The R-16 in the Champions League this year has to go down as the most exciting one yet in recent history. There were plenty of goals, comebacks, flashes of individual brilliance and some high octane drama for the viewers to feast their eyes on. Real Madrid overcame an early scare in both games to comfortably qualify for the next round. Arsenal produced another no show as Bayern steamrolled their way past them. Juventus and Atletico hardly broke a sweat after an impressive first leg win. The biggest highlights of the round were the incredible comebacks of Barcelona and Monaco. Winning with aggregate scores of 6-5 and 6-6(away goals) respectively, they proved that no lead in the first leg is insurmountable. But what really set this round apart from many in the past was the decisive role the next generation of football stars had in it.
In Barcelona’s first leg game at PSG, Marco Verratti produced an amazing performance and kept the Catalans at bay for the entire 90 minutes. Just when you thought that it would be hard for someone to trump that performance, Neymar did just that. He won a penalty, scored two goals and played a glorious pass in for Sergi Roberto’s winner. Barcelona did the unthinkable and won 6-1 at Camp Nou to complete the greatest comeback ever (sorry Liverpool) and they did it without much help from Lionel Messi. Neymar is already a superstar, but at just 25 years old, his potential is extremely frightening. In the Dortmund game, Aubamayeng overcame his first leg blues and scored a hat-trick to spark a Dortmund comeback and fire them into the next round. No wonder Real Madrid are ready to splash the cash for the Gabon international. Despite the brilliance of Sergio Aguero and Radamel Falcao in the first leg at the Etihad stadium, the two games were all about the young talent at display from both sides. Sterling and Sane are starting to form an incredible partnership and played well over the two legs. But the real star of the tie was young Kylian Mbappe (dubbed the next Thierry Henry). His pace and finishing were on point throughout the two legs and it won’t be long till clubs come knocking with deals as big (or even bigger) as Manchester United’s for Anthony Martial. In a pretty depressing season for Leicester City, Craig Shakespeare conjured his namesake’s ability of drama and produced England’s only representation at the UCL quarterfinals. Kasper Schmeichel was the man of the round though, saving two penalties and producing countless other saves as Leicester saw their resurgence gather momentum.
The current crop of superstars produced some incredible moments too. Robben and Lewandowski really put Arsenal to the sword, but now without help from Bundesliga’s in form midfielder, Thiago Alacantra. Ramos scored two goals to pull his side out of a tricky situation, but the best moment of the tie was young Casemiro’s wonder goal that bought his side a lot of breathing space. You don’t usually get rounds where Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi get outscored, where Luis Suarez scored just one goal out of 6 and wasn’t playing his best game and where teams overcome huge first leg deficits to pull off miraculous comebacks. At the end of the season, players like Lahm and Alonso will retire and leave a void that may seem too big to fill. Messi and Ronaldo still produce the goods when required, but not at the same level as it was a few years back. But youngsters who grew up idolizing these stars have now come on to the pitch to show their worth and prove that they can go one step further than their predecessors. Maybe, that’s what makes football such a beautiful game.
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