Champions League round-of-16 draw pits familiar foes against one another
It is a remarkable that, for a competition that now hasn't seen a repeat winner for 25 years, we still see so much repetition in the Champions League knockout rounds.
This year's last-16 draw features three ties that took place last season alone, as well as a restaging of the 1997 final. There also are similar features: Real Madrid got an easy draw, Bayern Munich should waltz through and it's difficult to escape the feeling that we're going to see the ongoing trend of all the teams who were first place in the groups dominating. There has been only one runner-up in the semifinal in the past four years. In that, the competition is increasingly conforming to the quality of the super-clubs.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DRAW: REACTION
- Champions League last 16 draw in full: City get Barca
- Delaney: Draw pits familiar foes against each other
- Worrall: Chelsea wary of PSG seeking UCL revenge
- McNicholas: Wenger to relish Monaco reunion
- Train: Real Madrid should be quietly pleased
- Johnson: PSG out for revenge against Chelsea
There is at least one big meeting between two of them, in the hugely exciting pairing of Manchester City and Barcelona. The fact they met last season doesn't seem to matter so much in terms of competitiveness, given how much has changed for both.
In the draw's biggest break, meanwhile, Arsenal finally escaped Bayern or Barca and got a forgiving foe. Arsene Wenger does go to somewhere he knows so well, in Monaco, which is the general feeling from this last 16: familiarity.
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Chelsea
Jose Mourinho said on Saturday that he wanted a Parisian draw for ease of travel and access. And, although he didn't say this, perhaps ease of challenge. Chelsea certainly don't look like they're going to have as tough a time as last season, when they needed a brilliant late salvo to narrowly eliminate PSG. Too much has changed since then. Mourinho's side have made almost a quantum leap in evolution of their play, while Laurent Blanc's outfit have just looked more and more laboured, reflecting the limitations of their manager. Blanc's potential sacking could change things, but probably not enough to change the outcome: Chelsea going through.
Manchester City vs. Barcelona
The tie of the round for the second year in a row, but one that also has turned a bit since last season. City did not initially kick on in Europe given the early struggles of their group, but the gritty way in which they ultimately got through -- with the entire spine of stars missing -- could represent a transformative moment. By contrast, Barca still look in transition, and more a collection of stars rather than cohesive unit that has made them the competition's touchstone side over the past half-decade. Now, they're all too reliant on their forward line.
It may still be asking a lot but if City have their own stars in, they have a big chance to reach the quarterfinals for the first time ever. That fact alone seems so out of place with a tie that is genuinely 50-50. This is set to be tight, and be decided by those players who can maximise the smallest of margins. Barca need Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar to click. City need Yaya Toure on top form and Sergio Aguero at full fitness.
Verdict: Manchester City
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid
One of the most refreshing ties of the round, and not just because it is the first time the competition has seen this pairing. There is also the contrast in styles, and the upwardly mobile nature of both sides, who are managed by two of the brightest young coaches in the game: Diego Simeone and Roger Schmidt. The one big difference is that Simeone already has blazed far brighter, having reached the final last season and won the Spanish league in what seemed such an unlikely fashion. That pedigree and tournament experience should stand to them. On the other side, Leverkusen, for all their fine football, also illustrated their flaws by allowing first place in the group to slip. They shouldn't even be in this tie. It will mean they probably go out.
Verdict: Atletico Madrid
Juventus vs. Borussia Dortmund
Perhaps the most engaging tie after City-Barca, and the one that might just be the most difficult to predict. It is a pairing that comes at a particularly curious time for both teams, not least given what this competition has come to mean for them -- a prospect only deepened by the fact it represents a repeat of the epic 1997 Champions League final.
That spell should really have seen Juventus win more European Cups than they did, having won only one out of three finals between 1996 and 1998, and it still colours so much of what they do -- especially given how the stock of Serie A has fallen. The trophy has become their obsession, and is the real big remaining challenge for the club as they continue to dominate Italy. A problem has been that they have come nowhere near replicating their domestic form.
The same can be said for Dortmund, but in a very different way. The Champions League has come to be their one source of solace in what has been an atrocious campaign. While they now look in real danger of a genuine relegation battle, they have usually been sparkling in Europe. The wonder is what will give, what will have the bigger say. Juventus, however, won't have a better opportunity against one of the notional best sides.
Schalke vs. Real Madrid
Real Madrid official Emilio Butragueno was caught by cameras basically trying to suppress a smile when this draw was made, and it's not hard to see why. Real Madrid have made a habit of racking up hugely impressive knockout wins against lesser sides -- including a 9-2 aggregate win over Schalke at this very stage last season -- and, with the form they're on and the forwards they've got, this is likely to be along the same lines.
Verdict: Real Madrid
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Bayern Munich
No real challenge for the super-favourites at Bayern, which cannot be said about Shakhtar's campaign. It seems trivial to discuss the situation in Ukraine in the context of football, but there's no denying that it has made Shakhtar's challenges so much harder this season, especially because they don't have the advantage of being able to play at home. They've done well to get this far, and with some fine football on the way. It's still, however, where their European season is likely to end. Bayern are just too good.
Verdict: Bayern Munich
Arsenal vs. Monaco
Wenger finally gets the break he so badly wanted from a sequence of severely tough knockout draws, but he does get a return to somewhere he knows even better than a last-16 exit. The Arsenal manager returns to the club where he spent seven years between 1987 and 1994. His stint at Monaco did see Wenger reach this competition's semifinals for the first of just three times, and this draw may at least see him return to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2010. The fact Monaco got through despite the fewest goals scored for a qualified team in history reflects their lack of firepower, as well as their reduced activity in the transfer market. This is not the new force that seemed to be rising last season.
Basel vs. Porto
Not the most glamorous occasion, but potentially one of the feistiest and hardest to call. These are two upwardly mobile teams who have made a habit of defying resources over the past few seasons, and offering big surprises. It makes this very hard to predict, although Porto's higher quality should just be enough.
Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.