UEFA Champions League bold predictions: Sadio Mane leads Liverpool; Bayern survive wobble; PSG uncertainty

The first elimination day is upon us in the Champions League knockout stage, and at the halfway mark in three of these four ties, there still looks to be plenty to play for. Manchester City’s passage is almost certainly already a given so let’s take a look at the other three games:

Tuesday’s broadcast schedule

Wednesday’s broadcast schedule

1. Liverpool vs. Inter Milan: Mane delivers in clutch moments

Perhaps it is nothing more than reflective of football’s tendency to fetishize the new that it has so often been Luis Diaz, the thrilling new arrival from Porto, who has won the headlines for Liverpool in recent weeks. After all, it has been Sadio Mane of late making the big contributions in Premier League games. Without his poacher’s instinct, who knows how much more arduous Saturday’s 1-0 win over West Ham might have been? But for his acrobatic inventiveness, would Liverpool have ever overturned their deficit against Norwich? Well yes, probably to the last one. It is Norwich after all.

Still, as others have garnered headlines they absolutely deserve, Mane has been delivering for Liverpool under the radar. He would not care much. As he told CBS Sports in November: “If another milestone number can help me and the team to collect some more silverware, I will do everything I can to achieve it.”

One could not dispute that he is doing everything he can. With Diogo Jota injured, Diaz earning minutes in his preferred position on the left and Salah in such world-beating form that no manager would consider changing the formula, it has been Mane who has given up his preferred spot. Since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations, he has largely occupied the center forward position, bringing goals back to his game that had begun to dry up in December, prompting fears of a return to the bad old days.

After a disastrous second half of last season that saw him dropped from Jurgen Klopp’s XI, unable to explain why he was struggling for form, he has delivered this term. He is averaging a comparable goal return per 90 minutes to his best campaigns in a Liverpool shirt — 2018-19 and 2019-20 — but is doing so because he is getting into scoring positions like never before. His expected goals (xG) per 90 is 0.56, more than 20 percent higher than any of the preceding four seasons.

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The only slight statistical foible Mane has presented in 2021-22 is that he does not hit the target as much as he might expect. Opta’s shooting goals added metric — which assesses the difference between pre and post-shot xG — says he has failed to hit the target to the tune of 2.2 xG so far in the Premier League this season. That might go some way to explaining why Liverpool fans appear to have been frustrated with him of late, but it is almost exactly the same margin by which he outperformed that metric in the Reds’ title winning season. It is perhaps another example of Mane regressing to the mean, which in his case is an outstanding footballer.

There is no radical explanation behind this return to form. His positioning has not particularly changed. He is not winning more duels, completing more take ons or nicking the ball off opponents higher up the pitch. Certainly, he is taking more shots and creating less, but watch the Mane of early 2019 and him three years later and they are still appreciably the same player. That is rather the point. The second half of last season was not the start of an inexorable decline for the 29-year-old, it was a freak blip, the gas leak year for a Liverpool team rent asunder by injuries.

Now, buoyed by his decisive contributions to Senegal’s triumph at AFCON, Mane looks like his old self, a player Liverpool can rely on in the clutch. The only question going into Tuesday’s round of 16 second leg against Inter Milan is whether there will be any of those big moments with Klopp’s defense having proven so hard to break down in the San Siro. Perhaps Ibrahima Konate and Virgil van Dijk can’t be that good again — debatable in the latter’s case. If so, Liverpool can be sure that Mane will put himself in position to make an impact.

2. Bayern Munich vs. Salzburg: Neuer sweeps up the pieces in tough clash

Bayern Munich will be fine. The sheer weight of attacking talent they can leverage on Red Bull Salzburg means that Philipp Köhn will likely need to repeat his excellent first-leg performance just to keep the Austrian champions in with a chance at the other end. With Robert Lewandowski struggling to get into the game, Julian Nagelsmann’s side still registered 2.35 xG, steadily grinding down their opponent after Chukwubuike Adamu’s first-half opener. 

But the issues that plagued Bayern that night might yet rear their head again in the Allianz Arena. In that game they looked light in midfield, something which will not improve on Wednesday with Corentin Tolisso expected to be missing and Marcel Sabitzer not trusted, meaning a repurposed Jamal Musiala could play deep in midfield alongside Joshua Kimmich. Most notably, they looked vulnerable in defensive wide areas, something that was not aided by Nagelsmann playing a true back three (i.e. his ‘wing backs’ were Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry). Back is something they rarely were. 

In the weekend’s draw with Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern deployed the sort of formation that might usually be written down as a back four. But in reality, Omar Richards was receiving the ball so far in advance as to be an extra left winger in the Alphonso Davies mold, even from kickoff in the second half. The spaces left behind by the left back were consistently exploited by Leverkusen.

Richards is caught high up the pitch as Leverkusen counter
Wyscout/Sky Sport
When Dayot Upamecano is also caught out Leverkusen find themselves with a three on two move that ends with a near miss
Wyscout/Sky Sport

Salzburg know how to exploit that Bayern back three. In the first leg, they effectively played with three center forwards in Adamu, Karim Adeyemi and Brenden Aaronson, forcing their opponents into what was effectively a man-to-man game. If Matthias Jaissle’s side move the ball upfield with the same speed they did in the first leg — at 2.99 meters per second it was 19 percent faster than any other team built their attacks in a group stage game this season — then Richards will not be able to get back in time.

Featured Game | Bayern Munich vs. Salzburg

This will be tough for Bayern, whose natural inclination to control the game high up the field will only invite Salzburg to be more explosive out of the traps. It may be that their ace in the hole proves to be Manuel Neuer, the proto sweeper keeper who can quell transitions with his speed out of the area. Combine that with all the talent at the other end and the Bundesliga leaders should be fine. But this will not be as easy in reality as it looked on paper.

3. Real Madrid vs. PSG:  ¯_(ツ)_/¯

It is one of the great joys of PSG in the Champions League. What on earth are you supposed to make of them? It is a truism that has now seemingly infected the players themselves that what happens in Ligue 1 is hermetically sealed from events in Europe. A 1-0 loss to Nice over the weekend? Meh.

What seems to matter rather more is the fitness of Kylian Mbappe, who suffered something of an unnecessary knock in training on Monday. Even that brings with it as many questions and answers. Throughout PSG’s years of extravagance, the point has been repeatedly made that they look a more solid team when they are one superstar down. But do the same rules apply when the one absentee is the player who has been the most devastating in the Champions League? Who knows?

Usually at this juncture, with so much unclear about Wednesday’s game, one might look back to the first leg and see what insights we could gleam from that. And yet Real Madrid’s performance was so astonishingly bizarre that perhaps all we can conclude is that they won’t do it again. Carlo Ancelotti, the grand old duke of European football, seemed to have been completely discombobulated by the absence of away goals from this season’s Champions League. Perhaps he misread the new rules and came to the conclusion that whichever team scores the fewest in their road game goes through to the quarterfinals. How else to explain a game plan that seemed to encompass a mass retreat to the Madrid penalty area?

Featured Game | Real Madrid vs. PSG

Even if the draw was swept away from Los Merengues by a moment of Mbappe magic, a one-goal deficit is not too great a task for Real Madrid to overturn. They have scored eight goals in three games since then, including an impressive thumping of Real Sociedad over the weekend. There is clearly talent there to win almost any Champions League tie, but the key figures who have departed over the last few years took with them Madrid’s sense of inevitability; when Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo, in particular, were in this team, you believed that no deficit was beyond them.

Instead, what this tie has is perhaps the greatest sense of unknowability about this tie. A resounding win seems plausible for any team that includes Neymar and Lionel Messi but would you be shocked if PSG blew it all?

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