Sweet Sixteen

UEFA needed two goes to get the draw for the Round of 16 right but, eventually, some mouth-watering ties were produced, Dan Roberts writes…

There used to be criticism of the Champions League that it only ever got interesting at the knockout stages. Thanks to a more competitive group stage in the last few years, that notion has largely disappeared, with this season’s opening phase throwing up a whole load of surprises – none more shocking than Barcelona’s failure to progress for the first time since 2004.

But it is still true to say that this is when the heat is really turned up with Europe’s premier club competition. Sixteen sides have now made it through and the draw at UEFA’s headquarters generated a lot of excitement and controversy. A second draw was needed after an initial ‘technical’ error – and now we have eight mouth-watering ties to look forward to in February and March.

The initial draw pitted Lionel Messi against Cristiano Ronaldo, with Paris Saint-Germain set to play Manchester United. But due to the irregularities, football fans across the world may not get to see that match up now.

The French champions are still involved in the most intriguing tie of the round though, as they now face Real Madrid. With the Spanish giants looking good at the top of La Liga this season, it will be a stern test for Neymar and company as they look to bring the Champions League to the French capital for the first time ever.

Manchester United didn’t complain about the first draw – even when they were assigned one of the toughest ties – but will now have to overcome Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid if they are to go any further in the competition. A lot will depend on the result of the first leg in the Wanda Metropolitano. If the Spanish side can take a lead to Old Trafford, they will be favourites to go through, with United looking inconsistent this season.

The other big tie of the round involves another Premier League team, Liverpool, who will be returning to San Siro. Jurgen Klopp’s side beat Milan in the group stage, where they failed to drop a single point. Inter should pose a stronger test than their city rivals, but Liverpool will look to overwhelm the Italian side’s defence with their strong attacking game. With the second leg under the lights at Anfield, the English club will surely be favourites to go through.

Pep Guardiola is one head coach that will be pleased with how both round of 16 draws went. His Manchester City side were drawn against Villarreal originally, but will now face Sporting. That should see the English club through, although they have struggled in the past in the knockout rounds. The club’s wealthy owners are desperate to get their hands on the Champions League trophy after pumping so much money into the transfer kitty in recent years – and this round of 16 tie seems very winnable.

In three of the four remaining ties Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Juventus will all feel fairly confident of progressing after being paired with Salzburg, Lille and Villarreal respectively. But none of those three will be pushovers for the bigger clubs. Lille might not have reached the heights of last season when they sensationally beat PSG to the Ligue 1 title, but there are some dangerous players for Chelsea to deal with – and Burak Yilmaz will undoubtedly be a handful for Thomas Tuchel’s strong defensive unit.

If Max Allegri is still at Juventus by the time the Round of 16 match days come around he will regard his team’s progress as a major confidence boost after what has been a dismal start to the season for the Bianconeri. Given how the first half of the season has gone, it is conceivable that Juve could miss out on qualifying for the next year’s Champions League altogether and the decision to return to the tried and tested Italian tactician to steady the ship looks to have been a mistake. But Allegri should be given the time to turn things around – and a favourable draw against Villarreal in the round of 16 was warmly welcomed in Turin in December.

Robert Lewandowski will still be wondering what he has to do to win a Ballon D’Or after the year he had in 2021, but the possibility of leading his Bayern Munich team to another Champions League triumph edged a step closer when they were drawn against Salzburg. That was definitely a kinder pairing than Atletico, their original opponent. The Austrian outfit are arguably the weakest left in the competition and it would be a huge surprise if Bayern did not cruise through to the quarter-finals.

Some of those round of 16 match ups will understandably attract a lot of attention, but the two games between Benfica and Ajax might turn out to be some of the most interesting. Benfica could not cope with Bayern in the group stage but provided the shock of the tournament by taking four points off Barcelona to go through as runners up and force the Catalan club to prepare for the Europa League for the first time ever [it was still the UEFA Cup the last time Barca were involved].

The Portuguese club may not go much further though, as they will come up against an Ajax side that won six out of six in a group that originally looked like being a potentially tricky assignment. But Erik ten Hag has produced yet another exciting looking squad in Amsterdam – and has turned Sebastien Haller back into the devastating striker that West Ham thought they were buying a couple of years ago. The Ivory Coast international is the top goal scorer in this season’s Champions League so far, managing to claim 10 in six games – including four away at Sporting and one each in both games against an Erling Haaland-less Dortmund.

After the farce of the draw day back in December, UEFA will want the Round of 16 match dates to come around as soon as possible. Some of these ties look to be fairly predictable but the knockout stage has thrown up some surprise results before. These eight games are sure to provide some top quality entertainment and show why the Champions League is still the most popular club competition in the world.

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