The Champions League is now entering its most exciting phase — the knockout stages. Eight top-class matches will take place in the next two weeks as the first leg of the Round of 16. The group-stage survivors enter the first leg of the R16 after grinding out more than a month of domestic competitions without any international breaks.
MD-7 spans both calendar weeks of first leg matches, which will take place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays this week and next. Worryingly, this means that teams in the second half of the leg will play a full week of domestic action between the fantasy UCL transfer deadline and their UCL matches. That means players who are fit and healthy when we select them could be sidelined by injury by the time their UCL matches roll around.
Note: for our complete portfolio of fantasy content for Leg 1 of the Round of 16, see our article stream here. We will continue to add to it as MD-7 unfolds, so be sure to check in frequently.
MATCH-DAY 7 FANTASY GUIDE
Consequently, the best strategy for this match-day (and for MD-8’s two weeks of reverse fixtures) is to lean heavily into the four first-week matches, while also considering which clubs seem the most likely to survive.
Unfortunately, the first Tuesday matches are not easy to read. AC Milan hosts Tottenham while PSG hosts Bayern Munich. If you have any idea which of those four has more than 60% chance to advance, then please let me know! Ironically, Napoli and Benfica seem to be the teams with the highest chances of qualification by a big score margin.
This is the second season since the away-goals rule change, meaning that an aggregate draw will result in extra time in the second leg regardless of when and where goals were scored. Consequently, there is no expectation for heavy rotation by any club in the first leg, since many will look to plant one foot in the quarterfinals round as soon as possible.
That said, clubs with relatively weak opponents could consider a surprise rest for one or two key players. These would be Napoli playing Frankfurt and Benfica playing Club Brugge. Tread carefully around those teams.
FIXTURES & WINTER TRANSFERS
AC Milan vs Tottenham
Tottenham travels to Milan to play one of Italy’s major clubs. Two losses in January for Conti (against Man City and Arsenal) were not enough to break Spurs down. They bounced back with three victories before fall to Leicester yesterday in preparation for the UCL.
Villarreal’s Arnaut Danjuma and Sporting Lisbon’s right back Pedro Porro are newcomers to the London club on loan. Though Villareal was in the ECL and Sporting played in the UCL group stage, UEFA’s pre-knockout transfer rules mean they are not cup tied.
AC Milan returned to winning ways by defeating Torino 1-0 domestically after 4 consecutive defeats, including two against intra-city rival Inter. Milan did not sign or release any notable players during the winter transfer market.
PSG vs Bayern Munich
PSG hosts Bayern after losing domestically to Monaco yesterday. Prior to that, the French capital club won three, drew one and lost one in the prior five. Other than the departure of Keylor Navas on loan to Nottingham Forest, PSG had no major activity during the winter transfer market.
The German camp saw more activity than expected in the transfer market. Borussia Monchengladbach’s long-serving goalkeeper Yann Sommer was brought in for a fee of €8 million. Ajax and Netherlands left-back Daley Blind also joined Bayern on a free transfer, while Joao Cancelo was signed on loan from Man City. Marcel Sabitzer, unable to win a first-team spot with Bayern, was loaned to Man United to look for a new adventure. Bayern scraped by with three draws then three wins in the their last six matches, including a 3-0 victory over Bochum yesterday.
Club Brugge vs Benfica
One of the tournament’s dark horses, Brugge tied five of its last six matches and won only one. The club breezed through the winter transfer market without losing any major players in preparation for the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Sensational Benfica has showcased an impressive team this season, producing one of the stars of the World Cup: Enzo Fernandez. The player attracted several offers that Benfica could not refuse. Chelsea eventually won the bidding, bringing the player to London for a fee of €121 million. Benfica won four of the last five matches domestically, but lost to Braga on penalties three days ago in the Portuguese Cup.
The play styles of these two clubs means their fixture could deliver one of the most entertaining matches of the R16. The German club has won seven straight across all competitions. Thorgan Hazard’s loan to PSV Eindhoven is the only notable move in Dortmund’s winter transfer market.
Chelsea spent a staggering amount of money in the 2022-23 winter transfer market, bringing in Argentina’s Enzo for a fee of €121 million, Shakhtar’s Mykhaylo Mudryk for €70 million, and three additional young talents for a total outlay of approximately €100 million. The Blues also borrowed Atlético Madrid’s Joao Felix for the remainder of the season. In the opposite direction, long-serving central midfielder (and #1 PK man) Jorginho was the only departure from the club, landing at Arsenal for a fee of €11.3 million. Chelsea has been inconsistent recently, winning once, losing twice, and drawing three in a row (most recently yesterday to lowly West Ham) in the build-up to its trip to Germany.
Two top-flight teams that are struggling domestically face off for a chance at redemption with their fans. Liverpool has lost four of its last five league matches and must play Everton and Newcastle before the second-week fixture in UCL. The injury crisis at the English club forced interest in Netherlands star Cody Gakpo, the Reds landing him for a €42 million fee during the January transfer window.
La Liga title-holders Real Madrid brought in no reinforcements in the winter transfer window. They have two losses, a tie and a win across the last four league matches, but they did win the Club World Cup yesterday by defeating Al-Hilal 5-3. The club plays Elche and Osasuna before the titanic clash with Liverpool.
Frankfurt vs Napoli
Napoli is already confounding odds-makers who are trying to predict the eventual UCL victor this season. Napoli has been in fine form, winning all five recent league matches, but the club lost on penalties in the Italian Cup quarterfinals. The pressure is now on to showcase quality on the biggest stage of all. The side will play Cremonese and Sassuolo before traveling to Frankfurt. Napoli made a few changes to their squad players in the January window, but these will have no effect on the first team.
Frankfurt is still going strong, trailing Bundesliga #1 Bayern Munich by a mere five points (with a game in hand at the time of writing). Indeed, Frankfurt has gone undefeated across all competitions since the conclusion of the UCL Group Stage back in November, a run of 10 matches. The Germans play at FC Koln today and then home against Werder Bremen before hosting Napoli in the UCL. Frankfurt made no major transfers in the winter window.
Inter Milan vs Porto
Inter Milan may be the second-best Italian club this season but has been improving slowly over the past few years. The Italians have recorded four wins in their last five league matches and also defeated Atalanta in the quarterfinals of the Coppa Italia. There was no major movement over the winter transfer market. Inter will play Sampdoria and Udinese before hosting the Portuguese champions in the UCL.
Like many teams, Porto did not dip a toe in the winter transfer window, signifying the club’s satisfaction with its current squad. And they have good reason to be content — Porto has not lost a single one of the 17 matches it has played since the UCL Group Stage ended. They will play Sporting CP and Rio Ave before traveling to Milan.
RB Leipzig vs Manchester City
Man City enters the knockout stage under the cloud of financial fair play charges leveled against the club for transactions that span nine seasons. City has promised to vigorously defend itself, and the Premier League has already walked back many of the more than 100 violations it had initially alleged. Nevertheless, the club remains under investigation and it will be interesting to see how much of a distraction this matter causes for their players.
The Citizens are 0.500 over their last five league matches, winning two, losing two, and tying one. They play against Aston Villa and Arsenal before the UCL tie against Leipzig. The shock loan of Joao Cancelo to Bayern Munich was the only major winter transfer news at the Etihad, but it was a stunner.
RB Leipzig is one of six clubs jostling for position at the top of the Bundesliga table, which makes the German league one of the season’s most entertaining. Yesterday’s loss to Union Berlin dropped RBL to fifth though, now trailing top team Bayern Munich by seven points. The defeat was Leipzig’s first since the UCL Group Stage ended. The German outfit made no major moves during the winter transfer window.
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