The wait for another week of Champions League football to begin always seems like a very long one, but the latest set of games are nearly upon us. The first evening for the first week of this rounds fixtures sees Real Madrid host Ajax and Tottenham face a trip to Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund. You might think predicting the outcome of these ties is pointless because they’ve almost already been decided; Real Madrid already lead with their home leg still to be played and Tottenham visit the Signal Iduna Park with a 3 goal advantage. This makes Spurs and Madrid clear favouirtes but there’s a few reasons why things might not be as straightforward as they seem.
Let’s begin with Real Madrid and it’s fair to say that they haven’t been having a great time of things recently and throughout this season as a whole. Being third in the league isn’t awful but this is a club with extremely high expectations and sitting 12 points behind leaders and huge rivals Barcelona has to be considered an underachievement. You wouldn’t think that losing one key player would be so damaging to a club, especially a club the size and prestige of Real Madrid, but they have struggled to adapt following the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus. On the field, they’ve greatly relied on young Brazilian starlet, Vinicius Junior, to fill the boots of the Portuguese legend. Whilst he has done a pretty good job of this, there’s no changing the fact that not so long ago he wasn’t even trusted to be part of their squad. He spent a period with Madrid’s B team Real Madrid Castilla before becoming a key part of their first team. Ronaldo’s absence has not just been felt on the pitch. It’s clear that he and Marcelo had a great bond when they played together and the left back has publicly voiced the impact it’s had on the dressing room, he himself now seeming keen to make the move to Turin to be reunited with Ronaldo. Courtois has also publicly criticised winger Gareth Bale referring to him as ‘the golfer’ due to his preference to play golf over interacting with his teammates. Comments like this do nothing other than build tension, a factor which could be contributing to the sides’ poor form. They’ve lost three consecutive home games for the first time since 2004 so them winning any match at this point isn’t guaranteed.
As for Ajax, they currently sit second in the Eredivise, 5 points behind leaders PSV with a game in hand. You would expect Ajax to be competing for the title at the very least so it’s no surprise that they are. It’s almost become a growing theme with Ajax that they seem to produce excellent young talents who go on to become key players for other European giants. Midfielder Frenkie de Jong made the move every young player dreams of in January when he joined Barcelona and others like Matthijs de Ligt are constantly linked with the world’s best sides. Obviously Ajax are not a side to be underestimated; Real Madrid have been beaten by sides with far less quality than the Dutch giants this season so there’s no reason why they can’t cause them a few problems at the Bernabeu tonight, particularly considering the awful home form Madrid are currently in. However, although Madrid usually perform well both domestically and in Europe, they do have a habit of really producing their best in the Chamipons League, their outstanding record proving that. Consequently, they should have enough to overcome tonight’s opponents and progress to the next round.
Score prediction: Real Madrid 2-1 Ajax (Agg. 4-2)
The other game this evening sees Tottenham travel to Germany to play Borussia Dortmund, the away side making the journey with a 3 goal aggregate lead. If Dortmund have any hopes of progressing further in the competition then they’ll have to produce an outstanding attacking performance to overturn that defecit. We know that Dortmund are more than capable of doing that, clearly having done so so far this season domestically. However, they have let their lead at the top slip only now ahead of Bayern Munich on goal difference dropping points in games they would have expected to win. They’ll have to perform just as well defensively and virtually must keep a clean sheet as an away goal for Tottenham would kill the tie entirely. They aren’t in good form which won’t help them going into a game where they’ll be clear underdogs. Yet, the Signal Iduna Park has a reputation for producing an excellent and intimidating atmosphere for away teams which could just give Dortmund the boost they need on a huge night of European football.
Another factor that could play into the home team’s hands is that Spurs are in just as bad, if not worse form. They haven’t won in three games, losing twice and drawing once. They’ve struggled in front of goal since Harry Kane’s return from injury only scoring twice in those games, one of which was a penalty which shouldn’t have been given. This disappointing few games has seen Pochettino’s side fall from being somewhat title contenders to being in a real scrap to finish in a Champions League spot. I don’t believe many people truly felt that Tottenham had a chance of winning the league, even less so after their latest results. Now that they’re no longer comfortbaly going about their business slightly below the top two but far enough out of reach of those below them, they might be playing under a lot more pressure. It’s a loose link but it’s something for the players and everyone involved with the club to think about going into tonight’s game. A long European run rarely has a positive impact on domestic form which isn’t great for a team who are already crumbling away in the league. Of course, you could argue that Dortmund are in the same situationg growing ever nearer to being overtaken by Bayern Munich, but they can certainly play with freedom tonight. Being 0-3 down on aggregate, no one expects them to progress but if they can snatch an early goal and build some momentum then there’s a real chance they could progress.
Score prediction: Dortmund 3-0 Tottenham, Dortmund win on penalties (Agg. 3-3)
For obvious reasons, Real Madrid and Tottenham would be expected to reach the next stage of the Champions League, and whilst I think Madrid will do that, I have a slight feeling that Spurs might find it difficult tonight. Whether or not Dortmund can come back from being so far behind is another question, but Dortmund are strong going forward and the atmosphere tonight could be something that massively helps them. It’s perfectly set up for them to produce the sort of astonishing comeback the Champions League has become famous for.