For the second time in our history, we are set to witness UEFA Champions League knockout ties with zero fans and some neutral venues amidst a continuing pandemic. It should not takeaway too much from some of the mouthwatering fixtures on show in the round of sixteen of this season's competition.
This stage of the competition is where we see some of the stars of world football face-off such as Kylian Mbappé coming up against Lionel Messi. What might be more intriguing is to see some of the world's best coaches trying to tactically outwit one another over the course of two legs. Have a read of my predictions for the first legs over the next two weeks and see what you think.
Game of the week
Barcelona vs Paris Saint-Germain: Tuesday, 20:00, Camp Nou (BT Sport 3HD)
This stadium will bring back awful memories for Paris Saint-Germain who visit the Camp Nou for the first time since 2017 when the hosts famously overturned their four goal first leg advantage. Fortunately for them, one of the players who was instrumental for that Barcelona side, Neymar, is now playing for them but is only likely to be fit enough for the second leg due to adductor problems. His absence will be a huge miss.
After a really turbulent twelve months on and off the field at Barca, thing have begun to stabilise, with a seven league game winning run in the league they have propelled themselves back into the top four in La Liga. A defeat at the hands of Sevilla in the Copa del Rey must serve as a warning, although coach Ronald Koeman will take comfort in being able to field a stronger defence for the clash vs PSG.
For another ex-Southampton manager, Mauricio Pochettino, life has been quite rosey since returning to Paris to manage the club he once captained. Nine wins out of their last ten games has restored confidence in Paris in a season where they are in second in Ligue 1. The improvements in fellow Argentines Mauro Icardi and Leandro Paredes is another reason for the Parisians to go into Catalonia brimming with confidence.
Barcelona have never lost to a French club at the Camp Nou in the Champions League, so, just like the fate suffered by Pochettino and PSG in their last champions league knockout games I am predicting that they will be beaten in Spain. It will be a tight one though and I suspect there will be plenty to play for in the second-leg.
Liverpool vs RasenBallsport Leipzig: 20:00, Puskás Aréna (BT Sport 2HD)
Those Liverpool fans a few months ago hoping that this game might mark the return of European nights at Anfield will be bitterly disappointed. Germany's current travel policy with the UK due to COVID-19 rates means that the game has been forcibly moved to Hungary in order to go ahead.
This will add to an increasing list of problems facing Jürgen Klopp, the Reds have endured a torrid run of form since the turn of the year. Even worse, their injury list has increased rather than decreased and the recent collapse in form of goalkeeper Alisson Becker may evoke memories of his deputy, Adrian's performance in the last UCL game at Anfield against Atlético Madrid last season.
Liverpool's absence of home-advantage and a fully fit squad may fill RasenBallsport Leipzig with confidence having already ditched Manchester United from the competition in the group stages. Their main concern may be the absence of an out-and-out goalscorer since the departure of Timo Werner to Chelsea last summer. However, the timely return to form from Christopher Nkunku will be a timely boost for coach Julian Nagelsmann.
In the two teams' first ever encounter, it will be interesting to see whether Nagelsmann opts to play South Korean forward Hwang Hee-Chan. Despite a lack of involvement for the forward who has struggled for fitness and gametime since joining RB Leipzig, his pace could be crucial to capitalising on Liverpool's defensive woes. I am expecting Liverpool to respond tonight, although a win might be asking for too much in this compelling encounter.
FC Porto vs Juventus: 20:00, Estádio do Dragão (BT Sport 2HD)
Portugal's league champions have been struggling of late, four consecutive draws has seen their domestic title challenge seriously falter. With three red cards in their past three games, discipline has been an issue for Sérgio Conceição's men. FC Porto have never scored in either of their previous two games against Juventus at their stadium and must change that if they are to have any hope of progressing.
Despite their weekend defeat to Napoli there has generally been a lot to cheer about for Andrea Pirlo's team. Juventus have started to find their rhythm in the new year with younger players such as Federico Chiesa and Adrien Rabiot shining alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. One problem for the side has been their ability to break teams down, Porto have not conceded at home in Europe this season and are undefeated at home since the beginning of October. Ronaldo will be itching to score against his former rivals and I think he might just be the difference once again on the big occasion.
Sevilla vs Borussia Dortmund: 20:00, Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán (BT Sport 3HD)
Sevilla go into this fixture in scintillating form, they have won nine games in a row without conceding in their previous seven. Long periods without conceding have become a theme under ex-Spain coach Julen Lopentugui. Despite this, he will be very aware of Borussia Dortmund's attacking threats, especially in the form Erling Haaland and Jaden Sancho however in Jules Koundé, a defender who has been attracting potential suitors from the very biggest teams, they will be confident of resisting the attack of the yellow submarine.
Dortmund's recent results have been anything but similar, just two wins from their past seven games have been massively detrimental to their hopes of qualifying for the competition next season. It will not just be a case of trying to break down Sevilla but also dealing with their possession also. It will be interesting to see how Papu Gomez fairs following his transfer from Atalanta. This is a huge night for Sevilla and I am expecting a similarly big performance.
Jules Koundé is the hot knife, Barcelona's defense is the butter. What a goal 😱— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) February 10, 2021
(via @ESPNFC) pic.twitter.com/IZdhwJKPUT
Tuesday 23 February
Atlético Madrid vs Chelsea: 20:00, Arena Nationala (BT Sport 2HD)
La Liga's leaders have been flying domestically this season, five points clear with two games in hand it is really Atlético's title to lose. If there has been one blip on their record it was their Champions League group stage. Diego Simeone's side left it to the last game to secure qualification but his big-game expertise and their form this season have made their side one of the favourites to win the competition.
Chelsea have been revitalised since the arrival of Thomas Tuchel. Winning all but-one of their games under him the Blues are back in the top four. More promisingly, the vast improvements by Timo Werner and Mateo Kovačić will excite fans ahead of this tremendously difficult fixture. As good as they have been, this is by far the biggest challenge of Tuchel's reign so-far and I think Atlético will just edge this game out in Romania (another game moved due to COVID-19).
Lazio vs Bayern Munich: 20:00, Stadio Olimpico (BT Sport 3HD)
As Lazio are coming into their first Champions League knockout game in twenty-one years things could be much worse for Simone Inzaghi's side. It has taken its time but Lazio have finally recovered from the disappointment of missing out on the Scudetto last season putting together a decent run of wins that have put them back into top four contention in the Serie A. They lost to Inter Milan at the weekend which exposed some of their defensive frailties, they will be hoping for a misfiring Bayern Munich.
The visitors are not only European champions now but world champions after winning the Club World Cup although things have been far from idealistic for the Bavarians. A very disruptive trip out to Qatar appears to have unsettled Hansi Flick's men, which was on show in their 3-3 draw to Bundesliga newcomers Arminia Bielefeld. Lazio might be heavy underdogs, but I think they will give Bayern a really good game in Rome.
Wednesday 24 February
Borussia Monchengladbach vs Manchester City: 20:00, Puskas Arena (BT Sport 2HD)
Rumour has been rife surrounding speculation that Borussia Mönchengladbach manager Marco Rose is on the verge of agreeing to join Dortmund at the end of the season. Rose is in high demand due to the swashbuckling Mönchengladbach side he has built over the last couple of seasons. Not only this, but his ability to navigate his side to the round of sixteen has been doubly impressive when you consider they were in a group with Internazionale and Shakhtar Donetsk. Form has been quite patchy as of late, going without a win in their past three league games.
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 13: Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City celebrates after scoring their side's second goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 13, 2021 in Manchester, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Rui Vieira - Pool/Getty Images)
Manchester City are the most in-form team in Europe's top five leagues right now and will be looking to make light work of Mönchengladbach with tougher fixtures to come. In the absence of David Silva, the rise to prominence of İlkay Gündoğan and Phil Foden has been breathtaking with the former now the leading goalscorer in the league over the previous ten games. Do not expect Die Fohlen to sit back against City but I cannot see past the visitors prevailing here.
Atalanta vs Real Madrid: 20:00, Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia (BT Sport 3HD)
Atalanta, minutes away from eliminating PSG won the hearts of fans from all over the world and have replicated that success in reaching the knockouts again. They appear to have recovered from a bit of a blip with back-to-back wins, with victories this season over Lazio, Milan and Liverpool they will really fancy themselves to get past Real Madrid also. The emergence of 23-year-old midfielder Matteo Pessina since the departure of Gomez is one to keep an eye-on in this enthralling fixture.
Zinedine Zidane has been left dismayed by the number of absentees Los Blancos could have ahead of this first leg. Following Carvajal's injury at the weekend it adds to a list that includes Eden Hazard, Federico Valverde, Sergio Ramos and Rodrygo. Despite this they have won their past three games but face a completely different test next Wednesday. In light of their injuries, I think Atalanta might be able to rally past Real Madrid, in the first leg at least.