Champions League returns: What to look out for in 2021-22 knockout stages

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A clean sweep of English teams but no Barcelona. No away goals either.

The Champions League last 16 starts this week with Paris St-Germain v Real Madrid and Sporting Lisbon v Manchester City on Tuesday.

Let’s jog your memory on who is still in it and what to look out for.

No Barcelona

Barcelona
Barcelona lost three of their group games by a 3-0 scoreline

This is the first time in 18 years that Barcelona are not in the Champions League knockout stages.

Spanish newspaper AS called it Barcelona’s “resignation from the football elite” as they lost 3-0 to Bayern Munich to finish third (Barca’s third 3-0 defeat in their six games).

Instead of competing for club football’s most prestigious trophy, they will be facing Napoli (who finished above Leicester) in a play-off for a place in the Europa League last 16.

The last time they were not in the Champions League last 16 was in 2004 when they lost to Celtic in the Uefa Cup.

Their exit might feel strange but could just save them further embarrassment down the line. The last three times they got to the last eight or further ended in farce – blowing three-goal leads against Roma and Liverpool and losing 8-2 to Bayern Munich.

English clean sweep

Pep Guardiola
Can Manchester City finally win the Champions League?
  • Sporting Lisbon v Manchester City
  • Chelsea v Lille
  • Atletico Madrid v Manchester United
  • Inter Milan v Liverpool

For the fourth time in five seasons there are at least four English teams in the Champions League last 16 – all getting there with a game to spare this time.

And three of them are among the four bookmakers’ favourites to win the tournament (Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Chelsea).

All the English sides face domestic champions of four of Europe’s next five highest-ranked leagues (Spain, Italy, France, Portugal).

However, none of those currently top their league.

Last season Chelsea beat City in the final – could it be a similar tale this year? Can Pep Guardiola finally get his hands on the trophy without Barcelona and Lionel Messi?

A nice mix of leagues

Salzburg
Salzburg reached the Champions League last 16 for the first time

The last 16 teams come from eight different leagues – including knockout debutants Red Bull Salzburg.

Salzburg, Ajax, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon mean there are more teams from outside Europe’s top five leagues than in the previous three years combined (Porto in 2021 and 2019 and Ajax in 2019).

Ajax – the second top scorers in the Champions League this season with 20 – and Sporting came through the same group together above Borussia Dortmund.

There could be a new top scorer too, with Ajax’s Sebastien Haller leading the way on 10 goals (from only six games) and RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku joint third on seven goals.

Who will benefit from redraw?

The Champions League last 16 draw had to be done twice after mistakes were made in the original draw. Manchester United were excluded from the pot of possible opponents for Atletico Madrid, and Liverpool included instead. But it should have been the other way around.

The entire draw was redone, leaving some teams with tougher ties and others with “easier” games.

Manchester United were initially due to play one of the tournament favourites in Paris St-Germain – Cristiano Ronaldo v Messi as it was briefly billed before the problems emerged.

Now they play Atletico Madrid, who are outside the top four in La Liga. PSG presumably would have preferred the initial United draw as they ended up with Real Madrid.

Liverpool had an upgrade in opponent with Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg being replaced by Serie A champions and leaders Inter Milan.

Manchester City will play Sporting Lisbon instead of Villarreal, while Chelsea were drawn with Lille both times.

Among the other teams with strong swings in the new draw were Bayern Munich, who were due to play Atletico Madrid and now play Salzburg. Real Madrid were due to face Benfica, but now take on PSG.

No away goals

Lucas Moura celebrating after scoring Spurs' winner against Ajax
Spurs’ famous win over Ajax would go to extra time under the new rules

These will be the first Champions League knockout stages since Uefa scrapped the away goals rule.

Ties with level scores after two legs will now all go to extra time and then penalties.

It could well change the dynamic of knockout games. Tottenham’s famous wins over Ajax and City would both have gone to extra time under these new rules.

So too would have United’s comeback win over PSG that helped Ole Gunnar Solskjaer get the manager’s job, and Roma’s fightback against Barcelona.

Can Messi help PSG to first Champions League title?

Lionel Messi
Can Lionel Messi win his first Champions League in seven years?

When PSG signed Messi, it was not to help them reclaim the Ligue 1 title – it was so they could win the Champions League.

PSG are yet to win the Champions League in a decade of Qatari ownership and subsequent heavy investment, with the 2020 final defeat against Bayern Munich the closest they have come.

They have three of the best forwards in world football – Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

PSG rejected a £137m Real Madrid bid for Mbappe last summer despite the fact he can leave on a free transfer in July – so this could be the only season they have that frontline.

Plus with Messi turning 35 this summer, they will not have too many campaigns with the Argentine.

The move could be mutually beneficial too, with Messi hoping to win his first Champions League since 2015 after leaving a Barcelona team that got worse every year.

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