2014-15: Lost to Porto in round of 16 • 2015-16: Didn’t qualify • 2016-17: Group stage
Next opponent: Man City (First leg: Tuesday 13 Feb)
Basel suffered the joint-heaviest knockout-phase defeat – 7-0 to Bayern Munich in 2012 – and now that they face free-scoring Manchester City in the last 16, there’s a small chance that record could come under threat. The 124-year-old, passionately supported lot from St. Jakob-Park nevertheless kept four clean sheets in their group – admittedly a comparatively weak one – and in 20-year-old forward Dimitri Oberlin, boast an intriguing talent.
Believe it or not, Norwich City supporters, but Ricky van Wolfswinkel is also in free-scoring form. Basel can also comfort themselves with the knowledge that they’re facing a Manchester City side without David Silva, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus, while John Stones is only just returned from a minor injury. It won’t be enough and the Swiss side will likely depart, but reaching this stage still amounts to a great success.
2014/15: Didn’t qualify • 2015/16: Didn’t qualify • 2016/17: Group stage
Next opponent: Bayern Munich (First leg: Tuesday 20 Feb)
Besiktas won Group G with 14 points: an impressive feat. But while Istanbul and Champions League miracles have featured in the same fairytale before, there’s not much chance of Pepe, Adriano and Ricardo Quaresma taking winners’ medals back to the city.
Besiktas’s bulging club of 30-something foreigners includes the aforementioned trio plus Gary Medel, Atiba Hutchinson, Ryan Babel, Jeremain Lens and Alvaro Negredo. Babel and Brazilian entertainer Talisca have also impressed this season, but the sale of multifaceted German-born Turkey forward Cenk Tosun to Everton is a considerable blow and won’t make their tie with five-time winner Bayern Munich any less onerous.
14. Shakhtar Donetsk
2014-15: Lost to Bayern Munich, last 16 • 2015-16: Group stage • 2016-17: Didn’t qualify
Next opponent: Roma (First leg: Wednesday 21 Feb)
Condemning Manchester City – albeit a depleted version – to their first defeat in 29 games, and overcoming the odds to finish six points ahead of third-placed Napoli in Group F will have lifted Shakhtar.
Brazilian duo Taison and Bernard are pests to control on their day, but Facundo Ferreyra – who failed to see a second of Premier League action during a year at Newcastle – is the man entrusted with grabbing their goals. Shakhtar simply must build a lead during their first leg at home – or, as is the case, 200 miles from it in Kharkiv – to have any chance of besting Roma and reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.
2014-15: Lost to Bayern Munich in quarter-finals • 2015-16: Group stage • 2016-17: Lost to Juventus in last 16
Next opponent: Liverpool (First leg: Wednesday 14 Feb)
Only PSG, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Chelsea scored more than Porto in the group stage. Their issue has been keeping goals out, with neither Iker Casillas nor the now-first-choice keeper Jose Sa able to prevent them.
The Manchester United-linked Danilo Pereira and Hector Herrera form a tough central midfield partnership, while winger Yacine Brahimi and striker Vincent Aboubakar – both of whom are having fine seasons – mean they could give Liverpool a fright or two. But their defence will be put to a serious test by the Reds. Philippe Coutinho is gone from Jurgen Klopp’s lineup, which is some comfort, but Porto are still badly overmatched.
2014-15: Didn’t qualify • 2015-16: Group stage • 2016-17: Lost to Leicester in last 16
Next opponent: Man United (First leg: Wednesday 21 Feb)
Wissam Ben Yedder thrived in the group stage, netting six goals, but inadequate support for the former futsal star buried Sevilla’s hopes of pipping Liverpool to top spot. Jesus Navas and Nolito have both disappointed since swapping English benches for Spanish fields, Clement Lenglet and Guido Pizarro have lacked discipline, while Steven N’Zonzi reportedly wants out.
For last 16 opponents Manchester United, canny composer Ever Banega, attacking midfielder Joaquin Correa and striker Luis Muriel (as an impact substitute against tired legs) are cause for concern. Familiar faces will be available to new boss Vincenzo Montella, too, with Sandro Ramirez and Roque Mesa both joining on loan from Everton and Swansea respectively. But United are rightly still overwhelming favourites – particularly after the Spanish club’s rotten start to February, which involved a 5-1 La Liga thumping at Eibar.
2014-15: Lost to PSG in last 16 • 2015-16: Lost to PSG in last 16 • 2016-17: Didn’t qualify
Next opponent: Barcelona (First leg: Tuesday 20 February)
Things have obviously changed since the draw was made last year. Chelsea emerged from their group relatively impressively, but have sunk into chaos since. Antonio Conte is almost at war with his own board, his midfield has melted in front of his eyes, and nobody is sure when Alvaro Morata will return from injury. Conte has also lost his find of the season Andreas Christensen, whose injury has forced the recall of David Luiz and created a palpable uncertainty in the defence.
Unless something dramatically changes in the next week, Chelsea look unlikely to cause Barcelona many problems.
2014-15: Group stage • 2015-16: Lost to Real Madrid in last 16 • 2016-17: Didn’t qualify
Next opponent: Shakhtar Donetsk (First leg: Wednesday 21 Feb)
Roma were not expected to escape a group comprising Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, let alone win it. They did so and won’t be disappointed to have Shakhtar Donetsk as their reward. Yet in the long run, equalling their finest European Cup/Champions League campaign – they were losing finalists in 1984 – looks a pipe dream.
Roma didn’t use the €77m they got for Mo Salah and Antonio Rudiger on replacing them, and devoid of the Egyptian express they lack an outstanding creator to supply ever-reliable frontman Edin Dzeko – who, in spite of serious interest from Chelsea, has remained at the club. Aleksandar Kolarov is still capable in defence and Diego Perotti is a crafty player. Radja Nainggolan remains one of the finest midfielders on the continent, but his relationship with the club has become strained and, even if they get past Shakhtar, the Giallorossi have too many weak players for the elite teams they will eventually encounter.
2014-15: Lost to Barcelona in final • 2015-16: Lost to Bayern Munich in last 16 • 2016-17: Lost to Real Madrid in final
Next opponent: Tottenham (First leg: Tuesday 13 Feb)
Juventus looked disorientated defensively at the start of this season following the departure of Leonardo Bonucci, but they’ve been far sturdier in the Champions League, keeping clean sheets at home to Barcelona and away to Milan, Napoli and Olympiakos. Their domestic form has also improved: Juve have not lost a game since the 3-2 defeat to Sampdoria in late November.
Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado and Douglas Costa (who has finally got going after a forgettable start) all create, while Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain have 28 goals between them in Serie A. However overall, Juventus look a slightly weaker side than the one that got to the Champions League final last season, and could be without the injured Dybala and influential midfielder Blaise Matuidi for the tie with Tottenham. If they get past Spurs, they’ll be in with a shout, but Mauricio Pochettino’s team will be a handful for an underpowered, ageing side.
2014-15: Didn’t qualify • 2015-16: Didn’t qualify • 2016-17: Group stage
Next opponent: Juventus (First leg: Tuesday 13 Feb)
Is there a better finisher in world football than Harry Kane? Spurs’ issue is how often they can get the 24-year-old into shooting positions against Italian giants Juventus. Christian Eriksen’s performances have started to spike, which should worry the Old Lady, while Son Heung-min is currently in the form of his life, running teams ragged up and down the Premier League. Tottenham have added Lucas Moura in the recent transfer window, who – although not yet match fit – provides an interesting variation.
Great confidence will have been taken from accruing 16 points from a possible 18 in a group shared with Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and, having bested Manchester United and Arsenal at Wembley already in 2018, Tottenham shouldn’t feel any inferiority in the knockout stages.
7. Manchester United
2014-15: Didn’t qualify • 2015-16: Group stage • 2016-17: Didn’t qualify
Next opponent: Sevilla (First leg: Wednesday 21 Feb)
What are Manchester United right now? They’re wealthy with a decadently assembled squad, certainly, and they’re coached by one of the finest managers of the past decade. Yet there’s something underwhelmes right now, summed up by last weekend’s defeat to Newcastle. Individually, United are a match for anybody and will likely be too strong for an off-form Sevilla, but their cast of superstars lacks the cohesion found at Barcelona, Bayern Munich or, gallingly, Manchester City.
They’re an outside contender, but a passage to the final might depend on avoiding the true favourites for the competition.
2014-15: Group stage • 2015-16: Didn’t qualify • 2016-17: Didn’t qualify
Next opponent: Porto (First leg: Wednesday 14 Feb)
Liverpool could do anything at all. So far this season, they shown their full rainbow: often brilliant at home and abroad – ask Spartak Moscow about that – but also capable of poor performances at inopportune moments. This is a team, remember, who ended Manchester City’s unbeaten league run and were eliminated from the FA Cup by West Brom in the same month.
Philippe Coutinho is gone, but Virgil van Dijk’s arrival has made everyone feel better about Jurgen Klopp’s defence. Still, the suspicion is that while the backline has improved, it remains less than perfect. On their day, Liverpool can rip anyone apart with their frontline, but the smarter teams left in the draw will likely find a way to nullify the counter-press and examine those defensive frailties.
5. Bayern Munich
2014-15: Lost to Barcelona in semi-finals • 2015-16: Lost to Atletico Madrid in semi-finals • 2016-17: Lost to Real Madrid in semi-finals
Next opponent: Besiktas (First leg: Tuesday 20 Feb)
There’s not much buzz around Bayern this season. PSG sent them back to kindergarten in September with that 3-0 win (although Bayern at least won the return match after both sides had qualified). The German champions also slipped up a few times early on in the Bundesliga.
However, as one multiple Champions League-winning coach replaced another, the 2012-13 kings have rediscovered their rhythm. Summer import Corentin Tolisso is beginning to find his feet; Robert Lewandowski is one of the deadliest marksmen around; Arjen Robben remains rapid, predictable yet somehow unplayable; David Alaba is a diamond on his day. As well as this, Bayern face Besiktas in the last 16, despite the German giants finishing second in their group.
Jupp Heynckes has some cause for concern, though. A very public spat with Robben was caught by the television cameras last week; the winger reacting badly to be substituted, and Lewandowski has started to flutter his eyelashes at Real Madrid. It’s been a very odd season – albeit one which now has them in complete command of the Bundesliga – and it seems unlikely to end with a sixth European Cup.
They’re deserving of respect and nobody should be in a hurry to draw them, but this is a team enduring a slight lull. Very good without being great.
4. Real Madrid
2014-15: Lost to Juventus in semi-finals • 2015-16: Winners • 2016-17: Winners
Next opponent: PSG (First leg: Wednesday 14 Feb)
An also-ran in La Liga and rightly so; February’s 2-2 draw with Levante demonstrated how out of rhythm this team is. The problem seems to lie in attack as much as anywhere else, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale suffering through a lack of continuity in selection. A weekend hat-trick for Ronaldo in a 5-2 win over Real Sociedad provided a timely boost for player and club, but it’s been a below-par season by the 33-year-old’s stratospheric standards.
The last-16 tie with PSG will make or break Real Madrid’s season. Defeat will spell the end for Zinedine Zidane, who’s could be headed for the employment office anyway given their wretched Liga form. Yet victory would see Real emerge (rightly) as one of the favourites to win the competition. Whether they could handle Manchester City or Barcelona over 180 minutes is another matter and Tottenham certainly showed their flaws in the group stage. But if that midfield is rebalanced and the attacking trident sharpens, the defending champions could still be an overwhelming force.
2014-15: Lost to Barcelona in quarter-finals • 2015-16: Lost to Manchester City in quarter-finals • 2016-17: Lost to Barcelona in last 16
Next opponent: Real Madrid (First leg: Wednesday 14 Feb)
PSG are what they are. Their project can be seen as cynical and QSI’s investment has obliterated the notion of competition in Ligue 1, but the facts remain the same: they are a legitimate contender.
One wonders, though, whether their absurd competitive advantage in France might hurt them. Real Madrid are on a downswing, with Zinedine Zidane almost certainly heading out of the club if he can’t retain this trophy, but they might be the better-constructed team. PSG continue to juggle some sizeable egos at the top of the pitch and the unit as a whole is rarely exposed to the kind of examination it will face in the last 16. Neymar might actually have to do some tracking back – something which, for all his brilliance, he’s shown little interest in so far.
If PSG get past Madrid, as they are favoured to do, they’ll be a problem. If they fall at this hurdle again, Unai Emery will be paying with his job at the end of the season.
2014-15: Winners • 2015-16: Lost to Atletico Madrid in quarter-finals • 2016-17: Lost to Juventus in quarter-finals
Next opponent: Chelsea (First leg: Tuesday 20 February)
Surprisingly for Barcelona, they’re slightly under the radar. The loss of Neymar helped to dull their shine, but they’ve rebalanced since then and become an extremely dangerous team. They walked through the group stage, naturally, and have a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga. Paulinho has had a quietly excellent season, Luis Suarez seems to be over a mild case of the yips, and – once he’s match fit – Ousmane Dembele can be terrifyingly dynamic. The last 16 also pairs them with Chelsea: an old nemesis in a serious rut.
That idyllic overview doesn’t paint an entirely accurate picture, though. Barcelona’s domestic position is as descriptive of Real Madrid’s issues as it is their own strength. Barça aren’t quite as dominant as they once were: Javier Mascherano is gone, Ivan Rakitic remains an unconvincing heir to Andres Iniesta and the attack isn’t quite as lethal as it once was.
Still. Lionel Messi, though.
1. Manchester City
2014-15: Lost to Barcelona in last 16 • 2015-16: Lost to Real Madrid in semi-finals • 2016-17: Lost to Monaco in last 16
Next opponent: Basel (First leg: Tuesday 13 Feb)
A truly awesome side. Tellingly this season, their Premier League dominance has translated abroad, and they made Serie A leaders Napoli look like a thoroughly ordinary team over two group-stage victories.
Injuries will help determine their European fate, though. Basel should be brushed aside painlessly enough, but Pep Guardiola will need Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and John Stones fit and available if this is to be their year. As strong as they are, it’s worth remembering that City will have to venture into uncharted territory if they are to win the Champions League and rarely, if ever, have they produced their best that high up the mountain.
If they can replicate their domestic form, though, and play with the same verve as they have to date, there isn’t a team out there who could be confident of subduing them. One might argue that Paris Saint-Germain are more powerful or point out that Leo Messi remains the finest, most destructive player in the world. Yet no other club boasts the same marriage of ability and cohesion and that, you suspect, is what may well allow City to finally break the door down.
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