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UEFA Champions League

African Champions League preview: Hakimi’s burning desire to hurt Real Madrid

20:39 EAT 14/02/2022
Salah Mahrez Hakimi Goal 25
The Paris Saint-Germain defender leads the continent’s stars seeking to lay down a marker as the knockout rounds commence

For Achraf Hakimi and, in a wider sense, Paris Saint-Germain, there is now little margin for error.

An unconvincing group stage Champions League run has done little to assure observers Mauricio Pochettino’s side are European champions in the making.

The Parisians looked like a bunch of individuals thrown together without any real coherence. They defeated Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City 2-0 in Paris, but the performance and general flow of the game was not exhibited in the result.

In the reverse fixture at the Etihad Stadium, PSG’s imbalance was exposed by the defending Premier League champions, although a 2-1 defeat, again did not reflect the English side’s superiority.

There was no shame losing to City, arguably the competition’s best side. Worryingly, though, their performances against other sides in Group A never really convinced.

In attack, Pochettino’s men depended largely on their supreme talent — and there is no shame in that, in fairness — but they appeared soft at the other end, a potential weakness that could cost the ambitious French side against the competition’s better sides.

Only seven sides allowed more shots on target throughout the group stage than PSG, with Hakimi and his teammates often overwhelmed by their opponents who pulled no punches.

The Morocco star played every minute of those opening games but is yet to show anywhere near his quality for the French team.

No longer as key an attacking component in Paris like he was under Antonio Conte at Inter Milan; the wide defender is simply another underutilised weapon among an array of match-winners.

With three goals and as many league assists heading into February, Hakimi is unlikely to match his 15 goals plus assists tally from last season and the 2019/20 campaign.

Yet to register any goal or assist in this year’s competition, Tuesday will be a timely start for the young defender who would relish the chance of finally getting the better of his old club.

A lot was made before facing Real in the group stage of last year’s competition with Inter, but a return to the Spanish capital turned sour quickly as an error cost the Nerazzurri one of three goals in a 3-2 defeat.

There was little luck in the reverse fixture either, with an own goal condemning a 10-man Inter to a 2-0 loss in Milan.

Having had little go his way in two meetings against old friends, Hakimi now strives to be third-time lucky against his boyhood club. In a sense, despite PSG’s broader struggles for coherence and integration, the French giants possess the technical quality to rival Los Blancos in a way Inter could not.

Carlo Ancelotti’s men won all but one of their opening six games, but their level has dipped since, evidenced by a run of indifferent results in La Liga.

The recent absence of Karim Benzema has not helped the club’s cause and while the decisive France superstar is back in training, there is a prevalent doubt over hit fitness and match sharpness, arguably giving Pochettino’s side the edge for Tuesday’s meeting.

Hakimi may not have a better opportunity to get the better of the competition’s greatest side.

Back after their Africa Cup of Nations exertions, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane lead Liverpool’s African contingent against defending Serie A champions Inter, a tie the Reds will be wary of despite being favoured to go through.

In a tie that could have passed as the tie of the round, both free-scoring sides ought to produce a rip-roaring 180 minutes over both games. While Simone Inzaghi’s team netted a modest eight goals in the group stage, their 55 strikes in Serie A outranks all but six teams in Europe’s top five divisions.

Liverpool sit joint-second along with Man City (61) and the attacking prowess of two sides with nine European Cup wins between them promises an interesting tie.

Riyad Mahrez’s City face off with Sporting, huge favourites to progress to the last eight in Europe’s top club competition.

The Algeria winger is the Citizens’ joint-goal contributor (five) and the second-highest top scorers are backed to make light work of the Portuguese side who conceded 12 times in six games, higher than all the 16 teams who advanced from their groups.

Strikingly, City let in 10 goals themselves, an anomaly for Pep’s side that gives Sporting a glimmer of hope heading into what many observers reckon will be a one-sided tie.

The biggest David versus Goliath clash pits Red Bull Salzburg against six-time European champions Bayern Munich, whose remarkable goalscoring capabilities make them heavy favourites against a side in uncharted territory.

The Red Bulls have never made the knockout stage of the Champions League, an occasion their plethora of Africans will relish.

Mohamed Camara and Jerome Onguene started six and five group stage fixtures respectively, and both ought to continue in defensive midfield and defence for the Red Bulls. Samson Tijani, Mamady Diambou, and Daouda Guindo could all feature against FC Hollywood.

The Champions League returns this week, each game with its distinctive narratives, and many of the continent’s stars will back themselves to record statement performances in Europe’s esteemed competition.