United and Roma to start CL knockout stages in style

The Champions League knockout stages get going with a bang on Tuesday when Manchester United host Paris Saint-Germain, while last-year’s semi-finalists Roma welcome Porto to the Stadio Olimpico for their first-leg tie.

With the eight last-16 first legs strung out over a period of a fortnight, the focus falls first on these four teams to showcase their European credentials and, in particular, the United-PSG clash should be a cracker.

United immense under Ole

United, 2.30 to win the first leg, have been fantastic since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge. The Norwegian has transformed the team, rejuvenating previously under-performing players and has managed to seemingly revive the whole club in the process.

Whatever Jose Mourinho was doing wrong – and his critics will say it was plenty – Solskjaer has done the opposite. He has taken the shackles off what was a tactically weighed-down squad, brought in a fresh attacking zest and, surprise, surprise; they’re scoring goals and winning games regularly again.

He’s managed 10 wins from 11 in all competitions and if he is auditioning for the job full-time, he’s barely put a foot wrong.

Saturday’s 3-0 win over Fulham was both ruthless yet routine with Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial superb, providing the drive and inspiration needed to secure another important victory. Suddenly, a top-four Premier League place is theirs to lose when they looked a million miles away from it just a few months ago.

The focus now switches to Europe and, while how they handle competing on three fronts between now and the end of the season – they also have an FA Cup fifth-round tie coming up against Chelsea – will be a worry, the Red Devils are currently flying and will surely relish the challenge.

PSG weaker without Neymar

PSG, however, will be stern opponents over two legs and will not be simply swatted aside.

The Ligue 1 giants are 10 points clear at the top with two games in hand but their persistent failure – year on year – in the Champions League has frustrated their supremely wealthy owners, who do not pine for domestic dominance but to be key protagonists on the European stage.

Unfortunately for Les Parisiens, they are without star man Neymar for both legs and that will hamper their chances of progress, especially in the first game at Old Trafford.

It will be tight, cagey even, but a narrow home win on Tuesday should set up the return match in the French capital nicely, with 2-1 in the correct score market, available at 7.75, and United to win and BTTS on the night, on offer at 3.75, both appealing.

Roma ready for more progress

Roma made it all the way to the semis last season and they should have enough to at least reach the last eight this time around after receiving a favourable draw against Portuguese giants Porto, starting with a winnable first leg (Roma 2.05 to win) on home soil.

The Italians came second in their group, behind only reigning champions Real Madrid, and aside from their home defeat to Los Blancos, were convincing winners in the Italian capital against both Viktoria Plzen (5-0) and CSKA Moscow (3-0).

Add to this the fact the Giallorossi beat Barca 3-0 at home to knock them out last season and then came mighty close to an epic comeback against Liverpool in the semi when winning the second leg 4-2 after a 5-2 defeat on Merseyside.

In summary, they’re very good at home and usually score plenty of goals. Eusebio Di Francesco’s side are sixth in Serie A and should have too much for Porto even if they clearly remain one rung down from Europe’s elite clubs, underlined by the fact they’re 14 points behind domestic leaders Juventus.

Porto dangerous on the road

Saying this, Porto (3.80 to win first leg) appear to have improved from last year’s last-16 exit (also at the hands of Liverpool) and their chances should not be dismissed out of hand. Sergio Conceicao’s men should approach Tuesday’s trip to the Eternal City with the confidence of a side sitting top of their league, although they have stuttered with two draws of late.

Porto won five of their six group games, including impressive victories on the road at Lokomotiv Moscow and Galatasaray. Those results demonstrate an ability to pick up big wins in difficult environments and they can frighten Roma.

However, the experienced Serie A side should edge it with a home win in this leg so siding with Roma and BTTS is also worth backing at 3.90.