From Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland‘s dominant displays to the struggles of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, plus much more, the first legs of the Champions League round of 16 had plenty of things to discuss. We asked Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden and Graham Hunter for their views on some big questions.
Mbappe or Haaland: Who would you take right now and why?
Marcotti: Mbappe. Obviously it’s close, which is why the question is being asked, but right now I’ll take Mbappe. He’s more experienced, he’s had ups and downs despite being very young (and bounced back) and he’s had better coaching throughout his career, which, I think, makes him more versatile. But there’s not much in it.
Ogden: This is such a tough one to call. Haaland is all pace and power, while Mbappe is even quicker and with greater flair, but they both score goals at a freakishly consistent rate. Haaland arguably shoulders a greater burden to score at Dortmund than Mbappe at PSG. There are elements of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Haaland’s game, while Mbappe glides past opponents like Lionel Messi. But right now, I would take Haaland; I just believe he will score more goals in the years ahead than Mbappe.
Hunter: Mbappe all day long. Haaland is patently a phenomenon, who has worked hard on the parts of his game that don’t come naturally, and there will be certain defenders who’ll never sleep until he retires. But Mbappe is, simply, a beautiful footballer. Taste is personal, idiosyncratic, but it is the Frenchman’s grace, acceleration, invention, wit and unpredictability that enchant me. When he’s darting, twisting, shooting, heading, risking, thrilling… I’m in heaven. Get me my chequebook. Now!
Will Messi or Ronaldo win the Champions League again?
Hunter: They might not, but it is a ludicrous idea that either of them cannot win this trophy again. Both are still capable of leaving younger, feted players in their shade; each of them, surrounded by a good team, is capable of producing 10 or 11 special performances across nine months that, in a good, well-coached squad, is what it takes to win the Champions League.
Marcotti: I think it’s possible, though probably not this year. But I imagine they’ve both got another three years, if not more, after this one. And, they’ve both got free agency: Messi this summer, Ronaldo the next. So if this is their absolute priority, they can probably choose the right club and give themselves a good shot.
Ogden: With their current teams, no. Juventus are in decline and, at 36, Ronaldo faces two or three years before they can become genuinely competitive again in the competition. As for Messi, who turns 34 in June, Barcelona are arguably in a bigger hole than Juventus. Paris Saint-Germain have an interest in both players and could offer a shortcut to glory, while Messi also has Manchester City to think about. If either or both move this summer, they can win another Champions League. But both are past their peak, so my answer is no.
ESPN FC’s Alejandro Moreno assesses the chance for European success for football’s two biggest stars.
Are Italian and Spanish struggles a long-term concern or a blip?
Ogden: It looks like a long, difficult road ahead for the Spanish clubs. Real and Barcelona need to rebuild ageing teams without the finances required to replace iconic players such as Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. Real still haven’t replaced Ronaldo since 2018 and Barca may have their own big problem replacing Messi this summer. Atletico are in a similar position in terms of finances, so Spain could be set for a downturn. As for Italy, the picture is more promising. The Milan clubs are on the up again, so their resurgence will make for a stronger Serie A and push Juventus to rebuild more quickly.
Hunter: It’s a blip for Spanish football which, after an extended golden age for clubs and country, is a victim of two things: Over-fishing and the need for regeneration. England in particular, but also Italy and Germany, consistently snap up anything in La Liga that looks shiny and attractive. Emerging kids, established stars, managers, technical directors, scouts, players who simply want more money; eventually, a braindrain has deleterious effects. Eras take time to rise again like phoenixes but, pound for pound, Spain still develops, scouts and coaches better than anywhere else.
Marcotti: It’s a blip. We put far too much importance on individual results in the Champions League. In Italy, you’re talking about the clubs who are third, fifth and sixth in Serie A and I’m not sure that’s a reflection of the league as a whole… each game has its own story anyway. In Spain, Real Madrid are in a tight spot, but they also have nine guys out for various reasons. Sevilla are flying, they’re showing it in La Liga, but Barca on the other hand, yeah, it’s tough. Still, I reckon Juve and Sevilla still have a decent chance of going through. (Plus, obviously, Atalanta and Madrid are playing each other.)
Which teams will go through to the quarterfinals?
Marcotti: PSG, Liverpool, Juventus, Sevilla, Atletico, Bayern, Atalanta, Man City
Ogden: PSG, Liverpool, Juventus, Dortmund, Chelsea, Bayern, Real Madrid, Man City
Hunter: PSG, Liverpool, Porto, Sevilla, Atletico, Bayern, Real Madrid, Man City