On Monday 15th December in Nyon, at the headquarters of UEFA, Gianni Infantino, the UEFA general secretary, and Karl-Heinz Riedle, the ambassador for this years Champions League Final in Berlin, have taken the first step in this year’s epic journey to the Holy Grail of club football. They have drawn the pairs for the Round 16 and did well enough to leave us with some mouthwatering clashes to look forward to in the upcoming weeks. There will be mixed feelings among the English teams, as Arsenal got lucky, while Chelsea and Manchester City will face more tricky opponents.
The draw is based on rather simple rules. Each of the eight group winners will face one of the group runners up. Teams from the same country are not allowed to play each other, same with teams that have been in the same group cannot be drawn together either. This means that group winners do not play each other, which effectively cancels out the possibility of Europe’s ‘big guns’ meeting this early on and one of them crashing out of the competition. However, that does not make the Round 16 any less interesting, and this year we have been blessed with some very entertaining pairings.
The Group winners this year were: Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, AS Monaco, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Chelsea and Porto.
The Group runners up were: Juventus, Basel, Bayer Leverkusen, Arsenal, Manchester City, PSG, Schalke 04 and Shakhtar Donetsk
Gianni Infantino first welcomed everyone in Nyon and wished everyone best of luck in the competition and passed on best wishes from the UEFA president Michel Platini for the upcoming festive period, which drew a hilarious reaction from Platini himself who was clearly impressed by the Italian’s silky diplomatic skills and good manners as a host. Then with the help of Karl-Heinz Riedle, Infantino got to business and in the space of a few minutes, all eight matches were decided.
Chelsea-Paris Saint Germain
Chelsea were the first team to know their opponents and they will come up against a strong Paris-Saint Germain side, who they knocked out of the competition in last year’s epic quarter-final showdown. Interestingly, these are the two European sides who had the longest unbeaten start to the season, with Chelsea falling to Newcastle for the first time and PSG losing out to Barcelona only three days later. They were the first defeats of the season for both clubs.
Jose Mourinho raised many people’s eyebrows as a couple of days before, he said he would wish for PSG: “I think Paris would be good. It would be easy to travel for us and to travel for the fans. We can’t decide the draw. everyone is hard. You think Basel is easy? We lost twice to them last year, they beat Liverpool and two years ago they beat Manchester United. There are no easy teams at this moment.”
While Mourinho does have a point about no team being easy, surely there were easier opponents for the Blues in the shape of Basel, Bayer Leverkusen or Shakhtar Donetsk. But the fact Mourinho wanted to come up against Laurent Blanc’s side, who have not been so glamorous lately but still remain a tough side, shows the confidence Mourinho has in his squad’s abilities this year.
Last season, Chelsea left it till very late to score their second goal in a 2-0 home victory following a 3-1 away loss at the Parc des Princes and both games were very close. While Chelsea have made a big step forward since then, Paris have rather gone backwards. The game will be even more spicy because Chelsea squeezed out £50 million from the rich Parisians for the service of David Luiz, making him the most expensive defender in the world and leaving everyone else thinking they would do a much better job as PSG’s transfer director. While Luiz remained PSG’s only signing this summer, Chelsea used the £50 million to bring in Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Loic Remy. It is not hard to figure out who got the better out of the deal. Nemanja Matic will also be available for the Blues after being cup-tied in all of Chelsea’s spring Champions League games last season. With all those additions to the Chelsea squad and regarding their current form, it is likely that this year’s tie will not be as close as it was one year ago.
Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas have been Chelsea’s stand out performers so far this season. The pair have strongly contributed to Chelsea’s cruise to the group summit, with the Spaniard in particular creating chance after chance. He has a very impressive 88% pass completion, which is impressive regarding how often he plays the ball forward into dangerous areas. No player from either team has completed more take-ons than Eden Hazard (32). No matter who will be playing at right-back for the French side, he will have a torrid time if Hazard keeps the form he has got himself into. More is to come from Diego Costa, who has failed to carry his Premier League goal scoring form into the Champions League, also due to his injuries. However, he will be available to feature for Jose Mourinho having missed Chelsea’s three previous games with suspension.
For PSG, Edinson Cavani has scored half their goals in the group stage. With Ibrahimovic out injured for three games, it was up to the Uruguayan to lead the line and he stepped up to the task very well. With Ibrahimovic back, Cavani will return to the wing position he is normally being deployed in. While Ibrahimovic has missed three games, he still managed to score two goals and the stats clearly show where his strength is. He has won 9 aerial duels and it will be interesting to see the eccentric centre forward battle with Chelsea’s centre halves Terry and Cahill. That is if the ball will ever make it past Nemanja Matic who is shielding Chelsea’s defence and to get the ball past him has proven to be a difficult task.
The Citizens left it until the last possible moment to qualify but they have done so, dismantling AS Roma in Italy. They were hoping for better fortunes in this year’s draw as last year saw them come up against Spanish giants Barcelona who sent Manuel Pellegrini’s side out of the competition after two defeats. Not only did the football Gods not listen to their prayers this year, they laughed right into their faces after they have given them exactly the same opponent as this time last year. The disbelief among City players was obvious. Barcelona of course were not particularly happy either, with Danni Zubizarreta claiming the Catalans could imagine a much easier opponent. But the draw has come out this way, and we are in for a real treat.
This year should be closer than last year, with Manchester City gaining some more experience in the competition after having made it out of the Groups only for the first time last year. Barcelona currently posses one of the two best attacks in the world on paper having Messi, Neymar and Suarez all on their books. Manchester City on the other hand have Sergio Aguero. On his day, Aguero can be as influential as Messi for Barcelona. Aguero’s stats aren’t as glamorous as the ones of his more famous Argentine teammate, but he can be a difference maker nevertheless, as he showed back against Bayern Munich. While Messi creates chances for himself as well as his teammates (he completed a staggering total of 37 take-ons, created 22 chances overall and surprisingly, despite his height, has won 3 aerial duels, most out of all in this comparison) Aguero is less of a dribbler and more of a deadly finisher, a very deadly finisher.
If Manchester City are to stand a chance against Barcelona, they will need their Argentine forward and the second most influential figure of their Champions League campaign, their goalkeeper Joe Hart, both on top form and most importantly, injury free. Yaya Toure is another influential figure who needs to be on top of his game and has to replicate last season’s performances, which he has tried to do in his most recent games before leaving for the African Cup of Nations. While Barcelona’s biggest strength is their attack, they lack defensively. Gerard Pique has fallen out of favour at the Camp Nou compared to past years and Luis Enrique is still experimenting with his defenders in a quest to find the best defensive line up with Pique and Mascherano getting the nod most often. Thomas Vermaelen is set to return from injury but whether he will be match fit to start remains to be seen.
While Barcelona dominate in all stats over the course of the group stage, the match should not be so one sided, especially considering that Barcelona did not play two games against German Champions Bayern Munich (and we all remember what happened the last time the Catalans faced the Bavarians). Instead they faced APOEL, the second worst side of the group stages.
After facing the daunting possibility of being drawn against Bayern Munich again for the third straight year, Arsene Wenger will be very pleased with the way things shaped up this year. Arsenal’s opponents will be the French side AS Monaco, where the Frenchman himself started his manager career. Wenger’s task is to send home the most boring side of the group stages in terms of results. To everyone’s amazement, Monaco have somehow managed to come on top of perhaps the most even group which also contained Leverkusen, Zenit and Benfica. The French team had eight points after five games with only 2 goals scored and 2 goals allowed. Leonardo Jardim’s side has not only scored the fewest goals, but also created the least chances out of all the remaining teams (32).
This will be music to Wenger’s ears whose defence has once again been impeded by an epidemic of injuries. On the other side of the park, Arsenal’s offence will look to go head to head with this season’s best defence. It will be interesting to see what tactics will Leonardo Jardim come up with. Will he try to cement things at the back or will he go and try surprise Wenger’s side with a head-on attack?
What is certain, is that Arsenal will be relying on the recovered Alexis Sanchez to make things happen for them in the final third. The Chilean has been superb for the Gunners ever since he signed in the summer. He will be accompanied by Danny Welbeck, Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil, with the latter finding his form from his best seasons at Real Madrid in recent games. Arsenal have scored three times as many goals as their opponents but also allowed eight times as many goals against them. However, the truth remains that a confrontation with the North Londoners offence will be a first big test for the French defence, one they are likely to struggle with.
Monaco will be looking to their midfield maestro Joao Moutinho to create chances and run the midfield for the French side. Lucas Ocampos will look to find gaps in the Gunners defence who has looked at times like a house of cards in the Champions League, but has improved a lot in recent weeks, particularly with the introduction of Francis Coquelin. It remains to be seen whether Wenger will addressed his defensive issues in January by bringing in Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal, but the Brazilian has not yet featured for his new side.
Another exciting pair of games will be played at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund and the newly built Juventus Stadium in Turin. The reason this pair is exciting is because there is not much that separates the two teams and also the style they play. Expect a fast paced up and down game which can go either way. The Germans are in the middle of a tough period, sitting in the bottom three of the Bundesliga after failing to cope with the departure of last seasons top scorer Robert Lewandowski and the ankle injuries to Marco Reus. After their fairy tale journey to the Champions League Final in 2013, Dortmund have become almost everybody’s second favourite team (well maybe apart from Real Madrid supporters) thanks to their spirit, their entertaining style of play, their die hard fans, charismatic coach and their financial policy.
They will be up against a Juventus team that came second behind Atletico Madrid in their group. The Bianconeri are on top of the Serie A and are experiencing a domestic season completely opposite to the one of Dortmund. The Italian’s biggest assets are Carlos Tevez, who usually leads the line with Fernando Llorente, and Paul Pogba, whose reputation is growing by the day. They young French midfielder is bossing the midfield with the legend Andrea Pirlo and the box to box Chilean Arturo Vidal. Already at his young age, top European clubs are in for the Frenchman and he already appears to be more talented than his two fellow central midfield teammates. Tevez likes to benefit from his midfielders’ hard work and come deep for the ball, with Llorente staying up front. Once the Argentine gets the ball, he likes to run at defenders with it, hence 14 successful take-ons.
Marco Reus is without doubt Dortmund’s most influential man, and up till a few days ago was the most wanted man in world football, level with Pogba. His ankle injuries are a part of the reason Dortmund are not higher up in the league where they deserve to be. He is back for the Round 16 to torment the Juventus defence. He will be accompanied by the speed of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the other wing, which only shows the fixtures are likely to go up and down the pitch at a quick pace. Ciro Immobile is expected to lead Dortmund’s line and the Italian will return to the city where he played before moving to Germany this summer, and where he became Serie A’s top scorer last season. The Italian has already capitalised four times in five games. This is a matchup to look out for.
Real Madrid-Schalke 04
The Champions League holders will meet the side from Gelsenkirchen for the second year in a row. It is expected that the Madrid giants will cruise past Schalke in similar fashion to last year (victories 7-1 and 3-1), however the German club is now managed by the more defensive Roberto di Matteo, who has won the Champions League with Chelsea in 2012. Schalke will certainly hope to be more of a challenge for the Spanish club this time around. Carlo Ancelotti’s men have walked through their group in some style, winning all games and earning maximum points available. The German’s meanwhile ghosted into the last 16 after beating Maribor 1-0, while their biggest rivals Sporting Lisbon lost 3-1 at Chelsea.
Cristiano Ronaldo will look to catch up Lionel Messi in the Champions League all time goal scorer list. James Rodriguez will be out with injury for the Madrid club, who have so far struggled in 2015, particularly at the expense of city rivals Atletico Madrid. Iker Casillas will look to further prove that he is still worthy of a spot in the Madrid goal as his recent performances are going up and he seems to be finding his lost confidence again. Madrid have created 30 more chances and scored almost twice as many goals as Schalke, while conceding only two goals in six games, meanwhile Schalke have fished the ball out of their net fourteen times already. The odds are in the favour of the current European Champions for this show down.
Bayern Munich-Shakhtar Donetsk
The Bavarians will be travelling considerably further east than any other team. Shakhtar, who play their home games in Kiev now because of the unstable situation in Eastern Ukraine, will be looking to trouble the German favourites as these two teams meet for the first time in history of the competition. Bayern charged through their group, most notably destroying Roma 7-1 away. They were only beaten by Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero even though it looked like the Germans will be able to pull off a 10-man comeback victory against the reigning English Champions.
Shakhtar came second in their group behind Porto. Quite surprisingly, stats aren’t showing much of a difference between the two teams, but that is due to the differences in the teams within both groups. While Shakhtar came up against Porto, Bilbao and BATE, Bayern faced tougher opposition in the form of Manchester City, Roma and CSKA Moscow. Group stats are always respective to the group, but still Shakhtar should be able to cause Bayern more trouble than Schalke to Real Madrid.
Atletico Madrid-Bayer Leverkusen
Atletico Madrid have been drawn up against German side Bayer Leverkusen. Last season’s finalists have topped Group A and are hoping for a similarly charming charge through the knock-out stages as they had last year, knocking out AC Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea. Their first task will be to defeat an interesting Leverkusen side that came second behind Monaco. Diego Simeone’s men sit third in La Liga, attempting to re-live the fairy tale of last season.
Leverkusen are currently fifth in the Bundesliga, chasing a Top 4 spot in the Bundesliga. The German side will look to do better than last season when they crashed out to PSG after losing 4-0 at home and 2-1 away. Simeone’s men are not faced with an easy task. Despite scoring twice as many goals as their German counterparts, both sides have created 70 chances. The Rojiblancos did better defensively by keeping five clean sheets, but Bayer have made more tackles. This tie may be much closer and much more intriguing than it may appear at first sight.
The last two teams that were left on Monday complete our collection of the 8 games. Group winners Porto produced some good performances. They currently sit second in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, just behind Benfica. Basel on the other hand are comfortably topping the Swiss Super League. By getting past the Group stages, both teams have improved on their Champions League results last year; they both finished only third last year, which left them with a spot in Europa Leagues Round 32. Both Basel and Porto have made it to the quarter-finals of the competition only to be knocked out by Spanish sides Sevilla and Valencia respectively.
Porto have topped their Champions League group in impressive manner ahead of Shakhtar, while Basel have equally impressively and bravely faced Real Madrid and Liverpool, it was on the English teams expense that the Swiss have made it to the knockout stages. Porto have scored a lot more goals than Basel and have conceded a lot less too. The Portuguese sides dominance is not as big anymore in terms of chances created, which means effectiveness may play a big role in this clash.
Get ready. The real Champions League starts this week.