After witnessing the first games of the Champions League knock-out stage, today we are about to see 15 mouth-watering clashes with plenty to play for. The road to this year’s final in Lyon begins here. One game was played already earlier this week – Serbian champions Crvena Zvezda hosted CSKA Moscow and finished 0-0 and left the return leg with all to play for.
Astana – Sporting Lisbon
Sporting will have to make one of the longest trips in European football with more than 6,000 km from Portugal to Kazakhstan. The game will see the four-time consecutive champions FC Astana take on for the first time ever on their opponents. The hosts are the first ever team from Kazakhstan to reach the latter stages of European competitions and will certainly try to exploit the slip in the form of their visitors. Sporting was unbeaten in January but lost already two games in February – against rivals Porto and Estoril.
Östersund – Arsenal
In one of the most intriguing games of the round, the Swedish minnows Östersund face Arsenal. The hosts are one of the European most romantic footballing stories making their way from lower divisions of Swedish football to a glamorous knock-out tie with a famous English opponent. Östersund has already played 12 games in the tournament and progressed from their group as runners-up. Their English connection is strong – their manager is the Englishman Graham Potter, who enjoyed 13-year playing career and made 307 appearances in the Football League. The Swedish club is his first managerial experience and is behind the success of the team during the last 6 years. Both teams are enjoying their debut campaigns in the tournament, and Arsenal are into knockout phases for the 19th consecutive year – all under current manager Arsene Wenger. The freezing temperatures, the unbeaten home record and the important matches in the League are all points leading to a surprise result, but could David defeat Goliath?
Ludogorets Razgrad – AC Milan
One of the most successful clubs in Europe is continuing their debut Europa League campaign with a tricky away trip to Bulgaria, where they will face Ludogorets Razgrad. The Rossoneri improved domestically in 2018 and are unbeaten with a 4-0 win against SPAL last weekend. Ludogorets have lost only one of their last nine European fixtures (W4 D4) – although they are without a win in three (D2 L1) and will look to gain an advantage before the return leg at San Siro later this month. The Bulgarian champions will be without suspended Erol Dost, Claudiu Keșerü and Natanael, but new signing Jakub Świerczok could make his competitive debut. Gennaro Gatusso is having almost fully fit squad but could opt to rotate his line-up before upcoming fixtures in Seria A and Coppa Italia later this month in – Roma and Sampdoria in the league and second leg of ½-Final of the Cup against Lazio.
Spartak Moscow – Athletic Bilbao
Spartak is one of four Russian clubs still involved in this season’s competition, and continue their campaign against the round of 32 regulars Athletic. The Russians were disappointed in their Champions League group finishing behind Liverpool and Sevilla and now will hope to get a positive result against Europa League specialists Bilbao. Despite Spartak’s elimination, they didn’t lose at home – drawing against Liverpool and Maribor and winning in style against Sevilla 5-1. Bilbao side has never lost UEFA tie to Russian opposition, but are without a win since 07 January. Spartak is still in the winter break and has not played a competitive game since December may cause problems to manager Massimo Carrera and his team.
Borussia Dortmund – Atalanta
Borussia Dortmund is yet to win this season in Europe and their attempt won’t be an easy one as their face Italian side Atalanta. Under new coach Peter Stöger, Dortmund is unbeaten in 2018 in Germany and – inspired by new arrival Michy Batshuayi – have won the last two games. They have improved drastically and are looking to put their form in Europe too. Meanwhile, Atalanta enjoying their first European football since the 1990-1991 season will be hoping for a long run and will be looking to continue their quest after finishing top of their group. Marco Reus, Jadon Sancho are the notable inclusions in the host’s squad for the game and given Borussia’s greater experience, they will be looking to win comfortably.
Lyon – Villarreal
Lyon is going on a quest to reach the final which is going to be hosted on their stadium in May 2018, but the mission will not be an easy one. The French side gained an impressive win against PSG earlier this month, but after that, they’ve lost three times. Villarreal is the best performing team in the competition – most wins and goals, but they were weakened when Cedric Bakambu left for China becoming the most valuable African player ever. Both teams came through with 11 points, having won three matches, drawn two and lost one, the sole defeat coming in each case on matchday six after qualification had already been secured. The match sees two evenly matched sides, with the difference might be the home advantage.
Napoli – RB Leipzig
The tie sees two teams coming out of the Champions League, and the former Uefa Cup winner Napoli face debutants Leipzig in what appears to be the biggest derby of the Round 32. The Italians are targeting domestic glory in fighting for the Seria A title and could minimize the importance of the Europa League. The rise of the RB Leipzig project sees them qualify for the knock-out stages of European competitions for the first time. The Azzurri are going to miss their talismanic forward Dries Mertens who is suspended. RB Leipzig will face a tough task in trying to replicate their 2nd finish in the Bundesliga from the last term, but the chance to demonstrate what they are made of.
The full draw for the Round 32, 15/02 (in CET):
17:00 FC Astana – Sporting CP
19:00 Borussia Dortmund – Atalanta
19:00 Ludogorets Razgrad – AC Milan
19:00 Marseille – Braga
19:00 Nice – Lokomotiv Moscow
19:00 Oestersunds FK – Arsenal
19:00 Real Sociedad – Salzburg
19:00 Spartak Moscow – Athletic Bilbao
21:05 AEK Athens – Dynamo Kyiv
21:05 Celtic – Zenit St. Petersburg
21:05 FC FCSB – Lazio
21:05 FC Koebenhavn – Atletico Madrid
21:05 Lyon – Villarreal
21:05 Partizan Beograd – Viktoria Plzen
21:05 SSC Napoli – RasenBallsport Leipzig
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