January 22, 2021

Champions League, Nedbank Cup set to return

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Some of Europe’s biggest sides are in action as continental competition resumes this weekend

The Champions League returns this weekend, with some of Europe’s biggest sides in action in the second leg of the outstanding Round of 16 qualifiers.

While Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Atalanta and RasenBallsport Leipzig have all booked their places in the quarter-finals, the other half of the draw is wide open, with some of the continent’s giants battling for spots in the final eight.

Five former winners are in action this weekend, with Juventus and Real Madrid in action against Olympique Lyonnais and Manchester City respectively on Friday evening.

Domestic champions Juve and Real may have conquered the Italian and Spanish top-flights this season, but they’re up against it in Europe after falling to first-leg defeats.

Real were beaten 2-1 at home by City back in February, with goals from Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne cancelling out Isco’s opener.

Real now need victory at the Etihad Stadium on Friday, a testing prospect considering City’s strong return to action following the restart.

They’ll be well-rested after missing out on the FA Cup final and therefore getting two weeks ‘off’, although Zinedine Zidane may well take encouragement from the way Arsenal neutralised City in their FA Cup semi-final.

Pep Guardiola would have been expecting great things from his side against the Gunners, but Mikel Arteta’s young side neutralised their opponents effectively, hit City on the break, and denied them another piece of silverware this term.

Can Real follow a similar template in Manchester on Friday?

Unless they can take the game to their opponents—and particularly keep De Bruyne quiet. City could be in for a famous continental night as they seek a first European crown.

Also on Friday, Juventus host Lyon also looking to turn around a first-leg deficit, having been defeated 1-0 in France in February.

Unlike Real, Juve’s prospects aren’t too bleak.

They’ll enjoy home advantage, and having just ended the Italian top-flight this weekend—by contrast to OL who have played just one competitive match since the restart—they ought to be better prepared for the physical and mental demands of the contest.

Nonetheless, Lyon gave a good account of themselves in their French League Cup final defeat by Paris Saint-Germain at the weekend—only losing on penalties—and if they can summon some of that same resilience and discipline at the weekend, they could sneak into the next round.

SuperSport Fixtures

Friday 7 August – Juventus vs Lyon (UEFA Champions League)

Friday 7 August – Manchester City vs Real Madrid (UEFA Champions League)

Saturday 8 August – Baroka vs Bloem Celtic (Nedbank Cup)

Saturday 8 August – Sundowns vs Wits (Nedbank Cup)

Saturday 8 August – Barcelona vs Napoli (UEFA Champions League)

Saturday 8 August – Bayern Munich vs Chelsea (UEFA Champions League)

On Saturday, SuperSport viewers will be treated to two more heavyweight bouts, as Barcelona take on Napoli and Bayern Munich meet Chelsea in two Round of 16 clashes.

Chelsea are rank outsiders, having been defeated 3-0 at home against Bayern in Feb.

Frank Lampard’s side may have been narrowly defeated by Arsenal in the FA Cup final, but the Bavarians—themselves German champions—will be a different prospect altogether, and will expect to inflict more woe on the Blues at the Allianz Arena.

If Chelsea are to progress, they have to start strongly, be bold in their attacking play, and, critically, tighten up dramatically at the back.

Defensively, they struggled to keep Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at bay on Saturday and could struggle against the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry.

Finally, Napoli’s meeting with Barcelona is well poised after a 1-1 draw in the first match.

Neither of these two have had particularly encouraging campaigns; for the Partenopei, it’s been a season of transition, and they’ve struggled to compete with Serie A’s top sides, while Barcelona struggled to convince in La Liga and ultimately ceded the initiative in the title race.

Under-pressure coach Quique Setien has a point to prove after missing out on the Spanish title, and the local papers have been debating whether the coach will plump for a back three or a back four as he looks to progress.

While it remains to be seen if Antoine Greizmann will start, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi will be the key men as Barca look to take down the Partenopei.

After a long and frustrating wait, full of intriguing subplots, South African football finally returns this weekend with the Nedbank Cup semi-finals.

On Saturday, Mamelodi Sundowns take on Bidvest Wits, while Baroka are in action against Bloemfontein Celtic.

Lockdown has meant more turmoil for Wits than the rest of South Africa’s football establishment, with the Clever Boys’ top-flight league status having been acquired by GladAfrica Championship side Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila.

Gavin Hunt and his charges have vowed to bow out on a high as they chase cup glory, and Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane has acknowledged that he is wary about the weekend’s showdown.

“We have a big game against Wits of course and if you listen to their statements‚ they’re saying that they want to go out in style‚” Mosimane told local journalists.

“Obviously there are a lot of incentives for the [Wits] players and the coaches [to win the cup]‚ so that’s why they’ve prioritised the Nedbank Cup.

“[In the media] they have only spoken about the Cup‚ so that gives me an indication that the league is not the priority to them,” he added. “I’m not talking on their behalf‚ but I’m talking about what they’ve said.

“They want to win it and I know the character of the coach [Hunt] and the character of the team. So I know how difficult it will be and this is how I’m preparing my team.”

Mosimane proceeded to describe Wits as a ‘wounded lion’, but will the lion roar in Saturday’s meeting, or will this be another nail in the coffin of one of South Africa’s biggest clubs?

In the other semi-final, Baroka and Celtic meet at the Orlando Stadium, with both sides eyeing the prospect of competing in the Caf Confederation Cup—assuming Downs reach the final and finish in the top two in the league—if they win this one.

Dylan Kerr, in particular, is excited about the prospect of taking Baroka into continental football.

“This is the best cup competition in African football,” the ex-Gor Mahia coach began. “If we make the final, I think we will be guaranteed a place in the Caf Confederation Cup, if Sundowns make the final too.

“It will set the tempo of the next six [league] games. Baroka have been to two semi-finals before and lost, but hopefully, we can make it third time lucky. This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for some players.

“The chairman might give a financial incentive to them, but that shouldn’t be what they are looking for,” Kerr concluded. “Something like 80 percent of my players might never make a cup final again. So this is a huge opportunity.”

There may be some rustiness, as South Africa’s teams return to action following the five-month delay, but with so much on the line, expect these contests to be ferociously contested.