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The Champions League knockout rounds are going to double up as an epic audition process

Champions League does X Factor. Who's going to the judge's house?

For us mere mortals the Champions League knockout rounds represent the pinnacle of European football, as well as Roma v Porto.

For Europe’s top young talent the knockout stages represent an elite audition process, the outcome of which could set them up for a long career at the very top.

Knees weak, arms are heavy and all that.

Boiling hot ball

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Boiling hot ball

Let’s start with Barcelona’s tie against Lyon. Barcelona should stroll it, as long as Lionel Messi doesn’t follow Ousmane Dembele’s timekeeping regime.

But Lyon’s performances in the group stages, particularly in taking four points from two encounters with Man City, caught the eye in Catalonia.

Tanguy Ndombele, Houssem Aouar, Ferland Mendy and captain Nabil Fekir are all on Barcelona’s shopping list, according to reports in Spain.

A move for left-back Mendy looks likeliest due to Barcelona’s reported signing of PSG midfielder Adrien Rabiot, however that could change depending on performances in the last 16 fixture.

‘I’ll go if you go’

Reuters
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‘I’ll go if you go’

Barcelona’s midfield might not be what it once was, but getting the better of the imperious Sergio Busquets is still one of the highest seals of approval a midfielder can receive.

Mendy will spend his much of his game either debating whether to follow Messi inside or trying to second-guess the unpredictable Dembele.

Fekir, who registered three goals and two assists in the group stages, could come face-to-face with former (and future?) team-mate Samuel Umtiti.

When friends become enemies

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When friends become enemies

Next, Ajax’s glamour tie with reigning champions Real Madrid.

Remember in the Noughties when you couldn’t be considered a top boy unless you had a large chain connecting your back pocket to your belt loop?

Well, if you want to be considered a top European side these days then you’ve got to be part of the arms race for Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie De Jong.

The clamour for the duo will reach opening-day-release-of-Pokemon-Go levels if they put play a starring role against Madrid.

A thorn between two roses

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A thorn between two roses

De Ligt has already impressed against Robert Lewandowski in the Champions League this season, not to mention Timo Werner and Kylian Mbappe at international level.

Adding Karim Benzema to that list, especially given the Frenchman’s rediscovered confidence under Santiago Solari, will put another couple of million on De Ligt’s price tag.

For De Jong the task is simple. Out-think the current Ballon d’Or holder and avoid getting trapped in Toni Kroos’ passing merry-go-round while staying away from Casemiro’s slide tackles.

A lovely bit of kit

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A lovely bit of kit

Borussia Dortmund’s tie with Spurs allows Jadon Sancho to get his teeth into Premier League full-backs for the first time.

Rumours linking Sancho with a move back to England, either with Liverpool, Arsenal, Man United or Spurs, continue to run with every addition to his already glistening showreel.

Sending Kieran Trippier back to Bury with a tribute to Ronaldinho before Jose Mourinho converts him into a right-wing back… oh wait, we can’t use that gag any more.


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