PREVIEW: Brugge v Benfica, Dortmund v Chelsea

Club Brugge v Benfica

You would be forgiven for picking out this last-16 tie as the weakest of the 8 – after all, both teams do play outside of the top 5 leagues of Europe. But don’t underestimate both of these teams, as they made the round-of-16 for a reason – meaning they’re doing better than Barcelona have done!

Benfica are having a brilliant season and sit clear at the top of the Primeira Liga – losing only 1 game. The most decorated club in Portuguese football are looking to win their first trophy since the Portuguese Super Cup in 2019-20, and first European trophy since 1962. Having topped their group without losing a game in the UCL group-stage, their fortunes could well change.

Brugge are having an underwhelming season domestically, after a hattrick of Belgian titles, they are well off the pace this season. Despite advancing from group B as runners-up – defeating Atlético Madrid on the way – Brugge were languishing in 4th place in the Belgian First Division A table, 12 points points off the lead. This poor performance was too much for the hierarchy as they ended the contract of Carl Hoefkens, replacing him with former Bournemouth manager Scott Parker. Parker lead ‘The Cherries’ to promotion, but was sacked after a record 9-0 defeat to Liverpool. Some saw this managerial appointment as bizarre, due to Parker’s lack of UCL experience. Could he prove his doubters wrong in his first match in the competition as a manager?

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Arguably, Club Brugge have worsened since appointing their new manager – who won only 1 of his first 6 games in change. ‘Blauw-Zwart’ are not without some hope though – they’ll be relying on captain fantastic, and ever present midfielder Hans Vanaken to open up Benfica. The giant central/attacking-midfielder has played over 250 games for his club, scoring and assisting plenty of goals – Vanaken has 7 goals and 4 assists this season. Forwards Ferran Jutglà and Andreas Skov Olsen are also key; the pair have a sizeable 28 goal contributions between them – with 6 being in the Champions League.

I fear that Roger Schmidt’s Benfica side may be too strong for the Belgians over 2 legs. The German has Benfica playing a high pressing style, where play down the wings is preferred. Full-backs Alejandro Grimaldo and Alexander Bah are vital in this style – producing 18 goals and assists between them. The loss of Enzo Fernández to Chelsea for an English record €121m is a blow, but with an exciting blend of youth and experience – Benfica look to be serious underdogs for the later stages of this competition!

Dortmund v Chelsea

As two teams who have both won the UEFA Champions League (or its predecessor, the European Cup) it comes with great surprise to understand that these sides have never faced each other in the Champions League – even with both teams qualifying for the competition almost every year.

Picture the evening of the 29th May 2021, Estádio do Dragão, Porto. Chelsea had just won the Champions League Final 1-0, thanks to a goal from Kai Havertz. The Blues were on top of Europe for the first time since 2012, after defeating newly-crowned Premier League champions Manchester City in the final. The losing finalists certainly had the better of Chelsea domestically though – finishing 19 points above them. Fast forward to modern times, the West Londoners have slumped to mid table and their Champions League winning coach has been sacked. Serial project-manager Graham Potter has taken charge after success at Östersund and Brighton, and with the backing of new owner Todd Boehly, Chelsea look to start a new revolution.

After signing 9 players in January for a combined fee of around €329.5m, it is hard to pick out a key player for Potter’s new look Chelsea team, simply because we don’t yet know who will be playing. However, a player who seems to have nailed down a place in the starting XI is Thiago Silva. The Brazilian central defender is absolutely immense at the back for the Blues. At 38 years old, many thought he was well past his best. As the oldest player in his squad, Silva comes with a wealth of experience gained from playing at the top level for many years, and he is very comfortable on the ball, being in the 94th and 98th percentile for pass completion and passes attempted per 90 (when compared to other players of his position). This is key to Chelsea’s build-up-play. His new partner in defence appears to be 21-year-old new signing Benoît Badiashile; the former Monaco man has looked assured at the back thus far – learning off Silva will be key to the Frenchman’s development.

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Dortmund are one of Europe’s most respected clubs, and their emphasis on youth development has always made them an exciting team to watch. Arguably the biggest ‘feeder club’ in Europe, many teams have BVB to thank for some of their best players, including Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembélé. There are so many more that have risen through the ranks at the club, eventually becoming world class footballers.

Once again, Dortmund maintain a squad loaded with youth talent – Adeyemi, Reyna, Schlotterbeck, Malen, and Moukoko are all under 25, and have made over 20 appearances this season. However, it’s Jude Bellingham that I see as the club’s most valuable asset. The ex-Birmingham City midfielder became his former club’s youngest ever player at 16 years and 38 days old, and since then Jude quickly became a regular fixture of the Blues starting XI despite his young age. Bellingham became the most expensive 17-year-old in history upon transferring to his current club, and at only 19, he is valued at €110m. Now a key player at not only club level, but international level also, the Birmingham native shows incredible attitude – along with skill. The young midfielder is all action at the centre of the park – exploding this season with a combined 16 goals and assists. Bellingham ranks in the top 15% of players in his position for seemingly every stat possible – the young Englishman really can do everything! Expect him to join that aforementioned list of world stars to graduate from Dortmund in the near future!

‘The Black and Yellows’ are the 2nd biggest club in Germany, and have historically won trophies. Recently however, Bayern have been cleaning up most of the domestic silverware. Despite this, Dortmund have won 5 trophies in the last 10 seasons, but have to go back to 26 years to their last – and only – Champions League trophy. Unfortunately for BVB, I don’t think they’ve got enough to go all the way. This could be a very tight tie – it’s difficult to pick a winner here.

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