The psychology of soccer is about to toy with minds and crush hearts, as Barcelona’s German goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen knows all too well.
This is the business end of the Champions League, where tens of millions of dollars are at stake, where two-leg playoffs typically zap nerves, inciting coaches, players and supporters to talk to themselves.
In 2018, at home, Barça beat AS Roma, 4-1, only to drop the quarterfinal away leg, 3-0. Roma advanced on the dastardly away goals tie-breaker. Last year, Barça won 3-0 at home, then lost the semifinal return leg at Liverpool, 4-0.
“It was psychological,” ter Stegen told Goal.com. “One must look into those psychological issues deeply. This is why I would never say that this can’t happen to us again.”
Barcelona aficionados hope to avoid that ignominious hat trick. They are fortunate to get this return leg at home, against Napoli on Saturday, after a 1-1 draw in a Round of 16 first leg in Italy.
Note that most soccer wagers are confined to 90 minutes plus added time, for injuries; extra time — two 15-minute halves — and penalty kicks only factor into certain propositions.
Due to the delayed restart of the Champions League, it has dispensed of the usual two-leg quarters and semis. They are now one-off events, all to be staged in Lisbon, Portugal.
The finale is Sunday, Aug. 23, also the opening weekend of the French Ligue 1. Serie A in Italy begins a week later, the Premiership in England on Sept. 12 and the German Bundesliga on Sept. 18.
According to reports in Spain, Quique Setién, who replaced Ernesto Valverde in January, is a mere caretaker manager and only keeps the Barça gig if it wins the CL big-eared silverware. However, he does have Lionel Messi, the best player in the world.
Barcelona, a -155 favorite to win on the three-way at Station Casinos, advances to the quarters with a victory. (Station figures, subject to change, are used in below selections.)
In the sexiest R16 second leg, Manchester City plays host to Real Madrid on Friday. Real manager Zinedine Zidane, the only coach to win three consecutive Champions League crowns (2016-18, with Cristiano Ronaldo), matches wits against City’s Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola is fifth on the all-time CL coaching chart, with 120 matches on his résumé. Fantastic Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, arguably the best player in England’s Premiership, provides Pep with invaluable flexibility.
Look for City, a 2-1 first-leg victor in Madrid, to play smart, tight and disciplined on its own pitch.
Chelsea dropped a R16 first leg at home to Bayern Munich, 3-0, and just lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup, in which it also lost American striker Christian Pulisic to a hamstring tweak. Munich is the world’s best team, having won its past 17 games, in all competitions. It is 21-0-1 over its past 22 matches. Anything but an appearance in the CL finale will disappoint Die Roten (the Reds).
Chelsea must press, Munich will resist, Chelsea’s back three will be compromised. Expect a circus. Munich advances comfortably. If the psychological wound lingers, Chelsea supporters can find Marc-André ter Stegen in Germany, near Düsseldorf, for some soothing words of sympathy.
Eintracht Frankfurt at FC Basel +160: The +245 draw is tempting, since three of the home side’s past four have ended in a knot, as have two of the visitors’ past three. Don’t take the bait.
Basel won at Frankfurt, 3-0, in the first leg of this Europa League R16 affair and is the superior squad, having allowed no goals in its past four Europa matches. Since the restart, Basel is 4-0-1— having outscored foes 15-6 — in its own St. Jakob-Park. FC BASEL
Real Madrid at Manchester City, Total 3 Over -135: Among the Big Five in Europe, City’s 102 league goals were No. 1 — Bayern Munich registered 100. City averages 19.6 shots per match, also best among the Big Five; Real averages nearly 15, tops in Spain. Fireworks. OVER
Chelsea at Bayern Munich, -1.5 goals +110: Polish striker Robert Lewandowski tormented Chelsea in England, assisting on both of Serge Gnabry’s goals and nabbing one himself. In its past 16 games, Munich is 16-0, outscoring foes by an average of 2.88 to 0.56. BAYERN MUNICH
Napoli at Barcelona -155: The magnificent Messi was made for matches like this. Barça advances to the quarters with a victory. A goal and assist for Messi, survive and advance. BARCELONA
Last week: 3-1