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Champions League: 4 huge questions because the knockout stage kicks off

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The knockout stage of the 2023-24 UEFA Champions League season begins on Tuesday, when a number of of Europe’s main groups — together with final 12 months’s winner Manchester Metropolis and file 14-time titlist Actual Madrid — play the primary leg of their two-match, total-goals-wins spherical of 16 sequence.

As common, there are not any scarcity of questions heading into the enterprise finish of soccer’s most necessary membership competitors, which concludes June 1 at Wembley Stadium in London.

4 of the most important are under.

Can Manchester Metropolis repeat as champs?

Though Pep Guardiola’s facet gained all six of their matches within the group stage, the holders have not been completely convincing throughout their title protection to date. This is not fairly the identical workforce that steamrolled to a historic “treble” of trophies final 12 months, when the membership’s long-coveted first European trophy was accompanied by home honors in each the Premier League and FA Cup.

Metropolis sits second within the present Prem standings. Star striker Erling Haaland missed virtually two months of the marketing campaign with a foot harm. 

However Haaland is again now, and the Sky Blues bought a good spherical of 16 opponent in Denmark’s FC Copenhagen, which is able to go to the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday to open the home-and-home. Considerably counter-intuitively, there’s additionally much less strain on Guardiola this time round, what with Metropolis having lastly gotten over the hump within the Champions League final spring.

Along with nonetheless boasting in all probability the deepest and most proficient roster within the sport, that is now a confirmed, grizzled, battle-hardened workforce. So whereas we’ve not seen the perfect of the Cityzens to date, they’re the bookies’ consensus favourite for pretty apparent causes. Time will inform if Man Metropolis can win for the second time operating, however guess on this a lot: they will not relinquish the silverware and not using a struggle.

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Will Actual Madrid add a fifteenth crown?

If any workforce is aware of the way to flip it on in do-or-die Champions League matches, it is Actual Madrid. Simply essentially the most embellished membership on the continent — with 14 European titles, Los Blancos have twice as many as Italy’s AC Milan, the following most profitable workforce — Actual continues to be on the tail-end of its maybe its best period: They’ve gained the Champions League 5 occasions since 2014.

The newest of these got here two years in the past. Actual’s squad has modified so much since then, with the likes of longtime striker Karim Benzema and midfield rock Casemiro having left and good younger midfielder Jude Bellingham — acquired final summer time from Borussia Dortmund — rising as the brand new face of the membership. However mainstays corresponding to captain Nacho Fernandez, maestro Luka Modrić, winger Vinícius Júnior and midfielders Toni Kroos and Federico Valverde stay, offering each expertise and stability.

Actual’s championship pedigree might be examined on Tuesday in Germany, when the Spaniards go to RB Leipzig. The guests are the favorites, but they’ve additionally struggled mightily to remain wholesome currently. Nacho and Viní Jr. simply returned from harm, and Bellingham will miss a minimum of the primary leg due to a sprained ankle. Nonetheless, this membership at all times appears to discover a means on this competitors. Metropolis and Bayern Munich could have higher odds, however it could shock no person if Actual Madrid is standing on the rostrum as soon as once more when it is all mentioned and completed.

Is that this PSG’s Final Dance with Kylian Mbappé?

We nonetheless do not actually know if these subsequent few months really characterize Kylian Mbappé’s swan tune with Paris Saint-Germain, the French celebrity/World Cup winner’s hometown membership. Per week after Mbappé (as soon as once more) appeared destined to depart the Parc des Princes at season’s finish for longtime suitor Actual Madrid, the deal (as soon as once more) seems to have fallen aside.

Whether or not Mbappé stays or goes this summer time, this a lot is obvious: PSG is operating out of possibilities to win the title its rich Qatari homeowners have been obsessive about since shopping for the membership and spending them into the contender class greater than a decade in the past. The closest the Parisians bought was in pandemic-shortened 2020, when Mbappé, Neymar & Co. gained a pair of single-elimination contests however misplaced the ultimate to Bayern Munich.

Neymar left final summer time. Lionel Messi has come and gone since then, too. Now the strain is on Mbappé alone. And regardless of a commanding lead atop Ligue 1, it is honest to marvel if this PSG facet is able to making even a deep run, not to mention going all the way in which. Nonetheless, whereas the primary impediment is important — Actual Sociedad of Spain, which visits the Metropolis of Lights on Wednesday, is not any pushover — it is not a behemoth like Bayern, which ended PSG’s marketing campaign within the spherical of 16 a 12 months in the past.

Can Mbappé do it by himself this 12 months? With 30 objectives in 29 matches in 2023-24 already, perhaps. He is the perfect participant on this planet, together with Metropolis’s Haaland. What a narrative that might be.

Extra possible, although, is one other disappointing end that leaves Mbappé edging ever nearer to the exit, and PSG questioning when — or even when — it’ll ever be ok to seize Europe’s final prize.

Which different contenders may win the trophy?

With Harry Kane main the road, Bayern has maybe an much more potent risk up prime than they did when Robert Lewandowski led them to their final Champions League triumph 4 years in the past. (Bayern opens its knockout spherical slate Wednesday in opposition to Lazio in Rome.)

After an extended absence from the competitors, Arsenal has confirmed that they are the true deal, too. The Gunners would possibly also have a higher probability of profitable the Champions League than the Prem, through which they path first place Liverpool by simply two factors and actually cannot afford to not win each outing between now till Might. Arsenal kicks off the spherical of 16 subsequent week versus Porto.

Then there’s Inter Milan, final 12 months’s runner-up. Inter is having one other wonderful season, although the Nerazzurri must outlast a powerful foe in Atlético Madrid in its first knockout spherical sequence after ending second in its group. 

Dortmund or the NetherlandsPSV Eindhoven in all probability cannot win all of it. However having been drawn in opposition to one another, one will advance to the quarterfinals. The identical goes for one more former European champ, rebuilding Barcelona, and Serie A holders Napoli. That ought to assist make for an interesting final eight, although loads of video games might be performed earlier than then.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer author for FOX Sports activities. Earlier than becoming a member of FOX Sports activities in 2021, he was a employees author with ESPN and Yahoo Sports activities and he has lined United States males’s and ladies’s nationwide groups at a number of FIFA World Cups. Observe him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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