Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 August 2019

VAR in, Neymar out and Pepe still going strong: Uefa Champions League talking points

Here's what to take note of ahead of the last-16, first-leg matches which get under way on Tuesday

Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos has curiously fallen in love with VAR after initially having a dislike for it. Gabriel Bouys / AFP
Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos has curiously fallen in love with VAR after initially having a dislike for it. Gabriel Bouys / AFP

Lights, Camera, Controversies

Brace yourselves for the arrival of a controversial newcomer to the most prestigious club competition in the world. As of Tuesday, when the first games of the last-16 stage of the Uefa Champions League kick off, VAR will be part of the show.

Even before the first review, some controversy. Several clubs were criticised last week by Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin for not having sent their managers to a special briefing on the application of the technology.

Fewer than half of the 16 managers involved in the knockout phase attended, most clubs sending other members of staff, and Ceferin's point is that the explanations were important: He knows that there will be heated debate about VAR sooner of later in a Champions League fixture; there always is.

Not that players or bosses always hold a consistent view. Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos is suddenly beaming about video assisted officiating, just as his club embark, at Ajax, on their quest to clinch a fourth successive title.

“VAR is pretty fair, I’m very much in favour,” Ramos declared after Saturday’s 3-1 win in the Primera Liga at Atletico Madrid.

Is this the same Sergio Ramos who only last month called VAR – which was introduced to Spain’s league last August – “a scandal” when he thought the system had failed his side in a defeat to Real Sociedad?

VAR’s value, hotly disputed by Atletico Madrid’s players after three close-call decisions in the derby, is endlessly under review, and usually assessed through the lens of short-term gain.

PSG manager Thomas Tuchel, left, will be without the services of Neymar this week. Darko Vojinovic / AP Photo
PSG manager Thomas Tuchel, left, will be without the services of Neymar this week. Darko Vojinovic / AP Photo

PSG’s Plan D

A hint of panic at Paris Saint-Germain as they travel to in-form Manchester United for a tie that has taken on a very different perspective since the two clubs were paired in the draw in December.

According to Thomas Tuchel, the Ligue 1 leaders’ manager, “there are a lot of Plan Bs at the moment, but maybe we need a Plan D.” He sounded stoic rather than stressed, but the growing injury list he confronts is a concern.

Striker Edinson Cavani, nursing a thigh problem, limped off the field shortly after scoring the only goal of the game against Bordeaux on Saturday and was undergoing tests on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Neymar is in recovery from a broken metatarsal, sustained last month and certain to keep him out of both legs against United. Midfielder Marco Verratti, who played an hour against Bordeaux in his comeback from an ankle injury, is also still treading a little gingerly.

Neymar and Cavani between them contributed seven of the 16 goals that helped PSG to win a tough first-phase group that endorsed their status as favourites against United, who, at the time of the draw, were preparing to dismiss Jose Mourinho as manager after the club’s worst start to a league season since 1990.

The panorama now seems transformed. Mourinho’s replacement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, makes his Champions League knockout debut as a manager on the back of 10 wins from 11 unbeaten games in charge.

Borussia Dortmund have been out of their depth in recent times. Lars Baron / Getty Images
Borussia Dortmund have been out of their depth in recent times. Lars Baron / Getty Images

Dortmund under the weather

February has not been kind to Borussia Dortmund, who take on Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley on Wednesday.

This month, the Bundesliga leaders have already thrown away leads three times. First at Eintracht Frankfurt, where they drew 1-1. Then against Werder Bremen in the German Cup, when, after having led 2-1. And then 3-2 in extra time they bowed out on penalties.

What happened on Saturday left an even stronger impression that the pressure of setting the pace in the domestic title-race is turning Dortmund brittle.

They led Hoffenheim 3-0 at home with 15 minutes to go. Final score? 3-3, with manager Lucien Favre’s feeling of helplessness compounded because he was away from the stadium suffering a bad case of flu and communicating with his coaching staff by phone.

Favre hopes to be well enough to travel to London. But his leading striker, Marco Reus's participation is in doubt because of a thigh complaint.

Age has not smoothed Pepe's rugged edge as the Porto veteran, right, aims to play in 100 Champions League games. Octavio Passos / EPA
Age has not smoothed Pepe's rugged edge as the Porto veteran, right, aims to play in 100 Champions League games. Octavio Passos / EPA

Pepe targeting the 100 club

Fifteen seasons after he made his Champions League debut, as a 21-year-old at Porto, Pepe is back.

The defender is eager to continue a European Cup odyssey that yielded three winners medals in his long period at Real Madrid. He rejoined Porto from Besiktas last month, and a good run in the competition – starting against Roma – might yet take him to 100 career games in the competition. The defender is on 95 at the moment.

Age has not smoothed his rugged edge.

Pepe versus Roma’s Edin Dzeko – an old rivalry – looks a tasty duel. Pepe versus VAR may also be worth keeping an eye on.

Updated: February 11, 2019 09:04 AM

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