The draw for the last 16 of this season’s Champions League was made on Thursday, and the 8 ties spat out are rather intriguing to say the least. There’s no clear favourite in any of the ties (perhaps bar one), with the draw managing to throw together teams of similar standing and ability across the piece.
The obvious stand-out match is Real Madrid v Manchester United. It was always going to be a risk for any of the group winners going into the draw, but the fact that United have been pulled out to play the chaps in white makes for a special tie. The only thing one might say is it’s unfortunately early for a tie of this stature to come out. Real are struggling (comparatively) in La Liga so will be focusing all their efforts on winning a tenth Champions League (La Decima), while the red half of Manchester have been fairly dominant, if not very convincing, on domestic duties in England (and indeed in Europe). It should be quite a 2 legs, with the return of Cristiano Ronaldo obviously adding further spice to the occasion – I fancy it will be Ronaldo’s current side who advance to the quarter-finals.
The other British interest in the draw is in Arsenal v Bayern Munich and Celtic v Juventus. Although Bayern generally don’t have a marvellous time against English sides in this tournament, they do have a good record against Arsenal in this competition, and are generally tearing up the Bundesliga at the moment. They should go through, along with Juventus. Celtic’s reward for defeating Barcelona in the East End of Glasgow is a match which I think looks (on paper) the most one-sided of the round. Juve finished top of their group with some ease and are again looking unlikely to be overtaken in Serie A. If the Italians add a top-class striker in January, Celtic’s atmosphere-based home advantage and (in comparison with previous years) good away record in this season’s tournament may be difficult to maintain.
Shakhtar Donetsk v Borussia Dortmund is possibly the best of the rest in terms of the last 16 ties. Shakhtar are extremely strong in their home stadium (the hyper-futuristic Donbass Arena), while Dortmund, though struggling a little in the Bundesliga, have taken rather well to this season’s competition, particularly in finishing ahead of Real Madrid in their group. I fancy the Germans to go through, and their local rivals Schalke should emerge victorious from their tie against Galatasaray, with the possibility of a Ruhr Valley derby in the quarter finals. This may be, of course, rather dependent on whether or not Klaas-Jan Huntelaar fancies hanging around the Veltins Arena until after the 31st of January next year.
AC Milan v Barcelona, meanwhile,is a bit of a Champions League classic, with the two sides having faced one another many times in the competition, indeed as recently as last year’s group stage. The two sides have been drifting away from one another in recent years in terms of quality (Milan going down; Barca going up), and given the two sides’ league form this season the chaps in blue and red should get through to the quarter-finals as they chase a third Champions League trophy in five years.
There is Spanish interest in the last two ties, with Valencia facing off against Paris Saint-Germain, while Porto face Malaga. PSG tend to blow hot and cold, often relying on Zlatan Ibrahimovic to get them through league games, though Valencia’s league form is at its worst for many years. I have a sneaking suspicion the Parisians will find their way into the last 8. Meanwhile, Malaga should get through in the last tie, partly because UEFA has just excluded them from next year’s tournament, regardless of their final league position come May 2013, as well as their excellent showing in the group stage as one of the first qualifiers for the knockout stage. Theirs has been quite a story this season, with their Qatari money from last season seemingly being withdrawn and having to cope with the departure, on the relative cheap, of Santi Cazorla to Arsenal. The Andalusians should have just enough to see of Jose Mourinho’s old team.
Quite a few weeks in February ahead of us then; one only hopes the remaining rounds of the Champions League throw up a similar range of interesting ties.