Champions League – Down to the Last 16

by Ger McCarthy

The draw for the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League takes place in Nyon today and Ger McCarthy analyses the participants in the last 16 of this season’s competition.

Sixteen clubs await their fate in the draw for the knockout phase of the Champions League in Nyon following the conclusion of the group stages last week. The destination of this season’s trophy is still very much up for grabs ahead of the draw with few favourites (bar possibly Barcelona) having dominated during the initial group stages.

The Contenders

Manchester United

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side qualified for the second phase having topped Group C without ever hitting top gear. A stubborn defence which conceded a single goal and narrowly missed setting a new Champions League record for consecutive clean sheets was the rock united built their group qualification on. The centre-back pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand looks formidable and few clubs will want to face them in the knockout stages. United remain unbeaten at the top of the Premier League and similar performances in Europe could well see the Old Trafford club at Wembley for the final.

United could be drawn against Inter, Lyon, FC Copenhagen, Roma, Marseille or AC Milan.

Barcelona

Fourteen Group D goals scored, a mere three conceded and star player Lionel Messi in irresistible form marks Barcelona down as one of the favourites to lift this season’s Champions League. Add in the fact the Catalans destroyed arch enemies Real Madrid 5-0 in the recent El Classico and Pep Guardiola’s side can look ahead to the knockout stages with renewed confidence. In short, no one will want to draw them.

Barcelona could be drawn against Inter, Lyon, Roma, Marseille, AC Milan or Arsenal

Chelsea

Carlo Ancelloti’s side qualified from Group F with ease following five consecutive victories and only a single loss in the dead rubber against Marseille in the final group match. Struggling domestically of late, Chelsea have kept their best performances for the Champions League this season with Nicolas Anelka netting five times already this term. The return of Frank Lampard from a long term injury will strengthen an already experienced midfield. Chelsea are built to win the Champions League and owner Roman Abramovich will demand nothing less than lifting the coveted trophy at Wembley later next year.

Chelsea could be drawn against Inter, Lyon, Valencia, FC Copenhagen, Roma or AC Milan

Real Madrid

The Group F winners finished the initial phase of the tournament unbeaten having failed to win once in their six games. A 2-2 draw away to AC Milan in November proved the only blemish in an otherwise perfect campaign. Jose Mourinho has since suffered the embarrassment of an 5-0 thumping at the hands of Barcelona but qualified for the last 16 with relative ease thanks to the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo (4), Karim Benzema (3) and Gonzalo Higuain (2) before a recent injury put the Argentinean on the sidelines for a spell. Capable of beating anyone on their day and a semi-final berth is the least ‘the chosen one’ can expect.

Real Madrid could be drawn against Inter, Lyon, FC Copenhagen, Roma, Marseille or Arsenal

The Outsiders

Bayern Munich

Louis Van Gaal’s side are currently enduring a torrid time in the Bundesliga and falling further behind runaway leaders Borussia Dortmund who are 17 points ahead at the time of writing. The Champions League offers Munich’s only respite and a commanding run through Group E reaped five wins and only a single defeat (3-2 away to Roma). Mario Gomez has weighed in with six goals en route to making the last 16 and last year’s runners-up will be difficult opponents for any side throughout the latter stages of the competition.  Should make the quarter finals but will need to up their game considerably to progress any further.

Bayern could be drawn against Inter, Lyon Valencia, FC Copenhagen, Marseille, AC Milan or Arsenal

Inter Milan

Rarely has a defending Champions League winning club faced such a difficult follow up season but Inter Milan go into the hat for the last 16 draw having finished runners-up in Group A behind debutantes Tottenham Hotspur. Rafa Bentiez is currently preparing his charges for the World Club Cup final but domestic struggles, a long injury list and the shadow of former manager Mourinho hang over a poor season so far. An Inter team that won all before them last season has failed to spark this time around and too often the injury plagued Wesley Sneijeder has been left isolated and unable to recapture the form which helped propel the San Siro outfit  to Champions League glory. If Samuel Eto’o can continue his excellent form in front of goal Inter will remain a threat in the knockout stages.

Inter could be drawn against Schalke, Man United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Real Madrid or Shakhtar Donetsk

AC Milan

AC Milan has emerged from years of under-achievement to currently top Serie A in Italy and finish behind Real Madrid in Group G to nook a place in the second round of the Champions League. Encouragingly for the former European Cup winners, Milan appears to be hitting form as the New Year approaches. The attacking quartet of Robinho, Ronaldiniho, Pato and Ibrahimovic has carved up defences across the continent since the beginning of the season. An ageing squad looks rejuvenated as the draw for the last 16 approaches and Milan has a first eleven (if all fully fit) to potentially reach the latter stages if not the final itself.

AC Milan could be drawn against Tottenham Hotspur, Schalke, Man United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea or Shakhtar Donetsk.

Arsenal

The North London club are responsible for some of the most scintillating performances in the group stages of this season’s Champions League (6-0 at home to Braga, 5-1 at home to Shaktar) and yet somehow failed to top Group H ending up behind Shaktar Donetsk as Group H runners-up. Despite a dip in domestic form the return of Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie from the treatment table marks the Gunners down as a serious threat in the latter stages of the competition. Failing to top their group means Arsene Wenger’s side may have to face Barcelona or Real Madrid in the next round but victory over either could reinvigorate an otherwise stuttering Arsenal campaign.

Arsenal could be drawn against Schalke, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid

The Wildcards

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham could be drawn against Lyon, Valencia, FC Copenhagen, Roma, Marseille or AC Milan

Qualified as Group A winners

Schalke 04

Schalke 04 could be drawn against Inter, Valencia, FC Copenhagen, Roma, Marseille, AC Milan or Arsenal

Qualified as Group B winners

Olympique Lyonnais

Lyon could be drawn against Tottenham, Man United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Real Madrid or Shakhtar Donetsk

Qualified as Group B Runners-up

Valencia

Valencia could be drawn against Tottenham, Schalke, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk

Qualified as Group C Runners-up

FC Copenhagen

FC Copenhagen could be drawn against Tottenham, Schalke, Man United, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Real Madrid or Shakhtar Donetsk

Qualified as Group D Runners-up

AS Roma

Roma could be drawn against Tottenham, Schalke, Man United, Barcelona, Chelsea, Real Madrid or Shakhtar Donetsk

Qualified as Group E Runners-up

Olympique de Marseille

Marseille could be drawn against Tottenham, Schalke, Man United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Shakhtar Donetsk

Qualified as Group F Runners-up

Shakhtar Donetsk

Shaktar could be drawn against Inter, Lyon, Valencia, FC Copenhagen, Roma, Marseille or AC Milan

Qualified as Group H winners

Ger McCarthy is author of the book entitled ‘Off Centre Circle’ about a lifetime spent playing amateur football in Ireland. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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