Despite all the tenuous rumours of a fix, the Champions League draw for this season’s round of 16 was always going to be intriguing. After the group stage, which as always was mildly entertaining but is essentially merely a rather drawn out Hors d’oeuvre before the competition truly heats up in February, we have been whittled down to a group of teams who are now just four rounds away from the Lisbon final.
Italian champions Juventus aside, they could also lay a valid claim to being the best 16 teams on the continent, so whatever the combination fate drew those sides out in Nyon last month they were always going to produce some mouthwatering ties.
So what order did they come out in, ok so you probably know by now, but we’ll preview them here;
Manchester City vs Barcelona
City boss Manuel Pellegrini may be regretting erroneously judging his maths out in Munich on matchday 6 as they settled for a runners-up spot and tempting Spanish champions Barca out of the hat. However, that 2-3 victory at the home of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Bavarians would give the Chilean optimism, not to mention the free-scoring form of Sergio Aguero (19) and Alvaro Negredo (17), that the Catalans can be toppled.
Gerardo Martino’s outfit lead La Liga into the winter break but have not been at their scintillating best. Far from it actually, unsettled by inner-politics and uncertainty over Martino’s tactics, Athletic Bilbao and Ajax have both exploited their failings. Neymar, 11 goals and 10 assists, has settled in superbly though Lionel Messi has been hampered by injury.
Vincent Kompany and co. will be aware that the Argentine could return by February’s end, though City definitely, with 54 league goals scored so far, have enough in their own attack to trouble Barca’s vulnerable, ageing defence.
Will Tata sign a defender? Don’t count on it.
Olympiakos vs Manchester United
United brushed their troubled domestic form to one side in order to breeze through their group with only four points dropped and have landed a plum-looking tie against the Greek champions. The Athens club are no mugs however, recovering from an opening game thrashing at the hands of PSG to progress in second, helped along by the goals of Kostas Mitroglou and the creation of Javier Saviola.
David Moyes will be hoping his charges will be in a more settled position as they enter the second half of the season and with Wayne Rooney producing some marvellous form he has every reason to believe United will progress rather comfortably.
A lot will depend on whether United’s defence, shaky on occasion this season, can hold firm in the first leg assignment out in the usually partisan Karaiskakis Stadium.
AC Milan vs Atletico Madrid
Possibly the hipster tie of the round. Just how will Diego Simeone’s bunch of fiery pretenders do against Massimiliano Allegri’s group of underachieving misfits? Will the volatile Diego Costa out-volatile the incredibly volatile Mario Balotelli? How much of an influence will 2007′s star Kaka have on the tie? Or will it be Arda Turan and Koke who battle their way to victory. The list of tedious questions are endless….
Atletico sit joint top of La Liga and cruised through their group unbeaten, boasting a solid defence and a hugely talented goalkeeper in Thibault Courtois, though the Rossonerri, a lowly 13th in Italy, have been around the Champions League block and done it for as long as anybody can remember.
They are Serie A’s last remaining standers, but will the Milanello gentry be knocked out by the relative new boys on the block?… okay, enough with the rhetorical.
Zenit St Petersburg vs Borussia Dortmund
“Press.. press.. press.. press..” goes the cry from Jurgen Klopp, the mantra of relentless work that saw the Germans into last season’s final but also into a dark valley of injuries and wretched form that sees them only 4th in the Bundesliga, 12 points off Bayern Munich going into the winter break they will be so grateful to see. In Europe, they emerged from a difficult group with 12 points, fired on by Robert Lewandowski and Marco Reus, but Mats Hummels and Nevan Subotic have had nervy moments at the back.
A rejuvenated Dortmund will fancy their chances against arguably the weakest team left in the competition, yes they were handed a 4-1 rinsing by debutants Austria Vienna on matchday 6, and they limped through with as much momentum as an injured tortoise with just 6 points and 1 win.
Though Luciano Spalletti does still possess midfield general Axel Witsel and the hugely expensive commodity Hulk, plus it will be hugely cold out in Russia for the first leg. They will be hoping to score an advantage out there.
Arsenal vs Bayern Munich
Someone had to mention the holders didn’t they and here they are, boasting some swashbuckling league form, unbeaten in 16, scorers of 42 goals and conceders of 8.
Mario Gotze, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller, Mario Mandzukic, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Phillip Lahm, Javi Martinez and co. place the emphasis on the collective as Guardiola proceeds into the next tactical frontier. Their 1-3 dismantling of Manchester City at the Etihad was indication of what they can do.
It must have been the most contrasting of emotions for Arsene Wenger’s men on the final group game, trudging off the Napoli pitch having just progressed from a desperately difficult group but ultimately to a defeat which saw them having to grudgingly accept the runners-up spot.
It’s not all bad though, the arrival of Mesut Ozil has beamed the Gunners up to the top of the Premier League with Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Oliver Giroud all showing superb form.
Mathieu Flamini offers some much-needed steel to the midfield which protects a sturdy defence. Plus, of course, there was the small matter of this last season.
Galatasaray vs Chelsea
It’s the tie that Didier Drogba wanted and with the Ivorian motivated to the hilts, nothing is beyond the Turkish side that also has Wesley Sneijder, as he did vs Juventus, capable of coming up with the big moments.
Though they crept past the Italians with a goal-difference of minus 6, Real Madrid stuck 10 past them in their 2 meetings, so defending is obviously not a plus point for Roberto Mancini’s side. The Italian coach will be busy re-accustoming himself with the last 16 furniture having failed to break the group stage ceiling with Manchester City.
Chelsea had a turbulent time of it in qualifying, losing twice to Basel but eventually coming good. Oscar and Eden Hazard have been impressive, but Jose Mourinho is still to decide on a regular striker, Samuel Eto’o, Demba Ba or Fernando Torres? Hmmm.. decisions. Whoever gets the nod will be hopeful of firing a few past Europe’s feeblest backline.
Mourinho, twice a winner of the competition, will be overwhelming favourite if he can successfully guide his own defence through the hostile trip to Istanbul and back to Stamford Bridge.
Schalke vs Real Madrid
The Germans have been hampered by the injury to Klaas Jan Huntelaar and have found goals hard to come by this season, experiencing patchy domestic from and a sluggish group stage.
Julien Draxler will see this as a stage to show his burgeoning quality while in Jefferson Farfan and Kevin Prince-Boateng, they boast attacking verve and vigour. Huntelaar will be due back in time for February, bringing a huge smile to the face of manager Jens Keller.
As he comes to realise that Madrid will arrive to Gelsenkirchen with an armada of Cristiano Ronaldo, just the 34 goals for the season so far, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Angel Di Maria. The return of Xabi Alonso has given the midfield more composure and Isco can also produce moments of magic.
With walking red cards Sergio Ramos and Pepe patrolling the backline they are always minutes away from potential disaster, but as Carlo Ancelotti’s side continues to gel, you’d expect them to sweep aside their German counterparts with relative ease.
Bayer Leverkusen vs Paris St Germain
Anybody who watched Bayer play Manchester United in the group stages will be continuing to scratch their heads over just how the Germans have made it this far. Resembling a bunch of direction-less amateurs both at home and away, they were dispatched for an aggregate score of 9-2.
However Sami Hyypia’s men lie 2nd in the Bundesliga so they must be doing something right. Sidney Sam is a very dangerous winger and Simon Rolfes can create from deep. Stefan Kiessling, having a modest season with 11 goals, can finish off the chances created for him.
If Bayer continue to ship goals at the same rate as they did in qualifying, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be sizing up his prey like a hungry leopard after he netted a massive 8 goals in the group stages. If he doesn’t fancy it however, Edinson Cavani, who has 4, can always step up. The Qatari-owned French club have spent buckets and Laurent Blanc will cast half an eye on the final.
With Marquinhos excellent in defence and a midfield driven by Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta, he has the solid spine to compliment a prolific front-line.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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