The Champions League draw for the knockout rounds is out and boy! we have some fascinating fixtures in there. There are some among the ties that resonates well among fans of those clubs who have come to expect that at some point almost every other year, their clubs will face a certain European opponent.
That is the case for Chelsea after they drawn against Barcelona in the Round of 16 stage. You may call that the punishment for finishing second in a group many expected them to top, surrendering their lead at the top in the penultimate game to AS Roma.
English sides used to rule the knockout stages of the UCL before Barcelona, Real and Atletico Madrid took the competition be storm. Between 2005 and 2009, there was at least two Premier League teams in the semi finals of the UCL. Since 2009 however, only three times have English sides featured in the last four, with Chelsea, Manchester United and Man City taking turns. Spain have been the undoubted master, with Real and Barcelona winning six combined in the last 12 seasons. These statistics make Barcelona the undisputed favorites against Chelsea.
But lets’s face it, this is not the Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. They were matched by Chelsea then, and they could be matched again next year when both sides meet for the eighth time since 2006. Chelsea will have a slight edge over their Spanish opponents, having maintained an unbeaten run against Barcelona in the last seven games; as well as keeping Lionel Messi from scoring. That’s right, the diminutive Argentine has not scored against Chelsea in eight attempts, his worst ever record against any team in Europe and in his career.
Teams are a reflection of their managers and the Barcelona we have seen in the last couple of weeks can hurt any team, especially if you imagine what those expensively-assembled men can become come February. Once they get Ousmane Dembele back from injury and fine tune the ideas Ernesto Valverde is trying to put across in training, you can expect a full blown machine against the English champions. However, the bench of these two sides will also prove a telling difference, and Chelsea have the edge there. Although many Chelsea fans are frightened by the prospect of facing Barcelona, the Catalunya will be wary of facing Chelsea as well.
Some other games make a very interesting round, as free scoring Paris Saint Germain will play against a side they look up to, in European football history, Real Madrid. The Los Blancos face a very stern test in PSG as the French giants parade Neymar, Edison Cavani and Kylian Mbappe, two of whom are Real targets still.
Real’s experience in the competition and quality of players could see them through against a side desperate for recognition in the Champions League. The Ligue 1 side have a power-packed midfield that can bully even Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, but that will take some effort. Real have the edge here!
For the English teams in the competition, some have had a somewhat easy draw to contend with. Jose Mourinho will be staring enviably at Manchester City’s draw, hoping it was his Red Devils marching to Switzerland on February 13th to play against FC Basel but the knockout rules will not allow a team play against their group rivals. Pep Guardiola’s side will surely sweep them aside in this round, on the evidence of what Man City have done so far in a record breaking season. Basel finished second behind Man United in Group A, and know how tough the draw will be as they book another flight to the city of Manchester.
Mourinho’s side however, will have to negotiate a tricky path along which they face La Liga Sevilla. That’s two on two then as English sides clash with Spanish giants in the UCL and fingers are crossed as to who comes on top, many say it’s the La Liga clubs who remain supreme at the moment but the narrative can change unpleasantly for the La Liga protagonists.
With five English sides representing in the knockout stage, you won’t bet against seeing at least three of them in the quarter finals, and many tip Tottenham Hotspur to be one of those. The North London side seem to have made the UCL a priority this season. They are languishing beneath the top four places, as the last of the top six sides in the Premier League but have proven their strength in mentality against some of the top sides on the continent.
Two games against Real produced four points and that gives Mauricio Pochettino’s side the confidence to go all the way against Juventus. How about them, while we are at it? The Italian giants are one of the most feared sides in the competition despite their irregular form in the Serie A. Not having the control they so often have had in the Italian top flight, they will look to the Champions League as one likely hope of silverware this season, but that won’t come easy.
Liverpool complete England’s representatives in the UCL but will have to find a way to dispatch FC Porto if they will join any of their compatriots to the next stage. An yes I think they will. Jurgen Klopp has one of the quickest and most lethal front three in Europe this season with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firminho and Mohamed Salah all finding the back of the net this season with relative ease. They will give any opposition team a scare.
The only side to have beaten Guardiola’s Man City this season, Shakhtar Donestsk had a fair draw with opponents also capable to pulling surprises, Roma. They will cancel out each other but for the better part of the two legs, but if Roma manage to repeat the performances they displayed against Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, they certainly will have the last laugh here.
The least said about Bayern Munich against Besikats, the better. The Germans are masters of this competition and beating Turkey’s only club in the competition should not be difficult.
Despite the surprises the UCL has served us with in the past, I’m almost certain these clubs will show up in the quarter finals:
By Thierry Nyann
The writer is a broadcast journalist with Media General