It feels like it has been months since we got to watch the top teams in Europe square off, and it has. Two months and six days, to be exact. Now, that waiting is over, as the UEFA Champions League returns for the first leg of the Round of Sixteen on Tuesday.
For fantasy managers, picking your UCL team for the knockout stages can be a bit of a nightmare. The deadline is on Tuesday, but the matches stretch through NEXT Wednesday....which means that unless you pick a solid bench, you could end up getting burned. While you can make substitutions to replace players who may get injured before their matches next week, you cannot make transfers. Thus, it is vital to maximize your salary and build not only a great starting lineup, but a bench that can contribute if needed.
One way around this is to do what some are considering--build a team mostly consisting of players who will face off this week, and remove much of the guesswork for the 23rd and 24th of February. However, that will prevent you from fielding players for Barcelona, Arsenal, Juventus, and Bayern Munich, among others. It is important to strike a balance between players you know will contribute, and ones who you hope will be healthy when the time comes.
There are some very interesting matchups in this Round of Sixteen. Here is the entire fixture list for the first leg:
Tuesday, February 16
Paris Saint Germain v Chelsea
Benfica v Zenit St Petersburg
Wednesday, February 17
Gent v Wolfsburg
Tuesday, February 23
Arsenal v FC Barcelona
Juventus v Bayern
Wednesday, February 24
PSV Eindhoven v Atletico Madrid
Dynamo Kyiv v Manchester City
Obviously, you're going to want to schedule a day off for Tuesday the 23rd, as three of the biggest favorites to win the competition will be in action, with two terrific matches. For me, the most interesting match will be Benfica v Zenit. The Russian outfit was one of the most impressive in the group stages.
However, they have not played a competitive match SINCE the group stages.
That's right. Not a single competitive match since early December. And you thought the wait was tough as a fan.
With that said, here are my top picks for the first leg of the Round of Sixteen!
Matz Sels (Gent) - One of the best defensive showings in the entire group stages, Gent is taking on a Wolfsburg side that is struggling lately and will be missing their top scorer in Bas Dost. The Wolves won this weekend for the first time in eight matches, and now will face a side that is allowing less than a goal per match at home in the Belgian Pro League. When you factor in the horrid away record of Wolfsburg--the worst in the Bundesliga--you have a recipe for a low-scoring match and a very cheap clean sheet.
Kevin Trapp (PSG) - I would feel sorry for Chelsea if I were able to. But I'm not. I do feel sorry for Kurt Zouma, who will be out until next season with an ACL injury. I sure as heck don't feel sorry for John Terry, who is now out with injury. So it's to my enjoyment that PSG welcomes the Blues to the Parc de Princes on Tuesday. This match could get ugly, and the makeshift Chelsea defense is going to struggle with the likes of Zlatan, Di Maria, and Cavani. The PSG attack should keep the ball at one end of the pitch much of the match, which means that Trapp should have little to do. Even if he does, he's got a solid line in front of him and he's in terrific form.
Keylor Navas (RMD) - Roma had an atrocious defensive record in the group stages. Real Madrid should have them on the back foot for much of the match. An easy start.
Joe Hart (MCY) - After their FA Cup match over the weekend, Manchester City will travel to take on Dynamo Kyiv, While the Ukrainian side is doing well in domestic competition, Hart is still a rock-solid keeper who shouldn't face too much of a challenge.
Van der Weil (PSG - After the stupidity over the weekend from Serge Aurier led to his indefinite suspension, it looks as though VDW (or possibly Marquinhos) will benefit and take his spot. He will be lined up on the same side as Hazard and Rahman, which isn't going to prevent his upfield attacking runs. He's a very good pick for a clean sheet and possibly an assist.
Juanfran (ATM) - One of the top crossing backs in Europe, Juanfran was heavily involved in the group stages. Facing a PSV side that will likely compact a bit, he should get plenty more opportunities to send in crosses for the likes of Griezmann.
Diego Godin (ATM) - Just like with Juanfran, a clean sheet is a likely outcome. The top-rated defender in the group stages, Godin is a rock in the back. He won't add much in goals/assists, if ever, but he will hold down the opposition's top forward.
David Alaba (BAY) - The Bayern attack is lethal, and with Juventus running a 352 formation, Alaba should get plenty of opportunities to push forward in attack. He contributed a goal and an assist in the group stages, and is always a threat to gain points.
Angel Di Maria (PSG) - Boy, as a United fan I sure do wish we had someone who could break down defenses, send in pin-point crosses, and be involved in everything. You know, someone like Angel Di Maria. Oh yeah, that's right, we had a guy like him. And then we sold him. And now he's terrorizing France. Chelsea are likely his next victims. With 13 goals and 11 assists across all competitions, he is almost a must-play against a broken down Chelsea back line.
Daniel Milicevic (Gent) - Three goals. One assist. FIFTY ONE crosses. That's what Milicevic delivered in the group stages of the Champions League. His fifteen created chances were nine more than anybody else on his team. Gent's offense runs through him. Wolfsburg's defense will have to focus on stopping him. Good luck.
James Rodriguez (RMD) - With no Gareth Bale for the Spanish side, it will be on James to run the midfield along with Toni Kroos and Luca Modric. James is in solid form and should have plenty of room to operate in the midfield, with Roma's shoddy defensive record being hurt even more by missing injured Daniele De Rossi. Plus, the dude just did THIS over the weekend.
Nicolas Gaitan (BEN) - Nobody has been able to shut this guy down, either in Portugal or in the Champions League. Zenit haven't played a match in over two months. Did I mention that he costs only 7.0 million in the official UCL game? Oh, ok. Well he only costs 7.0 million in the official UCL game. He should be one of the first people in your team. You're welcome.
Paul Pogba (JUV) - Oh hey, look at that. Another former midfielder for Manchester United who can break down defenses. Excuse me while I go sob quietly in the corner.....ok, I'm back. Yes, he's playing Bayern Munich. That doesn't matter. The French dynamo continues to prove that he is one of the five best players in the entire world.
Douglas Costa (BAY) - When Pep Guardiola splashed the cash for the young Brazilian, many Bayern fans were upset. They sure aren't upset now. With five goals and eleven assists in all competitions, he has been in the middle of many goals for the German side. He is a cheaper way to get exposure to the Bayern Munich firepower, and should provide a solid return on investment.
Lionel Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo. Karim Benzema. Luis Suarez. Neymar. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Thomas Muller. Robert Lewandowski.
You know who they are. You know who they play for. You know what they do. And you know they're going to cost you a bunch. Pick one. Two, if you can afford it. Just hope you pick the right one. Messi, Suarez, and Neymar travel to Arsenal next week for a tough match, but they always seem to have Arsenal's number when they play. You know at least one of the MSN trio will get a goal, so it's up to you to figure out who it will be. Ronaldo and Benzema will terrorize the Roma defense, and both are likely going to find the scoresheet. Zlatan is Zlatan. Chelsea is not going to stop him. And then you have the combination of Muller and Lewandowski, who simply cannot stop scoring. If you don't have at least one of these eight, you probably aren't going to do very well.
Jonas (BEN) - Benfica should win this match, and if they do you can bet that Jonas will have a say. He has almost twice as many goals as anybody else on the team, and he leads the Portuguese league in scoring. Facing a defense that hasn't played in two months should give him plenty of chances to get on the scoresheet.
Antoine Griezmann (ATM) - While he has been in poor form recently, he is still an elite goal scorer. The injury to Yannick Carrasco will increase his touches for Atletico. PSV have struggled with talented forwards and Griezmann should get plenty of shots.
Hulk/Dzyuba (ZNT) - I know, I know. I've ragged on Zenit this whole time. But we're talking about Hulk and Dzyuba. One thing that helps forwards is fresh legs. And these two are very active and if Zenit are going to do anything in this match, they will have to be involved. Benfica's defense is a bit banged up at the moment, and if Zenit can establish some possession, these two will benefit. They are nicely priced options to pair with one of the big guns listed above.
For reference, here is my team for Leg 1 on the official UCL game: