There are some mouthwatering pairings in the UEFA Champions League round of 16. Ben Lyttleton breaks down the matchups and makes his picks to reach the quarterfinals.
A change in the seeding system has made this season's Champions League more open than ever. In the group stage, UEFA put as first seed the champions from the top seven countries as opposed to the top seven teams, which allowed the likes of Zenit Saint Petersburg and PSV Eindhoven slightly easier draws. They were among 16 teams from 10 different leagues represented in Monday's Champions League knockout round draw.
The first round-of-16 games will take place at the end of February, so while the likes of Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid are in great form going into the winter break but Chelsea and Real Madrid are not, there is still time for things to change.
Here is the breakdown and prediction for each pairing drawn in Nyon:
Gent vs. Wolfsburg
The Belgian debutant was the first name out of the glass bowl and was the team most sides wanted to face. The fact that it drew Wolfsburg, a group winner that other runners-up wanted to face, would have been disappointing for watching officials from other clubs. The fact is, both teams will fancy their chances of progression. Gent is the current Belgian leader, and, under coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck, plays with a refreshing brio.
Wolfsburg has shown that it can be a tough opponent, especially at home, and the German side will be expected to make it to the last eight for the first time in its history.
Tipped to go through: Wolfsburg
Roma vs. Real Madrid
Two coaches under pressure will meet in this tie. "This is the worst Madrid in seven years," wrote Jose Luis Calderon in Monday's Marca after Real Madrid slipped to five points back in the title race after losing 1-0 at Villarreal.
Madrid has nine fewer points and has scored 23 fewer goals as it did at this stage last season. In Europe, luckily, it's a different story and Cristiano Ronaldo was a record-breaker in the group stage with 11 goals in the six games. Given that Roma's biggest weakness is at the back–it conceded 16 goals in its group games–Ronaldo might be licking his lips at the prospect of facing Wojciech Szczesny in the opposing goal.
Roma coach Rudi Garcia will hope that his first-choice strike trio of Gervinho, Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah are fit and firing in February; otherwise it could get tricky for the Italians.
Tipped to go through: Real Madrid
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Chelsea
This is a repeat of last season's tie, when PSG sneaked through on away goals despite Zlatan Ibrahimovic being sent off at Stamford Bridge. The season before, in the quarterfinal, it was Chelsea who had gone through on away goals. Both ties ended 3-3. So what has changed this year?
On current form, Chelsea is worse and PSG better. But the same debate continues in France, where PSG moved an incredible 17 players clear of second-placed Angers (who is actually closer to the relegation zone, 15 points, than top spot) after smashing Lyon 5-1 to extend its unbeaten run to 27 Ligue 1 matches (stretching to last season as well). New goalkeeper Kevin Trapp has struggled at times, and he dropped another clanger for Lyon's goal.
He did something similar at the Bernabeu which essentially cost PSG top spot in Group A.
He cannot afford any more costly mistakes. As Ibrahimovic, who now has 21 goals in his last 21 games, told the Daily Telegraph: "It [current form] doesn't mean anything, because if you are good now it doesn't mean you are good in February."
PSG, with a front three of Angel di Maria, Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani, will continue to brush aside teams before then. The question is whether Chelsea can play its way back into form.
Tip to go through: Chelsea
Arsenal vs. Barcelona
Poor Arsenal. All that hard work to get out of its group, complete with a dramatic 3-0 win over Olympiakos in Greece. And what's the reward? A draw against Barcelona, the current European champion, treble-winners last season and a front three of Neymar-Suarez-Messi that could give any defender twisted blood.
Traditionally the draw has not been kind to Arsenal, but last season offered some hope; on that occasion, complacency cost them against Monaco. Before then, the failure to reach the last eight has been down to the quality of opposition faced: Bayern Munich (2012-2013, 2013-2014), AC Milan (2011-2012) and Barcelona (2010-2011). Fans can at least console themselves with the prospect of a Premier League title challenge running deep in the event of a March elimination.
But is it so sure? After all, Barcelona dropped two points at the weekend, with Deportivo La Coruna scoring twice to force a 2-2 draw. Again, it comes down to form now versus form in February: but if the MSN partnership can stay fit until then–or at least be fit for these games–then it will be exceptionally hard for the Gunners to provide a shock.
Tip to go through: Barcelona
Juventus vs. Bayern Munich
Last season's surprise finalist, Juventus, is slowly playing its way back into form after a stuttering start to the campaign. Sunday's 3-1 win over title challenger Fiorentina was a sixth straight win and moved the four-time reigning Serie A champion to within six points of leader Inter Milan. There was also another goal for Mario Mandzukic, who is proving to be a useful option and could be a factor against his former side. He fell out with Pep Guardiola in Munich last season so will have a point to prove.
So, too, will Kingsley Coman, the former Juventus teenage winger who has been outstanding for Bayern this season. He asked to leave Turin due to lack of opportunities but has had plenty at Bayern, partly in thanks to injuries to Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Expect him to make France's squad for Euro 2016 and be decisive in this tie. Bayern has in the past not played its best football at this stage of the competition but will have to be sharp to get through.
Tipped to go through: Bayern Munich
PSV Eindhoven vs. Atletico Madrid
The Dutch champion got past Manchester United and CSKA Moscow to reach the knockout stage for the first time since 2007, back when current coach Phillip Cocu was the captain. PSV's progress was down to winning all three of its home games, but it might not find things quite so easy against current La Liga co-leader Atletico.
Under Diego Simeone, Atletico has not only won La Liga but also become a cup specialist, winning the Europa League (2012), UEFA SuperCup (2012), Copa del Rey (2013), Spanish SuperCup (2014) and of course reaching the 2014 Champions League final. Simeone's side is tough to break down and, after a slow start to the season, has a super striker in Antoine Griezmann (11 goals in 19 games so far) with superb back-up options in Angel Correa, Jackson Martinez and, out wide, the ever-improving Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco.
Fears that Thiago Mendes's injury would derail the season have so far proved unfounded: youngster Saul Niguez has been superb in midfield and scored again in Sunday's tough 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.
Tipped to go through: Atletico Madrid
Benfica vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg
This will be like a reunion for many of the Zenit players, who were recruited from Benfica. The likes of Ezequiel Garay, Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia all spent time in the Portuguese capital; not to mention the Porto connection, too, with Hulk and coach Andre Villas-Boas. These sides met in the round of 16 in 2012 and Benfica edged through 4-2.
Since then, Benfica has lost Jorge Jesus as coach–a big loss–and is currently eight points behind Jesus's Sporting Lisbon in the Superliga. Zenit will face the typical issue all Russian sides are up against at this stage of the competition; the winter break. Zenit will not have played a competitive match since Dec. 9, the Matchday Six tie against Gent, prior to the first leg.
At home it is also struggling, down in sixth and currently seven points behind leader CSKA. It won its first five group games and this is the first time it has reached the knockout stage. It's a great opportunity to go even further.
Tipped to go through: Zenit Saint Petersburg
Dynamo Kiev vs. Manchester City
This is the first time Ukrainian champion has reached this stage since 1999, when its strike force was Andriy Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov, who is currently the head coach. Like Zenit, Dynamo is on break until early-March, so it will be cutting short its winter break to face City. That does not seem to have bothered club president Igor Surkis, who said before the draw: "City are a top team with great individuals, but they do not have the experience of the three teams, Barcelona, Bayern or Real Madrid, that I want to avoid."
For City, on the other hand, this is an opportunity to go further than ever before in the competition. Coach Manuel Pellegrini has played down European priorities this season, claiming that the Premier League is the No. 1 target, but it's clear that from the top of the club, the message is that it's time to go deep in this competition. The performances of Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne against Sevilla and Moenchengladbach suggest that City is improving.
If it gets past Dynamo, not many will want to face it in the quarterfinal.
Tipped to go through: Manchester City