The suits at UEFA pulled the Round of 16 match ups for the Champions League on Monday and lo and behold we ended up with some great pairings when the tournament resumes on Feb. 18. Despite all the heavyweight clubs and players involved this year’s knockout rounds feel a little more wide-open than the last couple when everyone assumed Barcelona was going to cakewalk into the final. The Catalans are still among the favorites, hovering around 5-to-1 by the oddsmakers. Last year’s winner, Bayern, is only an 5-to-2 favorite, while Real Madrid checks in at 9-to-2, so it’s not a foregone conclusion by any stretch.
Onto the pairings:
Manchester City v. Barcelona
How’s that for the first match-up pulled by UEFA? The richest team in England vs. the Spanish giants who’ve won two of the last four tournaments. This is a dangerous draw for Barcelona, potentially the most difficult Round of 16 faced by the Catalans in the last five years even if this is City’s first foray into the knockout stages of the competition.
There’s some crossover here, too. City hired former Barca technical director Txiki Begiristain as it Director of Football in 2012. He’s recruited many Spanish and or ex-La Liga players to the Eithad including Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas as well as former Real Madrid and Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini.
City have scored 47 goals in the Premier League in 16 games — 35 coming at home. Lionel Messi will need to be fit and at his best and get some help from Neymar and the gang to advance.
Olympiacos vs. Manchester United
Fortune smiled on David Moyes here, since United ended up with one of the softer draws possible, albeit against the Greek champions. Granted, the way United has played under Moyes penciling the Red Devils into the quarterfinals would be foolhardy especially with Robin van Persie reverting to his Mr. Glass reputation.
The matchup here also presents a renuion for United with former keeper Roy Carroll.
AC Milan vs. Atletico Madrid
Don’t let the name fool you, based on current form AC Milan could be the weakest team remaining in the tournament and were nearly knocked out in the final group game against Ajax with a last-second shot by the Dutch club going just wide. At the moment Milan have more losses (6) than wins (5) in Serie A. Unless you’re counting on Mario Balotelli dominating the 180 minutes of this matchup with a couple goals, rather than red cards, there’s not much hope for Milan.
Under Diego Simeone Atletico have quietly become one of Europe’s best and that’s after selling Falcao to Monaco in the summer. Atleti are even on points with Barcelona in La Liga and five points better than rivals Real Madrid. The knockout rounds should serve as a further coming out party for striker Diego Costa, who’ll be a compelling figure at the World Cup since he was born in Brazil but switched international allegiances to Spain in September.
Bayer Leverkusen vs. PSG
Leverkusen always seem to be one of those teams in the Champions League that beats the opponents worse than them, but never mounts much of a challenge to those ahead of them. Ligue 1-leading PSG and Zlatan Ibrahimovic present the latter part of the equation. If you’re into gambling, you can still get 16-to-1 odds on PSG winning the tournament. That’s definitely worth a flier.
Galatasaray vs. Chelsea
Figure between now and February the English soccer media writes roughly 4,979 Jose Mourinho/Didier Drogba reunion stories. It doesn’t get any better than that, does it? It’s hard to get a gauge on this matchup since both clubs figure to be active in the January transfer window with players like Wesley Sneijder or David Luiz potentially moving elsewhere. While not a cakewalk for Chelsea, the Blues have to be pretty happy about this draw even if it includes a potentially trip to Istanbul in the first leg.
Schalke 04 vs. Real Madrid
Call this one the Raul derby. It’s hard to believe the Spanish striker — the Champions League record-holder with 71 goals — had his number retired by Schalke after playing there only two seasons. Either way, it’s doubtful the German club, one that’s always teetering on the brink of self-implosion and might bring in a new coach (Thomas Schaaf) during the Bundesliga winter break will mount much of a challenge for Cristiano Ronaldo and the boys.
Real Madrid, which prides itself on its record nine European titles, hasn’t played (or win) a final since Zinedine Zidane’s famous extra-time winner vs. Leverkusen back in 2002.
Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Borussia Dortmund
This one will be a nail-biter for the so-called “soccer hipsters” and features two teams who could be rusty coming off the winter breaks in Russia and Germany, respectively. Dortmund’s been living a charmed live in the tournament, with its surreal victory over Malaga in the knockout rounds last season and last week’s late winner to advance vs. Marseille.
Zenit backed into the knockout rounds, winning only one of its six group stage games, so maybe Dortmund’s luck continues into the quarterfinals.
Arsenal vs. Bayern Muninch
We meet again, eh Arsene? Last season the two clubs met in same round, with Bayern smoking Arsenal 3-1 in the first leg at the Emirates. The Gunners almost knocked out the eventual tournament champions, winning 2-0 in Germany in the second leg. Bayern squeaked through via the much-dreaded away-goals rule. The loss knocked out Arsenal from the Champions League, but helped kick-start the club’s current form that still has them atop the Premier League table this year. In the rematch Arsenal will have German playmaker Mesut Özil in the mix, which could help even up the odds, slightly.
The state of the two clubs come Feb. 19 in London will be fascinating. Bayern have the FIFA Club World Cup to deal with as well as a break in the Bundesliga schedule. Arsenal’s depth will be put to the test, thanks to the EPL’s idea to cram as many games as possible around the holidays.
This is by any measuring tool a marquee match-up and one that ought to produce a bevvy of goals.
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