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  • The Champions League's round of 16 features a number of pairings that are tough to call and inevitable early exits for a few clubs that fancied themselves as contenders entering the season.
By Avi Creditor
December 17, 2018

The Champions League may "officially begin" in the knockout stage for a number of Europe's elite powers, but if that's the case, then it's going to be a very brief competition for a few of them.

With pairings like Liverpool-Bayern Munich, Man United-PSG, Tottenham-Dortmund and Atletico Madrid-Juventus, the Champions League's round of 16 will kick off with some fireworks and some early exits for a number of contenders, with the road to the quarterfinals set following Monday's draw for the first round of the knockout stage.

The transfer window could throw an added wrench into some of these matchups, with players no longer cup-tied to teams if they've appeared in the knockout stage, and with VAR being introduced into the competition from the round of 16 and on, there are sure to be some controversial moments decided by technology that previously wasn't available to match officials.

Here are a few thoughts on the last-16 draw and the road to the June 1 final in Madrid:

Brutal draw for managers on the hot seat

Niko Kovac and Jose Mourinho haven't been able to go two weeks without having the temperature on their respective hot seats turned up, and if what's keeping them safe is progression in the Champions League, then those seats may be getting even hotter in the next few months.

Bayern Munich drawing Liverpool and Man United being paired with PSG are awfully difficult tasks for both flawed powers. Under Kovac, Bayern has turned things around as of late but still lacks the aura of one of Europe's true top powers and sits nine points off Dortmund's pace in the Bundesliga after six straight domestic titles. Jurgen Klopp, who fell to Bayern as manager of Dortmund in the 2013 final, will be fully ready and equipped for another shot at the German power.

Meanwhile, Man United continues to show little promise under Mourinho, especially after Sunday's Premier League defeat to Liverpool, and is 11 points out of the top four in England. Man United appears to be shifting between crisis mode, treading water and celebrating Marouane Fellaini's heroics-out-of-desperation–none of which is a sustainable method for success, especially against Europe's elite clubs. Man United's fragile defense should at least have reinforcements (if not through transfers than through players recuperating) by the time the first leg rolls around, but it might not matter against a side with as much firepower (Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani) as PSG. Mourinho has a history of frustrating high-powered opponents in the Champions League, but little this season indicates that past has a chance of being relevant in the present.

(UPDATE: Mourinho was sacked on Tuesday and will be replaced by a caretaker for the rest of the season. He won't get the opportunity to try and match wits vs. PSG's Thomas Tuchel after all.)

Liverpool and PSG, which persevered to get out of a brutal group that left Napoli behind, will like their chances of going through despite the big-name opposition. 

WILSON: The Contenders, Dark Horses in the UCL's Last 16

Luck of the draw

Man City has eyes on winning it all for the first time, and the draw could not have been more kind to Pep Guardiola's side. Schalke, after star defections and amid struggles in the Bundesliga, was perhaps the weakest team to advance to the knockout stage and benefited from a rather wide-open group. Its degree of difficulty will go up exponentially against Man City, which certainly didn't breeze through its Champions League group like some may have expected, but also had to deal with injuries to key components along the way.

It marks the second straight year Man City has been given a relative gift in the round of 16, after it drew Basel last season and also offers Leroy Sane a chance to face his former side, which he left for Man City in 2016.

The draw was also quite kind to Roma, last season's surprise semifinalist. There are few who would consider Roma a true threat to make another deep run given its domestic form, but winding up drawing Porto (as opposed to the alternatives) is about as advantageous as it gets, and a quarterfinal berth is clearly attainable. Porto currently leads the Portuguese league and cruised through its group, but that group also contained the weakest Pot 1 team in Lokomotiv Moscow; a Schalke side battling relegation in Germany; and an underwhelming Galatasaray that fell to the Europa League as a third-place finisher, so it's hard to judge exactly how much stock should be put in the club's group achievements.

Given the options at the start of the day, Man City and Roma should be thanking the draw gods.

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There will be goals

Tottenham vs. Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich will be ones for the neutrals. All four sides like to get after it and dictate the tempo with pressing and aggressive play in the attacking third. The matchups, on paper, are mouthwatering, and as is the case with every Champions League draw, it'll be a shame that two of the sides won't go on any further.

Some European ties end with a 1-0 or 2-1 aggregate scoreline, but with clubs who don't naturally play with a cagey approach, you shouldn't expect that here.

Who should feel more aggrieved?

Atletico Madrid vs. Juventus is an absolutely brutal draw for both sides. For Atletico, which is hoping to host the final at its home stadium come June, it's another date against Cristiano Ronaldo and a clash vs. a Juventus side that is as capable as ever of winning it all. You get the sense we haven't seen the best Atletico has to offer yet this season, but it's going to require that type of effort to go through.

For Juventus, meanwhile, it's a matchup against a team tactically adept at stifling explosive opposition and one that has no problem getting stuck in physically to disrupt its foe. Aside from getting Liverpool, this is as bad as a draw as Juventus could have received.

The two sides alternated finishing as competition runner-up two times apiece from 2014-17 and having been knocking on the door to reach Europe's peak for some time. This could've easily been a final matchup and nobody would've batted an eye. Instead, for one of the two, the quest to join the trophy-lifting elite will end incredibly early.

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Test of the champions' resolve

Real Madrid has little to prove on this stage after winning four out of the last five Champions League titles, but, of course, that's not how things work at Real Madrid. Past accomplishments mean very little in the big picture of the present and future. So what should Real think of drawing Ajax in the last 16? The Dutch power isn't afraid of anyone, and it pushed Bayern Munich to the very end in determining which of the two would win its group.

While Ajax is chock full of young talent that'll soon be plucked away by "bigger" sides like the Real Madrids and Barcelonas of Europe, it also has balance in the form of veterans like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Dusan Tadic, Nicolas Tagliafico, Daley Blind and Lasse Schone.

Ajax has little to lose, while all the pressure will be on a Real Madrid side that lost twice to CSKA Moscow in group play but still managed to top its quartet. This is the time of the competition when Real Madrid typically flips the switch and finds its top gear, and we'll soon find out if it's capable of doing that without Ronaldo, who carried the club in so many knockout ties over the years with his timely goals, and Zinedine Zidane, who proved capable of lighting a spark under his players at the right time as manager.

The impact of the transfer window

As stated earlier, players are no longer cup-tied if they've appeared in the group stage, meaning some potential curveballs could be thrown–or prevented, if the selling team sees a competitive disadvantage from offloading.

What if Man United finally cuts the cord and sells the much-maligned Paul Pogba to a Champions League side? What if Real Madrid's out-of-favor star Isco finds a new home at a last-16 competitor? Would Financial-Fair-Play-consumed PSG sell Adrien Rabiot, who is out of contract at season's end and could otherwise bolt for free this summer? Would Roma consider parting ways with the in-demand Cengiz Under before the last 16? Could Ajax cash in on its plethora of in-demand talent at the expense of potentially securing results in the more immediate future?

With the ability to add reinforcements–and potentially big-name ones–these already-intriguing matchups could have added elements to them in the coming weeks.

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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