Skip to main content

Champions League: What to Expect from a Mouthwatering Knockout Stage

A renewal of an intriguing rivalry and a couple of star-studded affairs are some of the storylines that make for an exciting Round of 16 in the Champions League. 

Real Madrid, the 12-time European champion, will play Paris St-Germain, who broke the world transfer record in the summer, in the pick of the Champions League last-16 ties that were drawn on Monday in Nyon, Switzerland. There will also be a renewal of rivalries for Barcelona and Chelsea when the knockout stage begins in February.

Here's a breakdown of all eight ties.


Last season was dismal for Tottenham in Europe, but it has learned quickly. Whereas previously it seemed they could only win games by dominating the ball, this season they have developed and recorded three wins and a draw from four games against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund having less than 50% possession in each game. The squad, though, is slim, so much will depend on who is available come February. It never looks as solid at the back without Toby Alderweireld who is expected back early in the New Year following his hamstring injury. Their manager Mauricio Pochettino had said that after playing Madrid and Dortmund, the draw could not be tougher. Perhaps not, but it is probably equally tough.

The first half of this season has felt like something of a struggle for Juve as it adapts to life after Leonardo Bonucci, but such matters are relative. Although last season’s losing finalists were held to a goalless draw at home by Inter on Saturday, its win away to Napoli suggested a side returning to form. At home, particularly, it remains formidable, having lost only two games in Turin since the beginning of the 2013-14 season.


Manchester City began the season in extraordinary form, breaking goalscoring records over the first dozen league games of the season, partly because of the signings the club had made in the summer and partly because players who struggled at times with Pep Guardiola’s methods last season have adapted to his philosophy. Victory away to Manchester United on Sunday took it 11 points clear at the top of the Premier League; it can afford to rest players to prioritize the Champions League. Raheem Sterling has been in the form of his life, while Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva offer great variety and creativity. Defensive concerns, however, remain. The Swiss champion Basel is at this stage for the first time in three years. It has a habit of unsettling English sides, eliminating Manchester United from the Champions League in 2011-12 and beating Tottenham on penalties in the Europa League quarter-final a year later. Its coach Raphael Wicky has benefited from relative stability, with few outgoings and the only major arrival that of the Dutch striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel. He hasn’t played since the end of September, though, and the sense is that Basel has become a better-balanced side as a result, with the right-winger Michael Lang emerging as a key presence.


No Premier League side has ever scored more in the group stage than the 23 Liverpool managed. Its front four of Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohammed Salah gives the impression of being able to blow any side away with its pace and invention but Liverpool’s problem is that if sides can get through the press and can attack it is extremely vulnerable – as Everton demonstrated in pinching a draw on Sunday. When it concedes goals it tends to concede in batches: four times this season Liverpool has conceded three or more in a game. Porto leads the Portuguese league on goal difference from Sporting and in the end made it through the group relatively comfortably. Only Sevilla of the sides who made it to this stage conceded more goals, but Vincent Aboubakar, who scored the winner for Cameroon in the Cup of Nations final in February, has begun the season in such form that he can turn a game with a half-chance. The sides have been drawn together twice before, in the UEFA Cup in 2000-01 and in the Champions League in 2007-08. On both occasions , Liverpool won at Anfield and drew in Portugal.

Champions League Round of 16: Chelsea Faces Barcelona, Real Madrid Lands PSG


Manchester United qualified comfortably enough for the last 16, the one game in which it dropped points, the away game in Basel, the result of sloppiness rather than anything else. As ever, Jose Mourinho has improved his side significantly in its second season. United has proved capable of playing with both a back three and a back four this season, it has the tallest side left in the competition meaning it can physically dominate sides and when Paul Pogba is on form, his link up with Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard offers a fluency that has been missing from United for some time. Sevilla is another example of what feels like a very modern trait in football. Going forward it can be devastating, but get beyond that and it's extremely vulnerable defensively – no side who made the last 16 conceded more than the 12 it did. The club let in four against Valencia and five against both Spartak Moscow and Real Madrid. It also gave up a three-goal start to Liverpool at home before coming back to draw 3-3. Mourinho had said he is “never lucky in draws” but this could have been a lot worse.


The stand out as tie of the round: the old money against the nouveaux riches. PSG sets a new record for goals scored during the group stage, banging in 25 in six games, and it's streets clear in Ligue Un. It responded to last season’s collapse against Barcelona in the last 16 by agreeing record-breaking deals to being in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe and the result has been a side capable of spectacular attacking football. The question, though, is over their defense which is so rarely tested that it’s very hard to assess. The way it leaked goals in losing its final group game 3-1 to Bayern – when a four-goal defeat would have seen it lose top spot – only added to the concerns.

The defending champion, the first side to win the tournament in successive seasons since the change to the Champions League format, has begun the season slowly. Madrid was well-beaten by Tottenham at Wembley and has dozed through a number of games this season. But then it was the same last season and still won both league and Champions League. Whatever questions remain about Zinedine Zidane’s tactical acumen, it has such attacking quality – plus Luka Modric to knit everything together - that it can never be written off. The sides have only been drawn together once before, in the group stage in 2015-16 when they drew 0-0 in Paris before Nacho scored the only goal at the Bernabeu.


When Roma was outplayed at home by Atletico Madrid in its opening group game, clinging on for a 0-0 draw, the suspicion was that it would take new coach Eusebio Di Francesco time to adapt to the Champions League. As it turned out, that process of adaptation didn’t take long at all. Although it lost in Madrid, Roma didn’t concede at all at home and took four points off Chelsea, coming from 2-0 down to draw 3-3 at Stamford Bridge and hammering the Premier League side 3-0 at home. Considering what Shakhtar has been through, having to relocate to Kharkiv because of the war in Donetsk, to reach this stage is a remarkable achievement. This side remains based around Brazilian imports, but that process has stalled with no new signings from Brazil in four years. The fear was that the departure of Mircea Lucescu last year would undermine it, but its enjoyed a new lease of life under Paulo Fonseca, who dressed up as Zorro to celebrate the team's progress from the group stage.

Image placeholder title


When Barcelona was beaten 5-1 on aggregate by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup this looked like being a season of toil. It lost Neymar over the summer while the player it brought in to replace him, Ousmane Dembele, was soon ruled out with a serious hamstring problem. He should be back by the time the knockouts begin. Yet the crisis never materialized as Lionel Messi, seemingly fired by anger at the mess of a summer, inspired the Spanish giants to the top of la Liga. With Antonio Conte having effectively written off the Premier League following Saturday’s defeat away to West Ham, the Champions League probably becomes the focus as it’s a trophy Conte has never won but for all the doubts about how Juve performed in the competition under him, Chelsea produced its best performance of the season, perhaps even its best performance under the Italian. There is a reliance on Eden Hazard and, to a lesser extent, Alvaro Morata but, with everybody fit, Chelsea will be a threat. The sides have developed a strange long-distance rivalry over seven ties (and 15 games), most notably in Champions League semi-finals. In 2009, Andres Iniesta scored an injury-time equalizer in a controversial second leg at Stamford Bridge to take Barca through; three years later, Chelsea ground out a 1-0 at home before drawing 2-2 at the Camp Nou on its way to the trophy.


After a difficult start to the season that saw Carlo Ancelotti sacked, Bayern has improved dramatically since Jupp Heynckes took over. The German team is well-clear at the top of the Bundesliga and, while nobody would suggest its playing in the way they did when they won the trophy in 2013, Heynckes has always reached at least the final in three seasons with Bayern, and there is a sense that its slowly improving. Bayern misses its inspirational goalkeeper Manuel Neuer who is expected to be out till April with a broken bone in his foot but both Arjen Robben and Thiago Alcantara should be back in time for the first leg, The Turkish champion was arguably the revelations of the group stage, passing unbeaten through six games and winning all three away matches. Senol Gunes’s side are ideally set up to play on the break, with a well-balanced front three. Ricardo Quaresma stays wide on the right, Cenk Tosun is a mobile center forward who offers an aerial threat, and Ryan Babel is dangerous coming on off the left flank to attack the back post.