The UEFA Champions League round of 16 kicks off Tuesday as French stalwarts Paris Saint-Germain fly to Spain to take on Valencia and new manager Ernesto Valverde.
Since the signings of players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, and Ezequiel Lavezzi, PSG has been on a tear in both French Ligue 1, where they currently sit 1st, and in the Champions League, where they finished first in a tough Group A. The players and manger Carlo Ancelotti seemed to have gelled very well and very quickly, which has many people thinking they could be a threat for the title. With the recent signing of global superstar David Beckham, PSG has added yet another threat on set pieces to add to an already stacked squad, which makes them even more dangerous.
Throughout the group stages, the French side dominated opponents with tough team defense and a balanced scoring attack. Eight different players scored for PSG in the six group-stage matches and the team captured 15 points from a possible 18. With one of the best strikers in the world Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and one of the best central defenders in the world (Thiago Silva), PSG is a nightmare matchup for almost any team in the world and that makes them legitimate contenders heading into the final 16.
Which brings us to the home team in Tuesday’s big match. Valencia, who started the season off very poorly, have turned it around since the hiring of manager Ernesto Valverde in early December. The team finished with an impressive 13 points in group-stage play, tied with Bayern Munich, but went through as 2nd place finishers on technicalities. Valencia has also drawn the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona within the past month, giving them high hopes and confidence heading into the next stage of the Champions League.
At media day on Monday, Ernesto Valverde expressed his feelings for Tuesday’s match saying, “We’re doing well right now. We’re high on confidence and this match offers us opportunities that we must make the most of.”
Valverde also addressed his aspirations for the squad, even against such a formidable opponent, saying, “We want to get through to the round of 16. We want to win and qualify for the next round; we are here for victory, that’s our intention. We have to learn from past mistakes, but there’s optimism and there will be a spectacular atmosphere.”
PSG manager Carlo Ancelotti tried to downplay his team’s advantage heading into Tuesday’s match saying at media day, “I don’t think we’re the favorites because this round is totally open. Valencia are playing well again-they have well-organized and talented players.”
Ancelotti went on to say, “It’s going to be an open game, a good show. I don’t think it’ll be a physical match, but a tactical one. Both teams are compact…This is a great test for us to play here (Valencia).”
Here are some of the key battles to watch for:
Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. Adil Rami
Over the past several years, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has cemented himself as one of the best, most powerful strikers in the world. His size, strength, skill, composure, and aerial ability is second to none and for defenders, Ibrahimovic is a legitimate nightmare. He scores inside the box, outside the box, from the penalty spot, from free kicks; the man can do it all. Every team he has been on has success, which is no coincidence. He performs wherever he goes, including for his country of Sweden, and has scored some of the most spectacular goals you will ever see. Having said that, the job of at least slowing him down on Tuesday will be given to Valencia defender Adil Rami. Rami, a French international is a savvy player with experience, which he will need all of even playing at home. The Frenchman has played relatively well throughout his career, but Ibrahimovic will be arguably the toughest matchup he has ever faced. This matchup will be very interesting and while Zlatan will surely get his chances, Rami will need the help of his teammates to help contain this mammoth of the football world.
Ever Banega vs. Javier Pastore
Both Banega and Pastore play the role of playmaker for their respective teams. Both players also happen to hail from Argentina and are well acquainted with each other from national team duty. While both players love to go forward and create goal-scoring opportunities, they also have the responsibility of holding down the midfield from a leadership standpoint. Banega is the engine for Valencia while Pastore plays a similar role for PSG and the battle between the two will be one to watch for. It is not everyday that two players with such similar backgrounds and styles go head to head in such an important match.
Roberto Soldado vs. Thiago Silva
Thiago Silva signed with PSG this summer for nearly 50 million Euros and has been their rock at the back. The Brazilian central defender is steady, tough, and skilled and provides a calming presence for the PSG defense. Silva has taken PSG to the next level along with central defender and Brazilian teammate Alex and along with the other summer signings, has earned his contract. There is no striker too good for Silva, which he has proven, but he will face a stern test against goal-scorer extraordinaire Roberto Soldado of Valencia on Tuesday.
Soldado has scored 17 goals in all competitions this season to lead the team, and has provided a classic “Number 9” presence up top. Not the most athletic player, Soldado plays with his head, outsmarting the opponents and using his skill rather than stature to score goals. Because of Thiago Silva’s athleticism and skill, Soldado will need to make smart off the ball runs and get into good spaces if he wants any chance of getting a goal on Tuesday. Valencia’s best attacker against PSG’s best defender is one of the key battles for the outcome of Tuesday’s match.
Prediction: PSG has a ton of fire power, but Valencia will be playing inspired at home and has shown to be a tough squad when playing in front of their home fans:
PSG 2-2 Valencia