Europe’s elite 16 will learn who stands between them and a place in the Champions League quarterfinals when the draw for the first knockout phase is made in Nyom, Switzerland on Monday. The eight group winners will face the eight runners-up with the prospective opponents on offer varying greatly.
More so than perhaps ever before, there is a concentration of quality among the group winners. Bayern Munich head the list and remain favorites to become the first side to retain the trophy in the Champions-League era. Before losing an ultimately meaningless final match to Manchester City last week, the Bavarians had won a record 10 games in a row in Europe’s premier competition. The side Bayern beat in the final last year, Borussia Dortmund, were heading out until a late goal in their final match, but with vital players set to return from injury and the club surely set to focus more on the Champions League as they slip off the pace in the Bundesliga, they too should be a real threat.
The chief challenge to another German win perhaps comes from Spain. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid all topped their groups with something to spare. While the former two are still working out teething problems under new coaches, their quality and European pedigree is undisputed. Atletico, though not having the depth of squad to match Barcelona and Real, are a side expertly managed by Diego Simeone that are arguably perfectly set-up to upset the big boys in a knockout format.
From France, Paris Saint-Germain, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani among the best strikers in the world, could be primed to better their run to the quarterfinals last season.
Ironically, the two English group winners, Chelsea and Manchester United, have enjoyed far from impressive starts to the season. United have produced their best performances thus far under new manager David Moyes in Europe, but appear lacking in the quality to add to their three European Cups. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho still has plenty of kinks to work out in order to add to his tally of two Champions League titles.
With the only provisos for the draw being that teams from the same country or same group being unable to meet, Manchester United and Chelsea have the most favorable prospects. It is the two runners-up from England, Manchester City and Arsenal, that will surely be the least desired opponents for the group winners and will provide the most mouth-watering ties of the next round. Arsenal, seemingly transformed this season, top the Premier League, while Manchester City have shown on numerous occasions already that, when they are firing, there are few teams that can live with Manuel Pellegrini’s side.
In terms of history, Milan are the team to avoid. Yet, there is plenty of irony in the seven-time European Cup winners being the only Italian team through, yet sitting in the bottom half of Serie A. This is far from a vintage Milan side and it would be a major surprise were they to oust any of their possible opponents in the last 16.
The same could be said for the remaining runners-up. Bayer Leverkusen are well-drilled under Sami Hyypia, but their defensive tactics have their limitations as was shown when they were on the end of two comprehensive defeats at the hands of Manchester United. Schalke, well off the pace in Germany, may pose some resistance if they can get some key players back fit, but it is still hard to imagine any of the favorites losing sleep over the side from Gelsenkirchen.
For Olympiakos, Galatasaray and Zenit St Petersburg, just reaching this stage has to be seen as a success, even though the latter two accomplished the feat with just seven and six points, respectively.
Where to watch: The draw for the last 16 of the Champions League is scheduled to get underway at 6 a.m. ET. A free live stream will be provided by Uefa.com.