For anyone who feared the shock Champions League exits suffered by Manchester United and Manchester City would dent the competition’s wow factor, the draw for the Round of 16 provided a timely reminder that the 2011/12 season might just produce some of the most intriguing ties of the past decade.
One look at the teams still in contention for Europe’s premier club trophy confirmed that this had already been a noteworthy year – and that more drama lay ahead. A large surprise was that Serie A, a league believed to be in decline alongside the Premier League and La Liga, would contribute the most clubs to the first knockout round. Even Russia and France matched the Premier League’s tally of two representatives at this stage of the competition.
And what odds on Basel and APOEL – from Switzerland and Cyprus respectively – surviving the group stage and crashing the knockout round party? There are signs that this could be the year of the underdog.
Having said that, Barcelona and Real Madrid still loom large as the heavyweights to beat. The Catalans will be expected to outclass Bayer Leverkusen while Los Blancos should have too much quality for CSKA Moscow, provided that there is no meltdown in the away leg. It would be unfair to portray this season’s Champions League as a straight fight between Barcelona and Real Madrid, Josep Guardiola vs Jose Mourinho, Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo and co. but these are two vastly talented teams who will take some ousting over two legs.
Elsewhere in the draw, two Anglo-Italian duels jump out as the most unmissable clashes of the round. Napoli, who were outstanding in the group stage and benefit from having one of the most hostile atmospheres for visiting teams, will face Chelsea, who crave success in this competition but are falling further and further from contention. The Blues have match-winners, but this campaign in all competitions has been a rollercoaster ride – and they seem no closer to working out their best starting line-up or style of play.
Make no mistake, Andre Villas-Boas would have crossed his fingers to avoid Napoli and all the weapons that the Italians bring to the table. Lethal on the counter attack with the threat of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani, the Azzurri are a nightmare for a Chelsea defence that lacks the mobility to shut out teams with pace and movement. The 5-3 loss to Arsenal in the Premier League was a perfect example.
AC Milan, meanwhile, have a chance to avenge their elimination at the hands of Arsenal in 2008, when a 2-0 win in the San Siro put the Gunners into the last eight. Both teams have undergone major changes since then but the rebuilding has been a success for both. Arsene Wenger called it ‘a good draw’ for Arsenal, but it remains to be seen whether his team can stretch their excellent current form into February when the Champions League returns.
The Rossoneri tend to save their best for Europe and there is no denying the know-how within the Serie A champions’ dressing room. A more ambitious game plan has helped revive the team, maximising their vast attacking potential, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a constant threat, cutting a happy figure compared to the shadow of a striker on display at the Camp Nou two years ago.
The rest of the draw provides further talking points as Basel’s fairy tale story continues with an eye-catching tie against Bayern Munich, who lead the second tier of teams chasing Barcelona and Real Madrid. Basel will not be short of belief, though securing an aggregate win over such an established, balanced side is a big ask. APOEL did not get the glamour tie that they might have anticipated, however being paired with Lyon opens the door a little for an upset.
A Zenit St. Petersburg-Benfica tussle rounds out the draw, meaning one of these teams will be surprise quarter-finalists. Progressing would be a huge step for the victor and, either way, this will give the established order a refreshing shake-up.
Another observation worth noting is that, unlike past years, there is no show-stopper Round of 16 tie – think Barcelona-Arsenal last season. It is probable that Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich will all claim spots in the last eight – and the UEFA moneymen will be hoping they are joined by Arsenal, Inter, Lyon, Benfica and Napol – not a smaller team to be seen.
Plenty of questions have emerged: Is Serie A back? Is this the start of a purple patch for Russian clubs? Will this be the year that France’s Ligue 1 earns more respect? The answers will only be revealed in February when the Champions League returns.
And what about Manchester United and Manchester City? Well, not to be outdone, the Europa League served up some mouthwatering ties too, with United squaring off against Ajax while City take on FC Porto. Neither Sir Alex Ferguson nor Roberto Mancini will have enjoyed watching the Champions League draw from the sidelines – but all the signs point towards the competition delivering its usual glitz and glamour, despite the absence of Manchester’s finest.