The draw for the last 16 of the Champions League is now in the books, with a couple of scintillating matches pulled out of the hat. But who can we expect to see in the quarter-finals?
On Monday the draw for the last-16 of the Champions League was completed in suitably languid fashion in an auditorium at UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon.After discovering who they will now face in the first knockout round of Europe’s premier club competition, the 16 remaining participants have just over two months to go away and plot the tactics that they hope will see them safely into the quarter-finals.A lot can happen in such a window – injuries, loss of form, even changes in manager – but, based on what we know right now, here are some snap assessments of the eight intriguing ties.
Champions League last-16 draw in full
Gent v Wolfsburg
Roma v Real Madrid
Paris Saint-Germain v Chelsea
Arsenal v Barcelona
Juventus v Bayern Munich
PSV Eindhoven v Atletico Madrid
Benfica v Zenit St Petersburg
Dynamo Kiev v Manchester City
GENT v WOLFSBURG
Gent verdict: Without coming off as condescending, you wonder if the Belgian side quite fancied drawing a true European titan – much like a non-league side that makes it to the FA Cup third round. This tie doesn’t exactly fit that requirement, but perhaps gives them a viable chance at going even further in the competition. Reaching the quarter-finals? That would be some achievement.
Wolfsburg verdict: Dieter Hecking’s side will feel confident of progressing from this match-up, one of the few possible draws that means they will go into the game as favourites. That brings with it a pressure of its own, however, although the club’s run to the quarter-finals of the Europa League last season (beating Sporting Lisbon and Inter Milan along the way) should have prepared them well for Gent’s more limited threat.
Who has the edge? Wolfsburg have home advantage in the second leg, an immediate edge, while they will be confident that their squad is the superior beast. But Belgian sides are slowly improving in Europe (Club Brugge reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League last season) and cannot be dismissed lightly.
Snap prediction: Wolfsburg to edge the return leg after snatching a draw away from home.
ROMA v REAL MADRID
Roma verdict: Currently in the midst of a horrendous run of form that has seen performances desert Rudi Garcia’s side, they were lucky to qualify at all and will know they will need to sort out their issues before this tie rolls around if they are to have a chance. But if they manage that, and Real remain as disjointed as they have been recently, they will feel they have a realistic opportunity to cause a significant upset.
Real Madrid verdict: The club would possibly have preferred to avoid another Italian side (after going out against Juventus last season), especially one they do not have great memories of. Rafa Benitez’s squad is struggling for form at the moment but the tie is a couple of months away, and they will be confident of progression if things have improved by then.
Who has the edge? Real Madrid will be reasonable favourites, although Roma knocked them out at the same stage in 2008 – winning both legs in the process. Much depends on how the two sides evolve over the intervening eight weeks – right now this tie would be a horror to watch, but by February it might be very different.
Snap prediction: So hard to call so far in advance, but Roma may edge the first leg before being overwhelmed by Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring boots at the Santiago Bernabeu.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN v CHELSEA
PSG verdict: Having knocked the Blues out in memorable fashion 12 months ago, Laurent Blanc’s side will have little reason to fear this tie. But the French will be acutely aware that luck (or, at the very least, fine margins) played as much of a role as skill, and will know they will need to be at their best to progress – and avoid their fate two seasons ago, when the Blues were too good for them.
Chelsea verdict: PSG were perhaps the one runner-up that every group winner wanted to avoid. The fact Chelsea got them will do little to persuade JoseMourinho someone isn’t out to get him – the possibility of revenge for last season’s embarrassment will be tempered by the acknowledgement that another beating is just as likely.
Who has the edge? This is a true 50-50 proposition, despite Chelsea’s poor league form. Last season PSG’s ability to rest players occasionally ahead of the tie (the league under some measure of control) gave them an edge, but this time around Chelsea might have a similar ‘luxury’ if they have played themselves into mid-table safety by February. It feels like a tie that could go either way.
Snap prediction: If Chelsea have solved most of their current issues by the start of the tie (and there is little guarantee), then Mourinho’s men should be able to grind it out. But otherwise PSG must be considered narrow favourites to take the decider in the best-of-three game the two clubs now have going.
ARSENAL v BARCELONA
Arsenal verdict: So, so predictable. Barcelona and Bayern Munich are perhaps the only two teams in the competition where you would say Arsenal have virtually no chance – and the Gunners knew they could not face Bayern after meeting in the groups. So it was always written that Barcelona would be their fate.
Barcelona verdict: To be brutally honest, it probably does not matter to Luis Enrique’s side who they get at any stage – they will just run through them like a buzzsaw regardless. They will respect Arsenal, a team built vaguely in their image, but feel confident of progression.
Who has the edge? Barcelona have a huge edge, both in talent and mindset. One might optimistically suggest that this tie offers the chance for an immature Arsenal side perpetually in bloom to finally mature into a genuine heavyweight – but they have persistently eschewed such opportunities in the past. Barcelona never do.
Snap prediction: Barcelona to win comfortably, although they may not necessarily leave the Emirates with a first-leg advantage.
JUVENTUS v BAYERN MUNICH
Juventus verdict: How much will they now be ruing losing their group to Manchester City – despite beating them home and away?! While City prepare to face Dynamo Kiev, Juventus must go against the irrepressible Bayern machine. It will surely be the ultimate test of the famous Italian defending, although the recent form of Paulo Dybala and persistent quality of Paul Pogba gives them some hope.
Bayern Munich verdict: Another opponent would perhaps have been preferable, but Bayern will feel they have the firepower to overcome this test. When they met in the group stages of the 2009-10 campaign Bayern won 4-1 in Turin, while they breezed past them in the knockout stages of 2013 – a repeat of that outright domination might be unlikely, but they will go into the tie with little fear.
Who has the edge? Juventus may have reached the final last season, but Bayern Munich will be favoured by most to progress over 180 minutes. Many neutrals will watch with interest to see if the brilliant Juventus backline finds a way to stop a Bayern attack that has been irresistible at times this season.
Snap prediction: Bayern to be made to work for it – and work for it hard – but to be roared on to victory in the end at the Allianz Arena.
PSV EINDHOVEN v ATLETICO MADRID
PSV Eindhoven verdict: After getting through the group stages, anything else was always going to be a bonus for PSV. They will surely be considered firm underdogs against an Atletico side that can get down and dirty with the best of them, but that only means they will go into the matches with no pressure on their shoulders…
Atletico verdict: Diego Simeone’s side will be quietly content with this match-up, which surely gives them a strong chance of moving on to the quarter-finals. PSV showed against Manchester United that they are well-organised and tough to break down, but Atletico are at least another step up in class.
Who has the edge? Atletico are a good side in part because they make few errors against teams they should beat, and few will expect them to slip up in this one.
Snap prediction: A learning experience for PSV, Atletico might well hold them at arms’ length throughout this tie.
BENFICA v ZENIT ST PETERSBURG
Benfica verdict: In terms of progressing to the next round, the Portuguese side will feel this gives them as good an opportunity as they could have hoped for. They won’t be looking forward to the trip to Russia, but they will spy an advantage in the fact that Zenit will come into the tie still in the midst of their domestic mid-season break.
Zenit verdict: The Russian side will spy a real opportunity to reach the quarter-finals of the competition, for the first-time in their history. Benfica, a team constantly moving players in and out, are perhaps not at their peak level right now, but they will at least be at peak fitness when the tie comes.
Who has the edge? The travel involved perhaps gives Zenit the edge, especially if they can come away from the Estadio da Luz with an away goal and (perhaps) a draw. But the fact they will be coming to the end of a three-month mid-season hiatus does not play into their hands. The two teams met at the same stage in 2012 (even the less glamorous ties in this competition are now repeats, it seems), with Benfica winning 4-3 on aggregate after a 2-0 win in the second leg on that occasion. They then met again in last season’s group stages – with Zenit winning both games. So who knows…
Snap prediction: A toss-up. Traditionally Russian clubs seem to fall short in Europe, whereas the opposite is often true of Portuguese ones, so perhaps it is wisest to predict Benfica to sneak through – but Zenit will feel bullish with the second leg at their place this time.
DYNAMO KIEV v MANCHESTER CITY
Dynamo Kiev verdict: The Ukrainian side were surely resigned to facing a big side and, as they start a stadium ban imposed by UEFA, probably did not care either way who exactly it ended up being. City perhaps still have a reputation around Europe for being a bit flaky, so they will perhaps hope to test that – but they could not beat a struggling Chelsea side, which does not bode well.
Manchester City verdict: After getting Barcelona in previous seasons, City will be relieved that winning their group has finally seen them rewarded with a winnable tie. The travel, and the fact the Kiev leg will be played behind closed doors, does not work in their favour (or that of fans looking forward to an away trip) – but they surely have the superior quality required.
Who has the edge? Kiev’s hopes seem rather limited to defending for their lives and then hoping Andriy Yarmolenko can create something from nothing at the other end. If Manchester City are to be the European giant they so clearly strive to be, this is the sort of tie they should knock off with room to spare.
Snap prediction: The away leg will be a slog for Manuel Pellegrini’s side, but it is where they can lay the groundwork for a comfortable passage to the quarter-finals (at last!) at the Etihad Stadium.