The best and worst of the Champions League draw
With the group stage out of the way, the real business of the Champions League is just around the corner. Let’s take a look at what’s in store.
The Champions League, appropriately enough, is a tournament of two halves. The first part, the group stage, is a sprawling, continent-wide affair, throwing the established aristocrats in with the punkish upstarts. APOEL tussling with Barcelona, Maribor staring down Chelsea, Liverpool measuring themselves against Real Madrid. As ever, it’s been a lot of fun, even if the minnows did tend to get their ritual shellacking.
The second half, though, is where things get tasty. Knockout football is better than other football; it may not lend itself to a rigorous investigation of what team is the best in a general sense, but it is the crucible in which skill and fortune combine to create, if we’re lucky, something truly memorable. The draw for the last sixteen of the Champions has taken place, and we now know which teams will face off over 180 minutes. There will be high-profile casualties. There may be shocks. And, as ever, there’s a couple of games that you can probably let yourself off watching. Such is the way of things.
So who’s facing off, and why is it going to be great? Let’s dive in …
Ah, this is what it’s all about. Chelsea against Paris Saint-Germain. Modern football at its finest. Presumably Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran, back in the 1950s, inaugurated this competition in the faint hope — now thrillingly fulfilled — that one day, the stand-out tie of the last-16 would involve some hot oligarch-on-oligarch, vanity project-on-vanity project action, the fossil fuel fortunes of Russia and Qatar meeting in Paris and London. Oh, you can almost taste the Gazprom in the air.
As a general rule, a knockout tie is an exciting one if both teams would view elimination not just with the standard disappointment, but with a more general sense of underachievement. And one of Chelsea and PSG are going to be mighty narked to be sent crashing out at the last sixteen. Chelsea are perhaps the favourites: they won this same fixture last season, and since then have bought Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas into their team, while at the same shipping off David Luiz, their least reliable defender, to … oh, look, PSG. Still, there’s enough talent sloshing around the Parisians’ attack to cause Gary Cahill and John Terry problems, and presumably Edinson Cavani will be quite keen to make amends for his glaring miss at the end of last season’s tie.
The possibly even better
Manchester City meet Barcelona in another repeat of a tie from last season, though this time it’s happening at exactly the same stage. Presumably City fans — for whom Barca will be their third repeat opponent of the tournament, after CSKA Moscow and Bayern Munich — are a little disappointed not to be jetting out somewhere new and exciting. For the neutral, however, this is perhaps the tie of the round.
Not that it would have looked that way a couple of weeks ago; indeed, it looked as though City were destined for elimination or, worse, the Europa League. But Sergio Agüero dragged them past Bayern Munich and then City’s B-team did brilliantly in Rome, and those performances, coupled with a good run of form in the Premier League, have made City once again look as dangerous as they should do. Set that against Barcelona’s variable form — this is a side that can beat PSG and draw with Getafe in the same week — and this could be close. Very close.
Obviously, Luis Enrique has a couple of months and a winter break to work things out in Catalonia, while Manuel Pellegrini has to try to get through England’s ludicrous winter calendar with half his squad missing. But with confidence high for the moment, with Agüero and Vincent Kompany scheduled to return well before the Champions League rouses from hibernation, and with the highly amusing prospect of James Milner outplaying Luis Suárez, all the ingredients are present for a classic.
The going to get ugly
There is, of course, a while to go between now and 18 February, when Schalke 04 will play their first leg against Real Madrid. So plenty of time, in which the Germans need one or more things to happen. They need Madrid’s accountants to uncover a gargantuan hole in the club’s finances, one that can only be filled by the immediate sale of nearly all the first team. They need Madrid’s physios to accidentally release a virulent strain of something really, really nasty in the training ground, necessitating the immediate and lengthy quarantine of nearly all the first team. They need Roberto Di Matteo to wake up one morning possessed with the defensive nous of Tony Pulis, Helenio Herrera and Leonidas of Sparta.
They need, in short, a miracle. Because otherwise Real Madrid (played 22, won 20, scored 2,445) are going to grind Schalke (who are having a perfectly respectable but not really that impressive season) into tiny, bloody pieces, then jump up and down on those tiny, bloody piece, then progress to the quarter-finals with brutal smoothness.
The stylistically quite interesting
It’s not the most glamorous tie of the round, but in some ways Bayer Leverkusen vs Atlético Madrid is perhaps the most fascinating, as two very opposing styles of football are set to run into one another. In the red-and-white corner, Diego Simeone’s obscenely disciplined coterie of counter-attackers and set piece specialists; in the other corner, which is also red, Roger Schmidt’s high-pressing high-tempo entertainers. The frequently immovable object against the theoretically overwhelming force. Ultimately, last season’s finalists should have a touch too much class for Leverkusen, but this is probably the game of choice for a certain kind of football nerd.
The nostalgically quite interesting
The other kind of football nerd will, of course, be watching Borussia Dortmund take on Juventus, in a re-run of the 1997 final. In the seventeen years since Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro del Piero and Didier Deschamps were toppled by Andreas Moller, Stephane Chapuisat and Paul Lambert, Dortmund and Juventus have contrived to avoid one another; first the Germans went rubbish for a bit, then the Italians got in trouble for some inappropriate cosiness with referees. Now that they’ve been thrown together again, expect some top-class ’90s football nostalgia. Mention may be made of baggy shirts, of black boots, of things not being what they were.
Still, the modern reprise should be a decent game. Juventus are doing their usual thing of looking a little shaky in Europe while (nearly) strolling through Serie A. Dortmund are doing exactly the opposite: topping their Champions League group while teetering on the edge of a relegation battle at home. Yet the Germans, though their defence is all kinds of peculiar at the moment, have the attacking power to expose anyone. Plus, these kits look great in opposition. Bright yellow plays black-and-white, under the floodlights. Magical.
The ‘wait, they didn’t get Bayern?’ one
Trembles were felt throughout the universe on Monday afternoon, as Arsenal’s long-cherished Champions League plan — 1) finish second in the group; 2) get gubbed by Bayern or Barcelona; 3) spend the rest of the season ensuring that they get another crack at 1) — went mysteriously awry. Monaco! Whisper it, but Arsenal are about to go into a Champions League knockout game as favourites.
Even if they can cope with that unusual burden, however, this may not be entirely straightforward for the Londoners. The Monaco Project appears to have foundered — Radamel Falcao and James Rodríguez have moved on — but (perhaps fittingly for a team that used to be coached by Arsène Wenger) coach Leonardo Jardim has turned to youth, and there are signs that it might just be working. Plus they’ve got Dimitar Berbatov: part-footballer, part-transcendental experience. File under: could be fun if Arsenal go all Arsenal and the Berb goes all gooey.
The ‘ah, that’s where Bayern went’ one
Whereas this, sorry to say, looks like being pretty straightforward. Pep Guardiola’s Possession Obsession Procession rolls on, and it would be a surprise if Shakhtar Donetsk were able to do much more than inconvenience them. It took seventy minutes of playing with ten men plus Sergio Aguero to defeat Bayern in the group stage, and the Ukrainians aren’t likely to be able to rely on either.
In truth, Shakhtar have done mighty fine to get this far: the ongoing mess in Ukraine has necessitated that they play their home games in Lviv, some thousand or so miles from Donetsk. And this is how the universe chooses to reward them? Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben? Sometimes, the universe can be a real dick.
The … er, hang on, what’s the last one?
Basel-Porto, it says here. Fun fact: Basel’s manager Paulo Sousa won the Champions League with two of the other teams in this draw, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus. And those two teams are playing each other! Isn’t football strange sometimes? Porto by two goals at home after drawing in Switzerland, since you ask.