I think we can now say this has well and truly been the Chamipons League and in fact, the round, of unbelievable comebacks. It would have been difficult for anything to come anywhere near close to the heroics we saw from Manchester United against PSG last week, but Juventus certainly had a good go at it last night. It’s likely that their defeat of Atletico Madrid will attract the most attention which might be somewhat unfair on Manchester City, who absolutely outplayed Schalke on the same evening.
With Portuguese legend Cristiano Ronaldo having made the move from Madrid to Turin at the start of this season, many people have tipped Juventus as favourites to finally win the Champions League again after coming so close in recent times. However, they seemed a million miles away from achieving that going into last nights second leg fixture with Atletico Madrid. Juventus went into the game requiring two goals just to level the aggregate score and take the match to extra time. This may not seem like a huge requirement for a side who are by far the best in Italy, but doing it against Atletico is a huge ask. Simeone has mastered the art of defending and holding out for narrow wins on a regular basis; if you could choose any side to protect a two-goal lead in a difficult away game, it would be Atletico Madrid. It’s not often Juventus are viewed as underdogs to get a result, especially not in their home ground with their rampant support behind them, but they were certainly in that position last night. Nonetheless, they started the encounter well and arguably had a goal wrongly disallowed for a supposed foul by Ronaldo on Atletico keeper Oblak. This didn’t stop them, however. They continued to push and found the opening goal through, you guessed it, Cristiano Ronaldo. You could sense that Atletico really could be in trouble; they never looked like scoring, the only memorable chances being a long shot from Koke and a Morata header which flew over the bar. It was clear that the result was going to depend on whether Atletico could defend their current lead rather than adding to it as the first half came to a close.
After the whistle sounded to signify the start of the second half, it only took Juventus 4 minutes to find the all important levelling goal. Ronaldo leapt highest again to score his second headed goal of the game. Despite now being 34, an age when a lot of outfield players would be considering retirement, Ronaldo still seems to jump two feet higher than anyone else on the pitch. You may have thought that this goal might bring about a change in the match. Atletico Madrid might become slightly more adventurous knowing they now needed a goal to win the tie, and Juventus might become more cautious knowing they were no longer losing; not at all. Things remained in the exact same manner with Juventus piling on the pressure and Atletico doing their very best to absorb it. Extra time looked all the more likely as the 90 minute mark edged ever nearer, this was until Bernardeschi was tripped in the box. It was a night to forget for Atletico’s Angel Correa, his only real contribution after coming on as a sub being that clumsy foul which gave Juventus the opportunity to complete an unreal comeback. When Ronaldo stepped up to the spot looking for his hattrick, was there ever any doubt that he would get it? The winger fired his shot into the bottom corner claiming the matchball for himself and victory for his side.
Ronaldo’s Champions League record and footballing record in general, is absolutely out of this world and when he plays like he did last night, it’s easy to see why. He holds numerous Champions League records including the competitions all time top goalscorer, most goals in a single Champions League season and most Champions League final wins. With this man in their squad, it’s difficult to bet against Juventus. If they continue to perform like they did last night, there’s a great chance Ronaldo could be adding to that tally of victories in Champions League finals. Considering how easily Juventus repeatedly dominate the Serie A to the point that them winning it is almost a given, the Champions League is a competition they look on with huge importance. If Ronaldo hasn’t already proven his worth, he certainly would if he could help his new side to their first European title in over 20 years. Ronaldo will get the majority of the limelight for last night’s performance, and rightly so, but this does not mean the rest of the side should be overlooked. There’s a few Juventus players who deserve a special mention for their contributions to this victory. Firstly, Bernardeschi was not only influential in winning the decisive penalty late on, but he looked dangerous all game. He’s probably not someone you think of as being one of Juventus’s key players but he certainly was last night. He played with confidence and looked comfortable on the ball, even willing to have a go with a speculative bicycle kick attempt which he wasn’t too far off executing perfectly. Spinazzola is another player who you wouldn’t associate with being crucial to his side. The left back has struggled for game time this season, only featuring a handful of times. In fact, he only made his Champions League debut last night due to the suspension of first choice left back, Alex Sandro. It ended up being a debut to remember for the Italian. Much of his team’s play came down his side, particularly in the first half, and he made chance after chance for those in front of him. Sandro has earned himself a reputation of being one of the best left-backs in world football, mostly for his impressive attacking play, but Spinazzola definitley made a point for himself last night. He showed what he’s capable of and has to be someone Allegri considers much more than he has for much of this season.
The other game of the evening saw Manchester City host a struggling Schalke side. The Germans held their own in the first leg, City requiring two late goals to give themselves a 2-3 victory. Given the current form of the two teams, this did look to be a game which would be fairly straightforward for Guardiola’s men. Regardless, we’ve seen plenty of upsets in the Champions League so far this season, the Real Madrid and Ajax encounter arguably being the one with the most similarities to this fixture. Schalke fans would have been hoping that this could be enough for their side to turn the tie around and defeat the current Premier League leaders. Despite their optimism, it wasn’t meant to be. We knew that City were strong favourites but I doubt many people would have thought things would be quite as simple as they turned out to be for the home side. It did take over a third of the game for them to get on the scoreboard but when they did, the floodgates just opened. Schalke seemed to give up all hope knowing they needed 3 goals to have any chance of progressing. City dominated from this point on and scored twice more before the half time whistle sounded. Schalke were already well out of this game and the second half was to go one of two ways; City would ease off and just take what they had or they would run riot. Based on how they’ve played so far this season, there’s no prize for guessing which of these two possible outcomes was to come true. City scored another 4 goals, 6 different goalscorers contributing to a 7-0 win on the night and 10-2 win on aggregate.
We’ve now reached the final games of the Round of 16 stage in the Champions League and unlike most of the other second-legs, there aren’t really obvious favourites in either tonight’s encounters. Yes, you’d expect Barcelona to score at home and beat their opponents Lyon, but if the French side can snatch an away goal it could make the game very interesting. We’ve already seen them cause Manchester City plenty of problems in the groupstage of this Champions League campaign and they’re more than capable of doing the same against Barcelona. As for Bayern Munich Vs Liverpool, that one really is 50/50. The tie is goalless from the first leg so it all comes down to tonight. It’s clear how dangerous Liverpool are going forward but at the same time, Bayern are vastly experienced, well-drilled and extremely difficult to beat at the Allianz Arena. One thing is for sure, this is a game you definitely won’t want to miss.