Despite group winners being kept apart, the draw for the Champions League Round of 16 has thrown up several heavyweight matchups that will guarantee some major clubs staring at an early exit. It also means that there are other clashes featuring two teams that will be relishing a golden chance to move onto the latter stages. Here’s a look at each of the contests that will take place over two legs in February and March next year.
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Chelsea
With still two months to go, this is surely the hardest matchup to call. So much depends on what happens with a Chelsea side that is mired in crisis. The axe could come down on the reign of Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho any day now after a tumultuous start to the season that has seen them go from champions to hovering around the Premier League relegation zone. Unless there is a serious turnaround before February, PSG have to be considered favorites.
Even when Chelsea were in far better health last season, PSG came out on top in the Round of 16. And while Chelsea have slumped since, PSG are now even stronger. The addition of Ángel di María gives the French champions another world-class attacking option. Although there remains doubt about whether PSG can truly push on from a run of three consecutive quarterfinal exits and challenge for the trophy, they should again get the better of Chelsea.
Prediction: Paris Saint-Germain
Benfica vs. Zenit St Petersburg
Both sides will have reacted to the draw by believing it presents them with a great opportunity to secure a place in the quarterfinals. Zenit were the only team to win their first five matches in the Champions League group stage on the back of the goals of Hulk and Artem Dzyuba. But they have never been beyond the last 16 of the competition and when the first leg comes around they will not have played a competitive match for two months due to the long Russian winter break. Benfica’s recent European pedigree has been more impressive, but, now with Rui Vitória as coach rather than Jorge Jesus, they don’t look quite as strong.
Prediction: Zenit St Petersburg
Gent vs. Wolfsburg
Another matchup that both teams will have been happy with, featuring as it does two teams that have reached the Round of 16 for the first time. For Gent, their place in the knockout phase is particularly remarkable given that they are playing in the competition for the first time. They also took just a solitary point from their first three games in their group, before three straight victories propelled them to secure progress ahead of Valencia.
It is Wolfsburg, though, despite making only their second Champions League appearance themselves, that have the grater pedigree. Runners-up in the Bundesliga last season, they lost star man Kevin de Bruyne in the summer. Still, they showed they remain a capable team under Dieter Hecking by topping their Champions League group thanks to a decisive win over Manchester United.
Roma vs. Real Madrid
At first glance this would appear a one-sided contest. Real Madrid dropped just two points in the group phase, scoring 19 goals in the process. Roma, meanwhile, won just one match in their group and conceded 16 goals, finishing with a goal difference of minus five. Yet it may not be straightforward. Madrid’s Champions League performances masked the fact that it has been a very difficult start to Rafael Benitez’s reign, both on and off the pitch. Indeed, he may not even survive in the job until February.
Roma’s coach is arguably under even greater pressure, and had they not squeezed into the last 16 of the Champions League Rudi Garcia may already have been sent on his way. Despite being backed with the signing of Edin Dzeko in the summer, Roma still look no closer to ending their Serie A title drought. Still, there is talent there, and if they produce against an unbalanced Real Madrid side, the tie could be far closer than many believe.
Prediction: Real Madrid
Arsenal vs. Barcelona
Once more Arsenal have paid a tough price for finishing second in their group. After five successive seasons of going through as runners-up and being dumped out in the Round of 16, they have now been handed another meeting with Barcelona -- a team that ended their hopes twice in the last six seasons as well as in the 2006 final. Arsenal have improved since their most recent meetings and manager Arsene Wenger has shown slightly greater tactical flexibility going up against the best teams. Yet Arsenal are also likely to be without key players due to injury.
And then there is the extraordinary talent of the team they will be coming up against. Barcelona have shown little sign of slowing down this season following their brilliant treble win. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar have the ability to tear Arsenal apart and Barcelona will be even stronger in the second half of the season, thanks to the ability to register summer signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal.
Juventus vs. Bayern Munich
There are strong contenders, but it would be hard to dispute that this is the tie of the round. Bayern Munich are now fully entrenched as one of Europe’s super clubs, and have reached the Champions League semifinals for the last four years. They have also been brilliant so far in this season’s competition, with the arrival of Douglas Costa and form of Robert Lewandowski taking Pep Guardiola’s side to an even greater level. The only doubts are over whether they can avoid the kind of dip that has afflicted them toward the end of the past two seasons, and prevent the saga over Guardiola’s future from becoming a distraction.
Juventus were surprise Champions League finalists last season, but showed in their run to Berlin that they have a fine tactical mind in manager Massimiliano Allegri. This campaign started slowly, unsurprisingly given the loss of key figures Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal -- to Bayern Munich -- in the summer. But a new, younger lineup is now finding its feet and should be even stronger come February. While they will be underdogs, Juventus could make it very difficult for Bayern.
Prediction: Bayern Munich
PSV Eindhoven vs. Atlético Madrid
Atlético are now a regular presence in the latter stages of the Champions League thanks to the superb work of coach Diego Simeone. Once again they are a team that no side will relish going up against. Incredibly hard to break down and with the attacking flair provided by Antoine Griezmann and several exciting signings last summer, Atlético currently sit level on points with Barcelona at the top of La Liga and have the potential to go a long way in the Champions League.
For PSV, just getting this far represents a significant achievement. Shorn of the two outstanding players from their Dutch title win in the summer, PSV managed to get the better of Manchester United to reach the Champions League knockout phase for the first time in nine years. But they don’t appear to have the quality to go any further.
Prediction: Atlético Madrid
Dynamo Kiev vs. Manchester City
After two straight Round of 16 exits at the hands of Barcelona, Manchester City, while not admitting it publicly, will be delighted that they have been rewarded for winning their group for the first time by being handed a meeting with Dynamo Kiev. Despite finishing ahead of Juventus in their group, City have still not fully convinced in Europe and have shown in the Premier League that they continue to lack the consistency of the very best teams. The doubts over the future of manager Manuel Pellegrini only add to the sense that City won’t make the major breakthrough in the Champions League their owners are craving.
Still, they should fancy their chances of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time. Dynamo did well to finish ahead of Porto to make the last 16 for the first time since the days of Andriy Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov in 2000. Rebrov is now coach and has certainly impressed, but City’s greater quality is likely to tell.
Prediction: Manchester City