December 16th, Nyon, Switzerland – UEFA Headquarters.
The little plastic balls containing the names of all four of England’s Champions League representatives swirled around their pots waiting patiently to be plucked out by special guest Luis Figo. The assembled club dignitaries shifted nervously in their seats, their hopes of glory firmly resting in the hands of lady luck. By the time the draw had concluded, the tense atmosphere had turned into a fizzing cocktail of relief and trepidation with the buzzing hum of excitement circling the auditorium.
As the dust began to settle, those Premier League clubs – so desperate to be placed on the simplest route to the Champions League final – were now acutely aware of the task that lay ahead of them in the round of 16. The upshot of the proceedings in Nyon is that the English were given a mixed bag in relation to their prospects of reaching the competition’s showpiece finale in Lisbon in May.
So, who came out of December’s draw in good shape and whose chances of glory look decidedly dodgy?
For the second successive season at this stage, the Gunners have been handed the most unenviable assignment possible – Bayern Munich. The German giants were imperious last year winning trophy after trophy under previous manager, Jupp Heynckes. Now, of course, they are under the guidance of the main man in the European coaching fraternity, Pep Guardiola.
The ex-Barcelona boss inherited the best club side on the continent and has set about making them even better this time around. Having seen them in the flesh personally during this year’s Champions League, it’s hard to argue that Guardiola isn’t improving upon perfection.
For Arsene Wenger, perhaps this season more than any other in the last few years, silverware is a must; especially after the uncharacteristically massive summer transfer outlay on Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. The Frenchman would have fancied his side’s chances of progressing deep into the competition had fortunes not conspired to pair him up with the tournament’s favourites.
Last season’s two-legged meeting was an odd affair. Bayern totally outclassed Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium to record an excellent and seemingly decisive first leg victory. However, the second leg, which should have been a relatively comfortable evening for the Bavarians at the Allianz Arena, turned into a nervy affair that almost went horribly wrong for the eventual champions. A 2-0 victory for Arsenal left Bayern to hang on to the away goals advantage from their 3-1 win in London.
Both clubs are in hot pursuit of their domestic title this term and in excellent form, although Arsenal face much stiffer competition for the Premier League crown than Bayern do for the Bundesliga. Realistically, Guardiola holds too many aces up his sleeve for Wenger’s men, and even allowing for Arsenal’s improved play this season, Bayern should prove an irresistible force as they march towards retaining the Champions League.
It was always going to be the toughest of tasks to try and fill the incomparable shoes vacated by Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement at Old Trafford, and as the season to date has shown, even someone as experienced and competent as David Moyes has struggled to handle the rigors of being in charge of one of the world’s biggest clubs. Manchester United have been inconsistent and underwhelming in their defence of the Premier League title, but they have at least made it through to the knockout stages of the Champions League – something they failed to do in Ferguson’s last assault on the competition in 2012/13.
Moyes will be thankful to have avoided some of the more daunting landmines that lurked in the draw based on their group-winning performance before Christmas. They will match up against Greek champions Olympiacos, who, while being a very useful team on their day, will go into the tie as big underdogs. Spanish coach, Michel, will know that his side will have to take something to defend out of the first leg in Piraeus if they are to hold on to any hopes of a Quarter final appearance.
This may not be a vintage Manchester United, but they should still be able to navigate the tough challenge of the Greeks, especially if their two superstars, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, are fit and firing. After that, Moyes will be hoping for another slice of good luck in the next draw if they are to take another step towards the final. An outsider’s chance of making the final.
The 2012 champions are reunited with Jose Mourinho, himself a former winning coach from his time with Inter Milan rather than his first spell at Stamford Bridge. It’s taken a while for the Blues to hit their stride since the return of ‘The Special One’ but recent evidence in the Premier League suggests they are gearing up for a serious assault on all trophy fronts.
On paper, there are very few weaknesses in the Chelsea squad, with creative midfielders such as Eden Hazard and Oscar are amongst the competition’s leading stars. Where Mourinho must be worried is the form, or lack thereof, from his front players. This deficiency could be the stumbling block to emulating their achievements of 2012.
The round of 16 has brought Chelsea together with Turkish club, Galatasaray, who count Stamford Bridge legend and hero of their Champions League win – Didier Drogba – amongst their line-up. The Istanbul giants surprisingly qualified from a group that included Real Madrid and Juventus and are also blessed with the talents of top Dutch midfielder, Wesley Sneijder.
The game is somewhat of a grudge match between two men who have had an ongoing feud for some time. Mourinho, as we know, is a man who can get under anyone’s skin and the Galatasaray head coach, Roberto Mancini, is a more than willing participant in such spats. This churlish sideshow could ultimately prove more enthralling than the tie itself as this should be a routine passage to the Quarter Finals for the west Londoners.
Depending on subsequent draws, it’s not entirely unfeasible that Chelsea can make it all the way to the final; particularly if their recent improvement and assuredness continues to develop. There is no doubt they are one of the best teams in Europe in the Champions League but without someone like Didier Drogba up front and in his prime, they may just find one or two of their rivals too good.
The Premier League’s nouveau riche have been lumbered with one difficult draw after another since they made their first appearance in the Champions League a few years ago. After negotiating another tough group this season, the oil-rich Mancunians pulled another doozey out of the hat in the knockout phase – none other than Spanish champions, Barcelona.
The Catalans are a formidable opponent, containing superstars such as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. However, many observers believe that this great footballing juggernaut isn’t quite as frightening as it once was back in the days of Pep Guardiola’s reign.
Whether this is an accurate observation of Barcelona or not, Manchester City know that if they can take out Messi and friends, then they can be a match for virtually anyone left in the draw. Remember, City have already beaten Bayern Munich in their own back yard this season (although they were somewhat embarrassed at the Etihad Stadium by the same opponent).
New coach Manuel Pellegrini has settled in nicely, bringing an air of calm and authority so often missing from the behaviour of previous coach Roberto Mancini. The players seem to be on board with the Chileans’ principals and in the Premier League, they’ve been superb; especially on home soil. The additions of Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo have spiced up the squad and given Pellegrini extra attacking options to the already impressive firepower at his disposal.
But it has been their fragility on their travels that is the cause for most concern. Captain Vincent Kompany is returning to something like his best form which is absolutely vital given the task that lies ahead in the Camp Nou in the second leg.
Barcelona will provide potentially the stiffest hurdle possible in the pursuit of their first Champions League success, but if they can come out of this tie victorious, they will fancy their chances of defeating anybody. City’s strength in depth almost guarantees them some domestic silverware this season, and they probably represent England’s best chance of walking away with Europe’s top club prize this season if Barcelona can be vanquished.