OK, Champions League fans -- this is when things get tasty. This is when those who complain that "things were better in the old European Cup, when it was only champions who were admitted" ought to be taken out back and ...
Or at least they need to be reminded that 20 years ago, the last 16 included Lillestroem, Gornik Zabrze and Omonia Nicosia and that, to become European champion that year, PSV Eindhoven beat just two teams -- Galatasaray and Rapid Vienna -- while scoring just two goals in its last five matches.
Is that what we want? People complain that the old European Cup was more inclusive and, to some degree, they may have a point. But in a post-Bosman world, those outside the top leagues participate in different ways. If you're Czech, you can still root for Petr Cech or Tomas Rosicky. If you're Dutch, cheer for Ruud van Nistelrooy or Clarence Seedorf -- guys who play for teams who might actually win something.
In any case, UEFA handed down its draw for the Champions League round of 16 on Friday. Here's my rundown.
The parallels between these two clubs run deep, and Celtic has shown the ability to make life very, very difficult for the big boys (it certainly deserved better against AC Milan last season). The edge, nevertheless, has to go to Barça, though if Leo Messi's injury proves more serious than anticipated and if the Ronaldinho circus/controversy doesn't go away ... heck, you never know.
It's been a tough year for OL, both domestically (despite being top of the table, Lyon has hardly impressed) and in Europe. But by the time this game rolls around, things could be rather different, particularly if Grégory Coupet is fit again and Karim Benzema continues to storm his way to the top of everyone's wish list. As for United, it has gotten the hang of this "striker-less" system thing and can hurt you in so many ways. The only minor quibble may be between the sticks, where Edwin van der Sar is beginning to show signs of age.
Schalke is another team that has struggled domestically. It's almost as if it's suffering a hangover from losing the title in the dying moments of the 2006-07 season. With Mirko Slomka in charge, it's about the team, not the individual. But look out for Manuel Neuer, one of the best young goalkeepers around. Porto, on the other hand, is running away with the Portuguese title, which means it will have plenty of time to focus on this match. With the free-scoring Lisandro López up front, Ricardo Quaresma sparking out wide and LuchoGonzález driving the midfield, you would consider it a favorite to reach the quarterfinals.
Liverpool's Rafa Benítez must be one of the most scrutinized coaches in Europe. Despite two finals in the last three years, he has to constantly explain himself -- whether it's his rotation or his use of Steven Gerrard or his tactics, there's always something. And, on top of that, he has been on a collision course with the club's owners (whose own position is looking less and less secure). Still, Liverpool's record in this competition is there for all to see. As is Inter's. Roberto Mancini's crew has soared to the top of the Serie A table with one of the deepest and most talented squads in Europe (so much so that it has weathered the long-term absences of Patrick Vieira, Olivier Dacourt and, most recently, Dejan Stankovic with ease). You do get the sense, however, that Inter will go as far as Zlatan Ibrahimovic will take it.
Roma plays some of the most entertaining attacking soccer you'll see this season -- which means it's capable of rousing victories but also dramatic collapses (witness last year's 7-1 rout at the hands of Manchester United). The difference is that, this year, there's more depth, and Luciano Spalletti's system remains very difficult to play against. As for Real, the difference this year has been made not by the newcomers, but by the holdovers, who've been rejuvenated by Bernd Schuster. Van Nistelrooy, Raúl and Guti seem reborn, Robinho is living up to his potential (at least on occasion) and Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas remain two of the best in the business.
The fact that the Gunners look better without Thierry Henry is a testament to the job Arsène Wenger has done this season and to the steady development of the kids. And, bear in mind, Robin van Persie has been out much of the year. He'll be back -- and if Cesc Fàbregas is fit, Arsenal can rattle anyone, particularly now that Kolo Touré and William Gallas have established themselves as one of the very best defensive partnerships around. Milan remains a Jekyll-and-Hyde operation: woeful in Serie A (especially at home), dangerous abroad. The European champions supposedly peak in the spring. They'll need to do so and they'll need all the big guns fit (Kaká, Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo, etc.) if they are to overcome Arsenal.
Takis Lemonis continue to show why he is one of the more underrated managers around. Olympiakos is a canny, veteran side that gets the best out of its golden oldies -- Darko Kovacevic (34), Predrag Djordjevic (35), Antonios Nikopolidis (36) -- and can stretch any opponent. On paper, Chelsea looks too strong, especially since Avram Grant -- despite fears to the contrary -- is actually grinding out results at a Mourinho-esque clip. The dependence on Didier Drogba is worrying, as are all the unresolved issues (Frank Lampard's contract, John Terry's injuries, Michael Ballack's state of mind, AndriyShevchenko's underachievement). But for now, the results continue to come.
It's great to see another fourth seed (Olympiakos is the other one) get this far. Fenerbahçe manager Zico will have his work cut out for him, but there are enough individual match-winners -- Roberto Carlos, Alex, Deivid -- to make it interesting. Sevilla has hiccupped badly following the turbulent start to the season (Juande Ramos' departure, Antonio Puerta's tragic death), but by February, things may have come together. Luís Fabiano is having his best season in years, the midfield partnership of Jesús Navas and Christian Poulsen is underappreciated and this team seems built for knockout competitions. If, as appears to be the case, Sevilla is out of La Liga race, expect to see it devote all its attention to the Champions League.