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Champions League - Football: United face crunch European clash

The Champions League knockout stage continues on Tuesday, with two more last 16 ties set to reach a conclusion.

Both are delicately poised, with Manchester United set to welcome Atletico Madrid to Old Trafford with the tie all-square at 1-1, while Ajax and Benfica will meet in Amsterdam off the back of last month's 2-2 draw in Portugal.

Ronaldo to inspire United progress?

Man United were somewhat fortunate to escape from their reverse meeting with Atleti at the Wanda Metropolitano with a share of the spoils, as they were outplayed for large spells only to salvage a point thanks to substitute Anthony Elanga's late goal.

An underwhelming draw with Watford and a well-publicised 4-1 hammering at the hands of Man City followed for Ralf Rangnick's side in the Premier League, not exactly the kind of form they would have been hoping for ahead of the return clash with their Spanish rivals.

However, Saturday's 3-2 victory over Tottenham will have gone a long way to lifting the mood at Old Trafford, and there is no doubting who is to thank for that return to winning ways, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a magnificent hat-trick.

It was certainly Ronaldo's day, as he returned to the side after missing the defeat to City through injury, with the Portugal international not only grabbing his first United hat-trick in over 14 years, but he also became the Fifa-recognised all-time top goalscorer in world football, taking his tally to 807 and counting.

Ronaldo will certainly be confident of adding to that total against Atleti, as he has scored 25 times when facing the Spanish giants across his career, the most he has netted against a single opponent.

That tally includes scoring against Diego Simeone's side in the 2014 Champions League final for Real Madrid, as well as the hat-trick he notched at this very stage of the competition three years ago to almost single handedly send Juventus through to the quarter-finals at the expense of Colchoneros.

A Ronaldo goal on Tuesday can be backed at 6/5, while United are 23/20 to win after 90 minutes, with an Atleti success in the same manner available at 11/4, while the draw, which would send the match into extra time, is 21/10.

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Atleti ominously coming into form

It has been a testing season for Atleti to date, with Simeone's men having failed to mount a significant defence of their La Liga title, currently sitting 12 points behind leaders Real Madrid and having lost four games in a row during December.

They also limped through to the knockout stages of the Champions League, finishing with the lowest points tally of any of the sides that advanced, but despite all that, there are signs that the team from the Spanish capital are returning to form at perhaps just the right time.

Colchoneros have won four matches in a row in  La Liga, either side of their first-leg draw with United, while that sequence has also helped them move back into the top four of the standings domestically.

Joao Felix has been at the centre of that improvement, netting five goals across his last five appearances, including the opener for Atleti against United three weeks ago.

The Spanish giants are bidding to make it through to the last eight of the Champions League for the sixth time in nine seasons and they can be backed at 5/4 to qualify, while United are 4/7 to be in the hat for Friday's quarter-final draw.

Ajax drawing on past experience

Ajax have been one of the most impressive teams in this season's Champions League, with Erik ten Hag's side winning all six of their group games to finish nine points clear of Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon.

It is another Primeira Liga side that Ajax were pitted against in the last 16 and Benfica were able to hold the Dutch club to a 2-2 in Lisbon three weeks ago thanks to Roman Yaremchuk's second-half equaliser.

That draw perhaps threw Ajax off their game, as they followed it up with a rare Eredivisie defeat at Go Ahead Eagles, but since then they have returned to type with three successive wins.

Ten Hag, who continues to be linked with the Man United job, has also seen his side win seven home matches in a row across all competitions, and they can be backed at 4/11 to extend that run to eight at the Johan Cruyff Arena on Tuesday night.

Past experience also appears to be in Ajax' favour, as the last time they made it through to the knockout stages of the Champions League in 2018/19 they went all the way to the semi-finals where they were eventually beaten in heart-breaking fashion by Tottenham.

Benfica's eggs firmly in European basket

Benfica are looking to advance through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time in six years, and their eggs are firmly in the European basket given their relative struggles domestically.

The Eagles sit well off the pace in the Primeira Liga title race, as they are third in the standings, 12 points behind leaders Porto, while they have already been eliminated from both domestic cup competitions.

That poor domestic form contributed to the sacking of head coach Jorge Jesus in December, with the club still yet to appoint a permanent successor, instead leaving interim boss Nelson Verissimo in charge.

It is not all doom and gloom for Benfica, however, as they showed during last month's first leg, while they also qualified for the knockout stages at the expense of Barcelona.

A Benfica win on Tuesday can be backed at 6/1, while the draw, which like in the Man United vs Atletico Madrid game would take the tie into extra time, is priced at 9/2.

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