A year different from any other, perhaps, but the priorities remain the same. While many of our friends and families fussed over Valentine’s Day, we with any reasonable degree of common sense were readily anticipating the real February landmark – the return of European football.
This week marks the resumption of both the Champions League and Europa League, and they certainly haven’t come without controversy. Debate has ben rife regarding the use of away goals in ties with no home grounds, and travel problems continue to cause issues.
At the end of the day, however, there are a number of incredibly intriguing football matches for us to get stuck in to this week, and this is my list of those you should be tuning in to.
Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain – Tuesday, 8pm UK Time
While this is among the most eagerly anticipated last 16 ties of this year’s Champions League, both sides will be cursing their luck at being the ones required to participate in it. No matter which club exits the tournament, no matter the circumstances behind it, it will be deemed a huge failure if they do so.
PSG were last season’s beaten finalists, but in the grand scheme of things they have massively underachieved in continental competition since their influx of wealth. They would surely have hoped to have won Europe’s elite tournament by now, but 2020 was the closest they’ve come yet. Following that up by failing to reach the quarter finals won’t go down well with the club’s hierarchy – and it could prove costly when attempting to maintain a grip on stars like Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.
Barcelona, on the other hand, haven’t won the competition since the 2013/14 season and are in the midst of a club-wide crisis. Manager Ronald Koeman already finds himself under pressure due to underachieving domestically, and he won’t help his case if his side fail to advance in Europe.
In short, this game has a lot riding on it for both teams. Expect passion and fireworks.
On top of that, the talent on show will act like a magnet for football fans worldwide. As if watching Lionel Messi, Mbappe and Neymar wouldn’t be enough, we’ll be treated to a vast of other superstars; Angel Di Maria, Antoine Griezmann and Sergio Busquets to name a few. Normally if you weren’t watching this match, we’d think there was something wrong with you.
RB Leipzig vs Liverpool – Tuesday, 8pm UK Time
There’s only one problem – RB Leipzig and Liverpool are facing off at the exact same time. Unless you own two TVs, this presents a major dilemma; which game do you watch? On paper, the first game might seem more appealing. Think again before making assumptions, however.
For starters, this match is one of those taking place at a neutral venue – it’ll be played at the Puskas Arena in Budapest, Hungary.
On top of that, Leipzig and Liverpool are managed by two of the most tactically astute coaches in Europe – Julian Nagelsmann and Jurgen Klopp. Both are German, both either manage or have managed in the German Bundesliga and both are obsessed with aggressive, high intensity pressing systems.
Nagelsmann, at just 33-years-old, is one of the game’s most promising young coaches and has been linked with some of the biggest clubs worldwide already. He led his team to the Champions League semi-finals last season and will be hoping to go one better this time around; Klopp won the competition with Liverpool in 2018/19 and will want to replicate this success.
Liverpool may not have lived up to expectations in the Premier League this season, but you can never discard them when it comes to the Champions League. This promises to be one of the most tactics-focused ties this week and you’ll feel better educated for having tuned in for it.
Sevilla vs Borussia Dortmund – Wednesday, 8pm UK Time
This will be another clash of ideologies. Julen lopetegui lead this Sevilla side to yet another Europa League crown last season, so while it is a little unusual to see them in the latter stages of Europe’s prime competition, they will be far from innocent bystanders.
Dortmund, meanwhile, are struggling massively in the Bundesliga but there are no doubts about the quality their squad possesses. Erling Haaland is already one of the highest regarded strikers in world football, while Jadon Sancho has been linked heavily with Manchester United over the last year.
This will be a battle of Spanish and German football styles, and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top.
Real Sociedad vs Manchester United – Thursday, 5.55pm UK Time
This has all the makings of a riveting Europa League matchup. Both of these clubs have spent time at the top of their domestic leagues this season, but went through a dip in form that resulted in them surrendering that spot. Sociedad currently sit fifth in La Liga having won their last two league matches, while United have won just two of their seven most recent games.
Ex-Manchester City star David Silva will be hoping to inflict defeat on his old rivals, while former United youth product Adnan Januzaj will be out to hurt the club where his career kicked off.
Worryingly for United fans, they tend to struggle against Spanish sides. They lost Champions League finals to Barcelona in 2009 and 2011, were dumped out of the Europa League in 2012 by Athletic Bilbao and failed to beat Valencia over two group stage games in their 2018/19 Champions League campaign. Most recently, Sevilla edged a 2-1 win in last season’s Europa League semi-final. In fact, United have won just two of their last twelve encounters with Spanish opposition – but one of those was against Sociedad back in 2013.
This promises to be one of the best Europa League matches this week, with a wealth of attacking talent on show.
Royal Antwerp vs Rangers – Thursday, 8pm UK Time
As Scottish football’s sole remaining European representatives, the pressure is certainly on Rangers. They have done wonders for the Premiership’s coefficient in recent seasons, but further progression in this year’s competition would help improve things even further.
This will be no easy task, however. Antwerp sit second in Belgian’s First Division A, four places above the Standard Liege side Rangers beat twice in the group stages. This will be a different test, and one Steven Gerrard’s men must be ready for.
While Rangers have still to lose in the SPFL Premiership this season, there has been something of a drop-off in performance levels during recent weeks. They’ve still been getting results, but will need to get back to their early-season form to ensure they give the best showing they can.
There are a number of games worth watching at 8pm on Thursday (Lille vs Ajax, Benfica vs Arsenal, Salzburg vs Villarreal) but Rangers take part in the most important one for us in Scotland. Love them or hate them, this is the match to tune into.