Friday 18 January 2019

Miguel Delaney: 'Well-balanced draw whets the appetite for knockout action'

Former Liverpool midfielder Luis Garcia draws Bayern Munich to face Jurgen Klopp’s men in the last 16 of the Champions League. Photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Former Liverpool midfielder Luis Garcia draws Bayern Munich to face Jurgen Klopp’s men in the last 16 of the Champions League. Photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Miguel Delaney

Something of a first, at least in recent times, for the Champions League last-16 draw. It's very difficult to complain about predictable ties, repeat ties or the same old, same old.

This all feels fresh and new, and might well be set up for the best second round we've had in years. The match-ups are all either finely balanced, have engaging storylines or are just all-out massive games.

As regards the last point, three stand out. They are Liverpool-Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid-Juventus and Manchester United-Paris Saint-Germain.

That first leg at Old Trafford will mark the first time that England's most successful club have met France's wealthiest, but not the first time Jose Mourinho has.

He famously got the better of them in a 2013-14 comeback with Chelsea, but it was arguably PSG's landmark elimination of the Portuguese's side a year later that first heralded the problems with his team that would lead to his sacking, and there is now a similar framework around this match.

If the United board really are waiting to make any kind of move until Champions League qualification next season is impossible, this could greatly feed that.

Except, of course, there's a long way to go until February. Every Champions League season makes at least one general December draw prediction look foolish because so much can change in between.

Chances

Take Bayern Munich. Liverpool might very much fancy their chances against the somewhat chugging team that Robert Kovac has taken over… but what if they click?

What if they replace Kovac? What if Liverpool find that the English title race has become properly intense by that point?

As regards that Manchester City have probably been given the most favourable draw and ostensibly the most predictable, but there is enough about Schalke to give them a bit of a scare as Leroy Sane also returns home.

No team has meanwhile proved the fallacy of making spring predictions based on autumn form more than Real Madrid.

They could also well have a different manager by the time they face Ajax, a draw that is already seen as feeding into this idea that the Champions League's most successful club remain blessed.

There is similarly the prospect that Ajax may have to fend off heavy January interest in Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong.

If they keep them, though, this may not be a blessing for Madrid at all. It may be another harsh landing.

Ajax's performances so far this season and especially in the group stage against Bayern illustrate they are not to be so easily dismissed as a former great club now only providing players for the future. There is something about this team.

There is, meanwhile, a lot about the Atletico Madrid-Juventus tie, and it is probably the richest pairing of all on pure football terms.

It is certainly the tie with the highest collective level of recent Champions League performance, since both have reached two finals each in the last five years… and neither have won it.

That adds an extra intensity to this, between two of the most tactically intelligent coaches in the game in Diego Simeone and Max Allegri. Both, however, arguably need that first Champions League for their legacies.

There are similar thoughts weighing on Leo Messi's mind. The Champions League is said to singularly obsess him this season, as he has gradually come to the realisation he and Barcelona have not won it enough.

It has already made him a singular force of his own this season, even by his standards, but Lyon illustrated against Manchester City they can give teams of such styles problems.

Roma-Porto is then the opposite of Atletico-Juve in terms of recent Champions League performance, but that actually makes it all the more compelling as it is as finely balanced.

These will be two teams given that rare window for proper progress.

Tottenham Hotspur-Borussia Dortmund then lies in between, as two clubs at that level just beneath the super-clubs, and who have so often looked capable of smashing the ceiling.

It again illustrates how well balanced this draw has been, how few mismatches there are.

There's none of this stage's usual old repetition. There is just likely to be high drama repeated night after night. (© Independent News Service)

Champions League, last-16 draw

FIRST LEGS

Tue, February 12: Manchester Utd v Paris Saint-Germain; Roma v Porto

Wed, February 13: Ajax v Real Madrid, Tottenham v Borussia Dortmund

Tue, February 19: Liverpool v Bayern Munich, Lyon v Barcelona

Wed, February 20: Atletico Madrid v Juventus, Schalke v Manchester City

SECOND LEGS

Tue, March 5: Borussia Dortmund v Tottenham, Real Madrid v Ajax

Wed, March 6: Porto v Roma, Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester United

Tue, March 12: Juventus v Atletico Madrid; Manchester City v Schalke

Wed, March 13: Barcelona v Lyon; Bayern Munich v Liverpool

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport