After a seemingly interminable winter break, the Champions League will be back with a bang next week when the Round of 16, and some true heavyweight matchups, gets underway. And for more than one of the clubs involved, their situation is now very different from when the draw was made following the climax of the group stage in December.
That is certainly the case at Real Madrid, where a Champions League winning manager has been dispensed with and replaced with the scorer of one of the most famous Champions League winning goals in history. Despite leading the team to the best record from the group stage, Rafael Benitez, who lifted the trophy with Liverpool in 2005, was dismissed last month and replaced by Zinedine Zidane, whose crowning moment at the Bernabeu as a player came when firing the club to Champions League glory in 2002.
Zidane’s first five games in charge have seen Madrid hit the back of the net 19 times. But a stiffer test could arrive when they return to the Champions League for its Round of 16 first leg match next Wednesday against another side that has undergone plenty of recent change.
Roma qualified for the knockout phase despite registering just a solitary victory and conceding 16 goals. Yet that wasn’t enough to keep Rudi Garcia in a job, with Roma going back to the future to appoint former coach Luciano Spalletti. Having won their last three games and with several new faces in their squad making encouraging starts, Roma will be aiming to get one over on the giants of Madrid abd seal a quarterfinal place for the first time since Spalletti’s first spell in charge.
The changes do not end there. Chelsea’s progress to the last 16 couldn’t prevent Jose Mourinho from paying the price for a disastrous Premier League title defense. And, like Roma, the London club has turned to a former manager to turn the team’s fortunes around. Guus Hiddink, who took over on a similar interim basis in 2009, will now aim to salvage Chelsea’s season in the Champions League, which he so nearly did last time around but for a controversial semifinal defeat to Barcelona.
Getting any further in this season’s competition will be no easy task, however. Chelsea will take on a Paris Saint-Germain side that has been in imperious form in France and knocked the Premier League outfit out of the competition at the same stage a year ago. While Chelsea have endured a tumultuous season, PSG have won their last 14 matches in all competitions and have a 24-point advantage in Ligue 1.
Since the draw was made, it has also been made public that Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola will be switching to another of the 16 Champions League sides still standing, Manchester City, for next season. The two clubs will be kept apart in the next round, with Bayern taking on Juventus and City going up against Dynamo Kiev, but the prospect of them facing off further down the line is certainly a tantalizing one.
While several sides have been reshaped, one ominously remains unchanged. Champions League winners last year as part of a treble, Barcelona are on a club-record-equaling 28-match unbeaten run. And with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar still devastating in attack, it is an unenviable task that awaits Arsenal when the first leg of their Round of 16 tie takes place in London.
Champions League Round of 16 schedule
Tuesday, Feb. 16
Benfica vs. Zenit St. Petersburg
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Chelsea
Wednesday, Feb. 17
Gent vs. Wolfsburg
Roma vs. Real Madrid
Tuesday, Feb. 23
Arsenal vs. Barcelona
Juventus vs. Bayern Munich
Wednesday, Feb. 24
Dynamo Kiev vs. Manchester City
PSV Eindhoven vs. Atlético Madrid
Tuesday, March 8
Wolfsburg vs. Gent
Real Madrid vs. Roma
Wednesday, March 9
Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Benfica
Chelsea vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Tuesday, March 15
Atlético Madrid vs. PSV Eindhoven
Manchester City vs. Dynamo Kiev
Wednesday, March 16
Barcelona vs. Arsenal
Bayern Munich vs. Juventus