Verdict: Total away goals over 2.5
Best odds: 4/5
Manchester City’s quest to defend their Champions League title continues on Tuesday evening as they embark on a trip to Scandinavia to face Copenhagen in the first leg of the last-16.
Under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, Manchester City comfortably topped Group G, showcasing their dominance in the competition. Meanwhile, Copenhagen managed to secure the second spot in a relatively difficult Group A, narrowly trailing behind Bayern Munich.
Capitalizing on Manchester United’s ongoing struggles, Danish underdogs Copenhagen faced a challenging start to their 2023/24 Champions League campaign, managing only one point from their first three group stage matches. However, an unexpected three-match unbeaten run in November to December propelled Jacob Neestrup’s side to secure a spot in the last 16.
Narrow victories against Manchester United and Galatasaray, coupled with a commendable goalless draw against group winners Bayern Munich, solidified Copenhagen’s position in the knockout stages. Bayern’s victory over Manchester United on matchday six ensured Copenhagen’s progression, coupled with Lukas Lerager’s solitary goal against Galatasaray.
This marks only the second time Copenhagen have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League. Their previous appearance in the last 16, back in the 2010/11 season, ended in defeat against English opponents Chelsea, with Copenhagen suffering a 2-0 home loss before securing a commendable away draw at Stamford Bridge.
Thirteen years later, Copenhagen find themselves facing another opportunity in the knockout stages amidst inconsistency domestically. A three-match winless streak in the Superliga, including back-to-back losses to Viborg and AGF, saw Copenhagen drop to third place in the league table before the winter break.
In early February, Copenhagen participated in the mid-season Atlantic Cup, a tournament featuring teams from various nations without league commitments. Despite finishing fourth in the competition, Copenhagen managed to secure six points out of a possible nine.
Lerager, who scored the crucial goal that secured their progression to the knockout phase at the expense of Galatasaray, will miss Tuesday’s first leg due to suspension after being sent off for two bookable offenses.
In his absence, Copenhagen manager Jacob Neestrup has several options to choose from to fill the midfield role, including Rasmus Falk, Viktor Claesson, and 19-year-old Oscar Hojlund, the brother of Manchester United’s Rasmus Hojlund. However, Lerager’s absence adds to Copenhagen’s injury concerns, with Davit Khocholava and Theo Sander sidelined due to knee injuries, while left-back Birger Meling is doubtful due to a muscular injury.
Since their arrivals in January, former Arsenal goalkeeper Alex Runarsson and Nottingham Forest loanee Scott McKenna have both been included in Copenhagen’s knockout squad. Additionally, the spotlight will be on 18-year-old Roony Bardghji, who scored his side’s fourth goal in their remarkable seven-goal spectacle against Manchester United.
While the Manchester City faithful might have shared a laugh at the expense of their city rivals witnessing a 4-3 defeat to Copenhagen during the group phase, there will be no room for jokes on Tuesday evening as the reigning Champions League holders aim to conquer yet another opponent during their customary surge in the second half of the season.
RB Leipzig, Young Boys, and Red Star Belgrade attempted to halt the Guardiola juggernaut in the group stage of Europe’s premier competition, but their efforts were in vain as the Manchester titans cruised into the last 16 with a perfect total of 18 points.
Alongside 14-time winners Real Madrid, Manchester City advanced to the last 16 without dropping a single point. Their 3-2 victory over Red Star on the final matchday in Group G extended their winning streak in the Champions League to eight games, marking the longest streak for an English side in the tournament’s history.
Following a tense 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace, Manchester City returned to their winning ways with an impressive 10-game winning streak across all competitions. They briefly topped the Premier League table on Saturday after Erling Haaland’s brace secured a 2-0 victory over Everton, but Liverpool overtook them again with a victory over Burnley shortly afterwards.
Since Guardiola’s first season in 2016/17, Manchester City haven’t exited the Champions League at the last 16 stage. While they thrashed Copenhagen 5-0 at the Etihad during the 2022/23 group stage, their two previous visits to the Danish champions’ stadium ended in draws.
While Copenhagen grapple with several concerns, Manchester City heads to the Danish capital without any injured or suspended players. However, Ruben Dias faces the risk of missing the second leg if he receives a yellow card in this match, as he was booked twice during the group stage.
Despite Dias’ caution situation, it’s unlikely to heavily influence Guardiola’s selection process. On the other hand, Guardiola’s customary rotation strategy likely means a few changes are to be made for the champions in midweek.
Kyle Walker, Bernardo Silva, and Kevin De Bruyne are expected to return to the starting lineup after coming on as substitutes in the match against Everton. Haaland, who has been in superb form, leading the charge after achieving a milestone of 50 goals from 50 Premier League starts, setting a new competition record, will surely retain his place in the team.
Having already attempted and failed twice to secure victory against Copenhagen in Denmark, City will be aiming for third time lucky on Tuesday, particularly with the advantage of having a fully-fit squad and the hosts missing an influential figure in Lerager.
The atmosphere at the Parken Stadium can be daunting for any visiting team, but City’s customary surge from winter to spring, coupled with their strong current form, should give them the confidence to secure a first-leg advantage to take back to the Etihad Stadium. There should be several goals in the Copenhagen net on Tuesday.
Verdict: Total away goals over 2.5
Best odds: 4/5
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