The Europa League (EL) Round of 16 unseeded draw will see heavyweights AC Milan and Arsenal forced to battle for a quarter final spot, three Russian sides represented, and two Red Bull teams. The first legs will be played on March 8, with the second leg on March 15.
My predictions for last season’s Round of 16 fixtures saw six out of eight correct guesses — six out of seven if you consider that my faith in Borussia Mönchengladbach hinged upon Thorgan Hazard not being injured. This year’s competition, though, features tougher and more balanced fixtures, making it difficult to confidently predict the quarter finalists.
SS Lazio vs. Dynamo Kyiv
SS Lazio mathematically secured top spot in Group K after opening with four straight victories, allowing them to field a second-string team in the two last dead rubber games. After a first leg hiccup, Lazio returned to their swashbuckling best at the Stadio Olimpico for the second leg of the Round of 32 against Steaua Bucharest. It was no surprise to see striker Ciro Immobile among the goals in Rome as the mercurial striker bagged a hat-trick en route to a 5–1 victory to bring him to 31 goals this season.
Dynamo Kyiv likewise topped their group, scoring 15 in the process — the third best rate among the 48 teams in the group stages — but they struggled in the Round of 32 against a resolute AEK Athens.
Lazio are playing their most entertaining soccer since the 2014–2015 Serie A season thanks to King Ciro’s incredible goal output — the Italian is currently joint third in the race for top scorer in Europe this season — Luis Alberto’s impressive creative output, and Sergej Milinković-Savić’s complete midfield dominance. Although Dynamo striker Júnior Moraes has netted six in the EL this season, the departures of Dynamo’s first-choice goalkeeper Maksim Koval and starting centre back Domagoj Vida over the winter transfer window has considerably weakened a team that must be at its best to halt the Biancocelesti’s attacking prowess. Lazio to advance.
RB Leipzig vs. FC Zenit Saint Petersburg
First-time European competitors RB Leipzig will have their draw to a tough Zenit team that won five and drew one of their six group stage games. The German outfit shocked the soccer world last season by finishing second in the Bundesliga — just eight years after being founded. This season, Leipzig finished third in a tough Champions League group, pushing the team to this second-tier tournament, where they claimed an impressive victory against Serie A’s current leaders SSC Napoli in the Round of 32.
Zenit Saint Petersburg, who last won the EL in 2008, are the leading scorers in this season’s competition, with 20 goals for and just six goals against. Striker Aleksandr Kokorin and midfielder Emiliano Rigoni have six goals apiece.
Leipzig have conceded in all eight of their European games this season. Zenit’s experience in the EL, coupled with their goal scoring threat, will be just too much for the German team to handle. Zenit through.
Atlético Madrid vs. FC Lokomotiv Moscow
Tournament favourites Atlético Madrid had a disappointing Champions League run before being bumped to the EL. Now the big fish in the small pond, the Spanish side emphasized their class through star forward Antoine Griezmann in the Round of 32 against Copenhagen. Atlético’s defensive record is Europe’s best —they have conceded the fewest goals and made the joint second-fewest defensive errors in Europe’s top five leagues.
Lokomotiv Moscow have conceded just six times over eight EL games this season, and they are also enjoying a surprising top spot in the Russian Premier League side. However, in the friendly fixtures they have played during the Russian winter break, Lokomotiv have looked a careless side, with club website reporting that manager Yuri Semin said, “Our defence lack responsibility… and not only four defenders, but the whole team.” Creative midfielders Jefferson Fárfan and Aleksei Miranchuk must be ready to think outside the box if Lokomotiv are to fell Atlético’s well-structured squad, but even if they do succeed, Atlético’s attacking strength should be too much. Atlético through.
CSKA Moscow vs. Lyon
Polling aggregation site FiveThirtyEight considers this game the closest of all eight fixtures, estimating that Lyon have a 51 per cent chance of progression. The French outfit, aiming to make it to the final held at their home stadium, have a strong attacking trio in Bertrand Traore, Memphis Depay, and Nabil Fekir, who have 10 goals between them. CSKA Mocow’s three forwards have one European goal between them. CSKA looked off the pace against Red Star Belgrade in the Round of 32, and Lyon have greater squad balance. Lyon take this one.
Marseille vs. Athletic Bilbao
Marseille failed to flex their muscles in a fairly easy group, scoring just four goals while conceding four. Athletic Bilbao also flattered to deceive, but in veteran Aritz Aduriz, they have the EL’s top scorer and a player with strong heading, finishing, and strength. Both teams have relied on a 4-2-3-1 in the EL this season, but Marseille have better individual talent, a superior average possession, better passing accuracy, and a stronger defensive record. Marseille to qualify.
Sporting CP vs. FC Viktoria Plzeň
Sporting CP, another Champions League casualty, have scored six goals in their two EL games. The Portuguese side play a high defensive line and are susceptible to defensive lapses, but they also have the second highest average possession of the teams left, with 58 per cent. FC Viktoria Plzeň will try to disrupt this possession-based approach — the Czech team have the third-most overall fouls committed out of the remaining teams — but Sporting have more quality, including midfielder Bruno Fernandes, who bagged three in two EL games, and prolific striker Bas Dost, who has 20 goals in 21 domestic games. Sporting to progress.
Borussia Dortmund vs. FC Red Bull Salzburg
Like Atlético, Borussia Dortmund endured a poor Champions League run, but the German team are now second favourites to lift the trophy. Although Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is gone, Dortmund have found a reliable replacement in Michy Batshuayi. They overcame a tough Atalanta team en route to the Round of 16 and can expect an easier fixture against FC Red Bull Salzburg.
Salzburg, the only unbeaten EL team left, have primarily relied on a 4-3-1-2 formation in the EL this season. If they opt for the same tried and tested, Dortmund will be invited to bombard their defences, and the Austrian team don’t have the suitable personnel to manage Dortmund’s attacks. However, if they go for a 3-5-2 formation instead, Dortmund’s wingers will take advantage of the spaces at the back, meaning that Salzburg will need to control the midfield against better players. In the first leg of the Round of 32, they only managed 40 per cent of possession against Real Sociedad and will thus find it tough. Dortmund to progress.
AC Milan vs. Arsenal
What would have only five years ago been a mouth-watering Champions League-level clash is a decidedly more modest fixture in 2018. AC Milan have done well in the EL and have only conceded four in eight games. The team have improved since Gennaro Gattuso took charge in November, and they are becoming more efficient in front of goal and tighter at the back.
Arsenal would arguably have benefitted from a managerial switch in November, with Arsène Wenger’s fortunes taking a tumble. The Gunners are sinking without trace in the Premier League, and they were dumped out of both the FA Cup and the League Cup. EL success may be the elixir Wenger needs to save his job, but with attackers Alexis Sánchez and Olivier Giroud gone and new star attacker Aubameyang ineligible due to having played for Dortmund in Europe this season, the attacking onus will fall on Alexandre Lacazette — a good player who isn’t getting the goals expected of him.
Milan and Arsenal have performed similarly in the EL this season; Arsenal have 18 goals to Milan’s 17, but they have conceded two more, with six, so the flagship match of the round should be an interesting affair. Milan to progress.