Holders Bayern resume Champions League after domestic wobble

By Derek Wilson, dpa

Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester City are among continental heavyweights in Champions League last 16 action in midweek with differing form going into their games.

Bayern Munich’s form in the Champions League is formidable going into their last 16 first leg at Lazio on Tuesday but in contrast to a recent domestic wobble which has opened up the Bundesliga title race.

Hansi Flick’s men have taken just one point from their last two outings before visiting Rome while at the same time stuttering Primera Division leaders Atletico Madrid host Chelsea – though in Bucharest due to coronavirus travel restrictions in Spain.

Budapest is again home-from-home for a German side for the same reason on Wednesday as Borussia Moenchengladach host high-flying Manchester City while record European champions Real Madrid visit Atalanta.

“It’s a long season,” Flick said after Saturday’s loss at Eintracht Frankfurt which followed a 3-3 home draw with relegation strugglers Arminia Bieleld.

Bayern had little pre-season last summer and their 2019-20 treble brought extra commitments including a trip to Doha for the Club World Cup – which they won – earlier this month.

They have not won domestically since, with Robert Lewandowski’s second half goal unable to prevent a 2-1 defeat in Frankfurt.

“We’ll build on the second half performance,” promised Flick.

The holders are nearly two years unbeaten in the Champions League, winning 16 and drawing once since losing to Liverpool in the 2019 round of 16 second leg.

“I think we go in as favourites but they have to be taken seriously with their class forwards,” goalkeeper captain Manuel Neuer said. “We know how dangerous Ciro Immobile is. I think Robert Lewandowski is looking forward to that clash a bit.”

Lazio striker Immobile won the golden boot with a continental best 36 Serie A goals last season but told UEFA.com of runner-up Lewandowski: “He is a complete striker.

“I think he is currently the best number nine in the world, so we have to be very careful.”

The Lazio skipper has five goals in the tournament with the Romans back in the event they last played in 2007-08 and, as their coach Simone Inzaghi confessed, would have gladly avoided Bayern.

“They are the squad we really did not want to meet,” Inzaghi said. “They are European and world champions. They may have some issues, but I would have preferred if we both were without worries.”

Inzaghi’s woes are mainly defensive with Luiz Felipe and Stefan Radu out.

Atletico are struggling with just five points from their last four games to see their La Liga lead cut.

“I am not looking for excuses, we have to find solutions,” said coach Diego Simeone, who is without injured defender Jose Gimenez.

Coronavirus positives have reduced their options recently but players are gradually returning.

Moussa Dembele made his debut at the weekend, and Mario Hermoso, Joao Felix and Thomas Lemar have all recovered.

Chelsea are only fifth in the Premier League but unbeaten under new coach Thomas Tuchel and looking to improve on four consecutive last 16 eliminations most recently a 7-1 aggregate humbling to Bayern.

City are also in top form as they charge towards the Premier League title. They are unbeaten in their past 25 games across all competitions, winning 22.

“I’m surprised and impressed and so when everyone is suffering in this world, all the teams in the league are dropping points, we were consistent over the past two months and I did not expect [that],” manager Pep Guardiola said after the weekend 1-0 win at Arsenal.

Gladbach are winless in four in the Bundesliga and a strong season is threatening to unravel in light of coach Marco Rose announcing he’ll join Borussia Dortmund next term – even if the players deny that is a factor.

“That decision doesn’t play any kind of role,” winger Jonas Hofmann told the club homepage. “I know that there is a lot of talk about it, but it doesn’t affect us as a team at all.

“At the end of the day, we just have to keep working hard and keep believing in ourselves.”

Real are waiting on the fitness of Karim Benzema who missed the weekend win over Valladolid with an abductor injury, and are definitely without Fede Valverde, Rodrygo Goes, Eden Hazard, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Eder Militao, Marcelo and Alvaro Odriozola.

“We have a lot of players out. But the players that we have are all committed,” said coach Zinedine Zidane, who led Real to the last three of their 13 European titles. “It’s not easy but we have to get on with it.”

Atalanta are again in the knock-out stage of the elite event reaching the quarter-finals in their debut last season.

“It’s a two-leg affair and we would like to be into the game in Madrid,” coach Gian Piero Gasperini said.

City and Real have their home legs on March 16 with Bayern and Chelsea hosting a day later. The final is May 29 in Istanbul.

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