzema is not the force he was last season, and now he has them rumors that the manager Carlo Ancelotti could fuck off to take over the job of the Brazilian national team.

But doesn’t that mean Madrid will win anyway because they are at their best when things are the most messed up?

Unfortunately yes. Still, they try to turn that middle of the field it could take them out of all the hustle and bustle of last season and into the new generation, and it wasn’t a smooth process (Fels Motherfuck magic, baby!). Shit, Eduardo Camavinga was used more often as a left back. Perhaps they are keeping Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in reserve specifically for the Champions League, and with Barcelona missing from the title race, they could focus on winning it for the 14th time. But there are holes.

So yeah they will conquer it.

Is there any hope for the underdog?

Yes, and your name is Napoli. It’s heavily covered here, Napoli is the new heavy metal football scene. They are destroying Serie A, and they could have the Scudetto in their pocket before the semi-finals of the Champions League. They have a dear last 16 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt and will see one of the big boys of PSG or Munich bite the dust (if you want to argue that another big boy in Liverpool or Madrid will eat it too, fine, but have you seen Liverpool this season?).

There is also a sense that this is the only chance for this team to make any serious noise in Europe, as the vultures will come in the summer to shower the club with money while taking away their best players. Georgian wing Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (you can just call him “Kvaradona,” like all of Naples does) and Nigerian forward Victor Osimhen are almost certainly headed for greener pastures after the season given the offers they could generate. It’s now or never, and given that common beasts have vulnerabilities, why the hell not?

Benfica would at least have been on the “worth watching” list before they sold Enzo Fernandez to Chelsea, but they also have a favorable last 16 draw against Club Brugge. And when you’re in the chamber, anything can happen.

Any other names worth following?

With AC Milan’s car falling apart in true Daffy Duck style this season fashion, Rafael Leão probably won’t wait long at San Siro either. He will face another case team in Spurs in the round of 16. Only Tottenham could go from deservedly beating City at home one week to being hammered by Leicester City the next. In any case, Leão was to Italy what Vinicius Jr. is. was in Spain, a fearsome right-footed left-footer who tears defenses apart with his direct dribbling and speed. However, he was forever linked to Chelsea, with their recent foray, maybe there is no more room for him. He still feels like he’s going to move on soon bigger and better.

Jamal Musiala is the new thing in Munich and Germany, and he has been Bayern’s best player in a season where many of their veterans have fizzled out a bit. He can play around six different positions and is balletic with the ball at his feet around or in the opposition penalty area, twisting freely to open himself up for clean shots or set up a teammate.

There’s also Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham, who you’ve probably heard of or seen if you have a Liverpool fan in your life as he’ll be at the center of the altar they’ve erected in their living room, praying nightly in the hope that he’ll save the Anfield team from the new hell they are rushing into. He almost single-handedly pulled Dortmund out of the group stage with four goals and an assist, all from midfield. He’s the whole midfield, and he’s only 19 years old, and City, Madrid and Liverpool are doing all kinds of unspeakable things for the right to spend some 170 million dollars on him in the summer.

So come up with your excuses to get out of the office early on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons (if you’re still going to the office at all), and prepare to deal with the sound of Micah Richards’ laughter that will torment you for hours at night, and let’s kick this pig.

Follow Sam on Twitter for barely coherent stupid thoughts @FelsGate

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