Thursday 18 January 2018

Last 16 clubs braced to learn their Champions League fate

Gent players celebrate with fans following their victory against Zenit St. Petersburg
Gent players celebrate with fans following their victory against Zenit St. Petersburg

Ian Hawkey

The European Cup's greatest alibi against accusations of closed-shop elitism is its honours board. In the last dozen years, it has had nine different champions, none for any longer than 12 months at a time.

And anybody inclined to think the Champions League has a built-in mechanism to protect only the rich and famous will have to wonder what Gent are doing taking up seats in the hall for today's draw for the last 16.

The Belgian club will enjoy being the chief novelty in Nyon at 11 o'clock this morning, while the attendance of several younger coaches, like PSV Eindhoven's Phillip Cocu, Dynamo Kiev's Sergei Rebrov and Benfica's Rui Vitoria helps lend an impression there might be less of a cartel dominating the business end of the competition.

Fewer than half the clubs who have won the Champions League this century are still in it at the halfway stage of 2015-16.

Among the blushing absentees, waiting in an ante-room for the secondary event, the settling of 16 Europa League ties at noon, are Manchester United.

Their group-phase setback, like Liverpool's a year ago, can look from abroad like a symptom of a wider English difficulty. The Premier League has not supplied a finalist since 2012; it filled just one semi-final place after that.

The wisest authorities reckon the likeliest winners next May will be the champions of Spain or Germany.

Manchester City slipped above Juventus on the final matchday of the group stage, giving themselves a far better chance of a kind outcome in the draw for the knockouts.

They will be clear which of their possible opponents they wish to avoid. It is Paris Saint-Germain, soaring in Ligue 1 and emboldened by what their last-16 win against Chelsea in 2014-15 represented - a threshold in their well-financed endeavour to establish themselves among Europe's super-elite.

City and Chelsea, who are also seeded, would both regard being paired with Gent or PSV Eindhoven as a blessing.

Chelsea's bad-case scenarios? PSG or Juventus. Arsenal have deeper dreads, with Barcelona, Atletico and Real Madrid all possible rivals.

There's a complication in the draw that marginally increases Arsenal's probability of drawing Zenit, with UEFA decreeing that Dynamo Kiev cannot meet Zenit.

Champions League

Pot A (seeded): Real Madrid, Wolfsburg, Atletico Madrid, Man City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Zenit St Petersburg

Pot B (unseeded): Paris Saint-Germain, PSV Eindhoven, Benfica, Juventus, Roma, Arsenal, Dynamo Kiev, Gent.

Europa League

Pot A (seeded): Molde, Liverpool, Krasnodar, Napoli, Rapid Vienna, Braga, Lazio, L Moscow, Basel, Tottenham, Schalke 04, Athletic Bilbao, Porto, Olympiakos, Man United, B Leverkusen.

Pot B (unseeded): Fenerbahce, Sion, B Dortmund, Midtjylland, Villarreal, Marseilles, Saint-Etienne, Sporting, Fiorentina, Anderlecht, Sparta Prague, Augsburg, Sevilla, Valencia, Galatasaray, Shakhtar Donetsk.

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