The Champions League is back! It's been a long wait -- the group stage ended on Dec. 12 -- but the Round of 16 finally gets underway on Tuesday.
Four teams from England, three from Spain and Germany, two from Italy and France, and one apiece from Portugal and the Netherlands are still alive, playing for the biggest prize in club football.
The knockout rounds, in case you don't know, are made up of two-legged home-and-away ties. The Round of 16 first legs will take place over the next two weeks - four games on Feb. 12-13, and four on Feb. 19-20.
In terms of building your ESPN Champions League fantasy team, all eight of those first-leg games will be included in a single round, and here are some tips for putting your roster together:
Messi = magic
As things stand, Barcelona are the second-biggest favorites to win their first leg, despite playing away from home. Their opponents are Lyon -- currently third in Ligue 1, but 13 points behind Paris-Saint Germain despite having played two more games.
Barcelona are atop of La Liga, six points clear of Atletico Madrid. And Lionel Messi is having a spectacular season, to say the least, with 21 goals and 10 assists in 20 league appearances. He is averaging over 27 fantasy points per game, and no one else is averaging as many as 17.
Messi was also, by far, the best fantasy performer during the Champions League group stage back in the fall. He had six goals and one assist in four appearances, and averaged nearly 33 points per game.
As long as Messi's healthy, he'll be my Tier 1 forward and captain for this round. He did suffer a minor thigh injury last weekend, but was able to come on as a substitute in Barcelona's Copa del Rey game against Real Madrid on Wednesday, and manager Ernesto Valverde said afterward that Messi is fine. Also, the Barcelona-Lyon first leg isn't until Feb. 19, giving him some extra time to recover.
The biggest favorites in the Round of 16 first legs are Manchester City, despite the fact they're away from home as well. That's partly because their opponents are Schalke, who are having a very poor season domestically. They're currently 12th in the Bundesliga, 27 points behind league leaders Borussia Dortmund, and only seven points above the relegation playoff spot.
Man City are not quite living up to last year's record-breaking standards in the Premier League, but they do currently top the table over Liverpool on goal difference, although they've played one more game. And as of now, the bookmakers are tipping Man City to edge out Liverpool for the title.
Sterling has been the best of that bunch in the Premier League so far, with 10 goals and nine assists in 23 appearances. He's also tied for fifth in chances created (51), and fourth overall in fantasy points. I'm leaning towards Sterling, but it's always wise to check the Man City starting lineup before making a final decision, because Pep Guardiola often has a surprise or two up his sleeve.
A bigger surprise
Who do you think was the second-highest fantasy scorer in this year's Champions League group stage, behind Messi? Here's a hint: It wasn't Cristiano Ronaldo, or Neymar, or any of the other superstars that might be springing to your mind.
It was actually 32-year-old Roma forward Edin Dzeko, who had five goals and two assists in four appearances, and averaged over 25 points per game.
This wasn't a fluke, either. Dzeko played very well in Roma's run to the Champions League semifinals last year, with eight goals and two assists in 12 appearances.
Roma's form hasn't been great domestically so far this season. They're currently sixth in Serie A, 25 points behind leaders Juventus, and Dzeko only has four goals and two assists in 18 appearances. But he is averaging 5.18 shots per 90 minutes -- only Ronaldo (6.80) and Lorenzo Insigne (5.25) are averaging more -- and Dzeko has an xG (expected goals) total of 9.71.
What's more, Roma are still favored at home against Porto, who are the league leaders in Portugal but advanced from a very soft Champions League group, which also included Schalke, Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow. Porto won that group, but still conceded six goals in six games. Dzeko is a good choice at Tier 2 forward, and will likely be on my team.
Reversal of fortune
If you had told me two months ago that Manchester United would be favored over Paris-Saint Germain in their Round of 16 first leg, I would not have believed you. Wow, have things changed when it comes to these two clubs.
Since Man United sacked Jose Mourinho and brought in caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in mid-December, they've played 10 games and have gone unbeaten, with nine wins and one draw.
Meanwhile, PSG are still runaway leaders in Ligue 1, but have lost Neymar to injury again and have looked vulnerable domestically of late. They were bounced out of the Coupe de la Ligue by first-division strugglers Guingamp, and then lost their first league game of the season last weekend, 2-1 to Lyon.
Still, Man United are only slight favorites, despite the first leg being played at Old Trafford. But I'm choosing Paul Pogba as my Tier 2 midfielder this round.
Pogba, who had fallen out of favor with Mourinho, has been revitalized by the change of manager. He has six goals and five assists in eight league games under Solskjaer, and is now second in the Premier League in fantasy points per game, behind only Eden Hazard. And Pogba should be pumped to play against some of his teammates from the French national team on PSG.
James Milner, Liverpool (Tier 3 midfielder): He had two goals and an assist in five group stage appearances, and in his past two Premier League starts Milner had an assist, nine chances created, and more than 50 passes completed each time. Plus Milner will probably continue to take penalties if he's on the field. And Liverpool are favored at home against Bayern Munich, who are uncharacteristically struggling in the Bundesliga -- only third in the table, and having conceded three goals to Bayer Leverkusen in their most recent league game.
Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid (Tier 1 defender): He put up relatively modest numbers during the group stage, but has been the top fantasy defender in La Liga this season, and only one defender in Europe's top five leagues is averaging more points per game domestically: Joshua Kimmich, who is sometimes deployed in midfield by Bayern Munich. Kimmich wouldn't be a bad choice here, but I prefer Ramos, given that Real Madrid are favored at Ajax and Ramos is on penalties for his club.
Aleksandar Kolarov, Roma (Tier 2 defender): In 20 Serie A appearances this season, Kolarov already has five goals and two assists. He's 12th overall in that league in fantasy points, and tops among defenders, averaging over 12 points per game. And I like Roma's matchup, as mentioned above, at home against Porto.
Ederson, Manchester City/Jan Oblak, Atletico Madrid (Goalkeeper): Ederson is the safer play, with Man City being heavy favorites over Schalke, but he's only averaging 1.6 saves per game in the Premier League. Oblak's averaging 2.5 saves per game in La Liga, but he's up against Juventus, in what's essentially a pick'em game. These happen to be the final two matches of the round, so I'm going to wait and see what my fantasy score is at that point. If I need to make up a deficit, Oblak has the bigger upside, going up against a better team and a high-volume shooter like Ronaldo. I could see Oblak making a bunch of saves and also picking up a clean sheet -- Atletico have conceded a league-low 14 goals in 22 La Liga games, and only four goals in 11 home games. That's a mighty impressive defensive record.