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Wednesday February 8 2017
Champions League Preview

Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla all resume Champions League duty next week. Feargal Brennan looks at how each side are shaping up for their last-16 ties.

Crunch time has come around for the 2016-17 campaign, and with it the knockout rounds of the Champions League as La Liga’s elite look to continue their recent dominance on the continent.

The Spanish top tier has provided five out of six teams in the last three Champions League finals, including three winners, and produced three sides for the knockout stages in each of those seasons.

However, with four La Liga clubs in the last 16 this season, Spain looks well placed to have all four of its representatives qualifying for at least the quarter-finals. Football Espana assesses the quartet’s chances.

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Real Madrid

Real Madrid should be too much for Napoli, but defending their Champions League crown will be defined by the tougher tests that lie ahead.

Their 40-game unbeaten run has highlighted not only their talent but also their mental fortitude and ability to grind out results, all hallmarks of successful teams, despite their minor blip in recent weeks, which culminated in defeats to Sevilla and Celta Vigo.

Zidane’s biggest concern will have been the regularity of draws his team racked up in the group stage, but they should have enough firepower to see off Napoli. With neither side being great defensively, this could be an attacking shootout, and Madrid have the better weapons.

Barcelona

Barcelona have faced a certain amount of criticism for not quite playing at their swashbuckling best, but in truth, they’ve been quietly finding ways to pull through.

Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 will be their most difficult examination for quite some time, yet the French superpower have yet to crack the quarter-finals since their Qatari takeover. Furthermore, the Catalans were their foes in two of the last four seasons, so they must use this to their advantage,

Barca carry a huge threat in European competition regardless, and with Real Madrid moving nine points clear at the top of La Liga if they win their two games in hand, La Blaugrana can take PSG apart.          

Luis Enrique has tightened them up in a collective sense, and that should allow the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Suarez the licence to do damage. The focus will be on securing a positive result in the first leg in Paris and not giving themselves too much to do at Camp Nou.

Atletico Madrid

In a similar vein to Barcelona, Atletico Madrid have also had to settle for a supporting role in La Liga this season, slipping down to fourth, behind Sevilla.

However, the difference with Diego Simeone’s side is that their form prior to the return of the Champions League has been patchy, with injuries being particularly disruptive.

Fortunately for Atleti, they have been given a ‘simpler’ last-16 task than those of their fellow Spaniards in Bayer Leverkusen, currently ninth in the Bundesliga.

Los Colchoneros needed penalties to overcome Leverkusen at the same stage in 2015, but they possess more star quality than the Germans.

That should swing the tie in Atleti’s favour, but the result is likely to hinge on them winning the second leg at the Vicente Calderon.

Sevilla

Sevilla have been something of a surprise package in 2016-17, with many predicting in preseason that the Andalusians would struggle following Unai Emery’s exit.

Only the opposite has transpired. Sampaoli has infused greater defensive discipline and work-rate into the side, allowing the team to flourish as a whole.

With the summer departure of Kevin Gameiro, goals have been sourced from across the team, and Luciano Vietto and Wissam Ben Yedder have been prolific in fits and spurts.

Much like Atleti, the Europa League holders have also benefitted from a favourable draw, landing Leicester City in the last 16.

Despite their fairy-tale Premier League triumph win last term, Leicester have declined dramatically in 16-17, meaning Sevilla shouldn’t have too many problems.

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