Champions League makes long-awaited return

After a hiatus of more than two months, the UEFA Champions League returns this week. Over the next fortnight, all the first-leg matches of the Round of 16 will commence, and we take a closer look at what can be expected this week.

PSG v Chelsea

The defending French and English champions have grown quite accustomed to each other in recent times, having been paired in the knockout stages in each of the last two seasons.

In the 2013/14 campaign, Chelsea won their quarter-final tie on away goals when they responded to a 3-1 loss in the French capital with a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.

Last season, the roles were reversed, with PSG advancing on away goals after recording a 2-2 draw in London following a 1-1 stalemate in the first-leg.

Both sides booked their place in the last-16 of this term’s competition with relative ease, but their domestic form couldn’t be more different.

PSG currently hold a massive 24-point lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table and are undefeated domestically. Chelsea, meanwhile, are in 12th place in England, having been near the relegation zone when they eventually parted ways with Jose Mourinho.

Whilst the Blues are significantly improved under interim boss Guus Hiddink, the Parisians should be too strong this time around, particularly in the first-leg at Parc des Princes.

Benfica v Zenit

Two more sides that aren’t exactly strangers to each other after they were paired in the same Group in 2014/15 and were drawn as opponents in 2011/12.

Zenit won both group stage matches two seasons ago, while Benfica ran out 4-3 aggregate winners in 2012.

This time around, all things point to a Benfica victory in the first-leg. The Portuguese giants had won 11 consecutive matches until their 2-1 home defeat to Porto on Friday night. They have won 12 of their 15 home matches in all competitions and prior to last week’s defeat domestically, their previous loss was a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Atletico Madrid.

Zenit, meanwhile, go into the fixture somewhat short of match practice. The Russian Premier League only starts next month and Andre Villas-Boas’ side haven’t played a competitive match since December’s Champions League group stage defeat to Gent, which incidentally was their third successive away loss. Although, considering the amount of time that has passed since then, those defeats hardly mean much in terms of form.

Even though Benfica clearly hold all the cards in the first-leg, chances are this tie won’t be decided on Tuesday.

Gent v VfL Wolfsburg

Just reaching the knock-out phase of the UEFA Champions League has already been described as something of a dream-come-true for Gent and their fans.

Standing between the Belgian champions and a place in the quarter-finals are VfL Wolfsburg, an opponent they have never faced before. Despite the absence of a couple of key players, Die Wolfe are favourites to advance in the tie.

The Germans will be without star defender Naldo and top scorer Bas Dost, but with the likes of Julian Draxler in their squad, they should still have too much in the locker for the surprise package of this season’s event – if not on Wednesday then certainly over the two legs.

Roma v Real Madrid

Wednesday’s other match sees Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid side travel to Rome for the Frenchman’s first European match in charge of Los Blancos, after they parted ways with Rafa Benitez last month.

Roma and Madrid have faced each other on eight occasions – the Spaniards winning four and drawing one – although the most recent of those fixtures took place at the start of 2008.

Until recently, this tie would have seemed as a shoe-in for the 10-time European Champions, but Roma are in the middle of something of a resurgence, having won their last four matches.

Meanwhile, Madrid have looked excellent under Zidane so far, although the quality of their opponents during his tenure have yet to truly test the Frenchman’s credentials, and Wednesday’s trip to the Italian capital will certainly be his biggest test as manager to date.

The visitors will be without Gareth Bale for the first leg and when one takes into account the match will be Zidane’s first against a smart tactician with an excellent track record, Roma may well cause an upset on the night.

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