- Despite drawing Bayern Munich yet again, this could be the year Arsenal both gets by the German power and breaks its round-of-16 curse in the Champions League.
There were some familiar names in Monday’s Champions League draw and familiar results for the round-of-16 pairings, too. That’s what happens when the continent’s biggest clubs make it even harder for new teams to break into their elite. Once again, Arsenal was paired Bayern Munich, and once again, Barcelona drew Paris Saint-Germain.
Here is a rundown of what to expect when the European season resumes again in February–after another transfer window comes and goes–and which eight will be on to the quarterfinals as the road to the June 3 final in Cardiff continues:
Bayern Munich vs. Arsenal
You couldn't make it up. At last, Arsenal finishes top of its group, and as soon as it does so, it draws the German champion, who has eliminated it twice in the last four years. The pill might taste less bitter given the fact that second-placed PSG drew Barcelona. And it’s true that playing this Bayern side is less intimidating than in its incarnation under Pep Guardiola.
Injuries notwithstanding (and with Arsenal you never know), this is probably the Gunners’ best chance to get beyond one of its bogey sides, which under Carlo Ancelotti has failed to hit its lofty heights this season. Though it is top of the Bundesliga and just destroyed Wolfsburg 5-0, it has never been too far from a crisis, with critics noting the team’s reliance on individual brilliance rather than an obvious collective strategy.
Player to watch: Mesut Ozil
The Arsenal playmaker missed a penalty against Manuel Neuer in this competition when the sides last met; as long as he stays away from the spot, he could prove to be decisive.
Tipped to progress: Arsenal
PSG vs. Barcelona
This is the danger of a closed shop in European competition. The same teams play each other over and again; the same draw, the same Qatar derby, which Barcelona has won in the previous two meetings in the last four years. It might be time to feel some sympathy for manager Unai Emery, signed by PSG on the back of winning two Europa League titles with Sevilla, as his team blows the rather straightforward chance to grab the top spot in Group A and faces one of the favorites instead.
Barcelona is not without weaknesses this season, but PSG has dropped its level considerably under Emery; Angel di Maria is a shadow of the player who propelled Real Madrid to success in 2013. Emery has only beaten Barcelona once in 23 efforts, and that run might continue into next year.
Player to watch: Marco Verratti
PSG’s midfield dynamo makes his team tick and might be one of the few PSG players that could find a place in the Barcelona team.
Tipped to progress: Barcelona
Manchester City vs. Monaco
If this game took place next week, Monaco would be the favorite to progress. The Principality side is the highest-scoring team across Europe’s big five leagues, with 53 goals in 17 league matches–it swatted aside Bordeaux over the weekend with a hat trick from Radamel Falcao.
City may consider itself fortunate to have avoided one of the bigger top seeds in the draw, but Monaco is a serious threat. In recent seasons, it has knocked out Arsenal and Tottenham, and coach Leonardo Jardim has built a side packed with young talent that is confident and offensive. The attacking fullbacks will look to find space behind City’s high back line. The best news for Guardiola is that this game comes in a few months, when his team’s defense might have tightened up or adds new reinforcements who are eligible for the competition.
Player to watch: Bernardo Silva
The Portuguese playmaker destroyed Spurs at Wembley and is destined for a bigger club next season. If he can find space in the final third, he will make life difficult for the English side.
Tipped to progress: Manchester City (narrowly)
Real Madrid vs. Napoli
Second-place group finisher Real Madrid faces Napoli and its former players Jose Callejon and Raul Albiol in an intriguing series. The Italian side has run hot and cold under Mauricio Sarri this season, but has found strong form since a wobble in October. Contrast this to reigning European champion Madrid, unbeaten in 35 games–a club record–and with a resilience that is embodied by Sergio Ramos, king of the last-minute goal. Even without Gareth Bale, who is out injured until April, the holder should make it to the last eight.
Player to watch: Jose Callejon
The goal-scoring winger was dumped by Real Madrid and picked up by Rafa Benitez when he was Napoli coach. Now in good form in Serie A, he will be keen to prove a point.
Tipped to progress: Real Madrid
Benfica vs. Borussia Dortmund
Benfica’s reward for finishing second is to face group-winning Dortmund, which has faced some challenges under Thomas Tuchel this season. At times, the team has missed Ilkay Gundogan and Mats Hummels, though Marco Reus’s recent return from a six-month injury layoff has been most welcome. With a hat trick in his first game back and late equalizers against Real Madrid and Cologne, he looks like he has never been away. Dortmund should have enough to get past the Portuguese league leader, which cemented its position domestically with a weekend derby win over Sporting.
Player to watch: Marco Reus
Back to fitness and back in the goals, his partnership with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is one of the sharpest around.
Tipped to progress: Borussia Dortmund
FC Porto vs. Juventus
Considering Juventus has not hit its top form this season, it doesn't seem to be doing too badly. It's seven points clear in Serie A, finished top of its Champions League group, and now has Paulo Dybala returning from an injury and looking sharp. Max Allegri’s reliable back line of Leonard Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini may all be fit by mid-February. Meanwhile, this encounter pits two of Europe’s most storied goalkeepers–Gigi Buffon and Iker Casillas–against one another. The Spanish stopper at Porto will be the busier of the two, and although FC Porto won its last European tie 5-0 against an under-strength Leicester side, it will find life tougher against Italy’s champion-elect.
Player to watch: Iker Casillas
The keeper has made some high-profile gaffes in his time in Portugal and will need to be at his best to keep out Gonzalo Higuain and Dybala. He will be busy.
Tipped to progress: Juventus
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid
Reaching two finals in the last three years makes Atletico Madrid the big favorite in this one, though on its day, Leverkusen can be a tricky customer. The problem for Roger Schmidt, once spoken of as a future Bayern boss, is that Leverkusen has not had many days this season. It did get past Spurs in the group stage, but Atletico’s European experience, plus the edge from the likes of the in-form Antoine Griezmann and Saul Niguez, should be enough to see the Spanish side through.
Player to watch: Julian Brandt
A breakout star for Leverkusen this season, the attacking midfielder is already on the radar of Europe’s top clubs.
Tipped to progress: Atletico Madrid
Sevilla vs. Leicester
The three-time reigning Europa League champion could not have wished for a better draw than the Premier League’s under-performers, despite its top spot in its group. Until this weekend, Leicester had saved its best performances for Europe but might find going toe-to-toe against Jorge Sampaoli’s attacking side another matter entirely. The Chilean boss has Sevilla breaking up the top-three dominance of La Liga, beating Atletico at home and pushing Barcelona mighty closely too. This will be a thrilling series, with the Spanish side more likely to prevail.
Player to watch: Steven N’Zonzi
The former Stoke midfielder has been overlooked by France coach Didier Deschamps for years but finally has the opportunity to prove himself in the Champions League.
Tipped to progress: Sevilla