Updated Dec 20, 2012 3:57 PM ET BEST OF THE BUNCH
Who should you be keeping an eye on during the Champions League knockout stages? Read on to find out.
There’s a cruelty inherent in the UEFA Champions League’s
draw for the Round of 16.
Namely, it occurs just before Christmas, when the next round of games won’t actually be played until the middle of February and early March. It leaves one longing for the juiciest long-since announced matchups as the tournament begins in earnest, after the wheat was ruthlessly separated from the chaff in the group stage.
To wit, this year’s — or next year’s, rather — first knockout round, contested over two games spread over each team’s home ground, will yield a threesome of high-profile clashes and a smattering of equally interesting, if less star-studded ones.Arsenal
will play Bayern Munich
. AC Milan
. And Real Madrid
will measure itself against fellow global soccer colossus Manchester United
. Because such were the names paired to each other at random by the little blue balls — which paired a group winner with a runner-up in each instance — snatched from the bowls by a few members of the soccer noblesse in Nyon, Switzerland, early Thursday morning in a ceremony refreshingly lacking the fuss that usually envelops UEFA or FIFA events.
Also paired together were Galatasaray and Schalke 04
; Celtic and Juventus
and Paris Saint-Germain
; FC Porto and Malaga
; and, most intriguingly, Borussia Dortmund
and Shakhtar Donetsk. EPIC BATTLES
The draw is done, the stage is set. Find out what to expect in each match up in
the Champions League knockout round.
The first legs will be played February 12-13 and February 19-20. The second legs will follow on March 5-6 and March 12-13. All of the games will be available across the FOX Soccer
family of networks. On March 15, a draw will take place to fill out the remainder of the knockout-round bracket.
But first, there is this season’s Round of 16 to tend to, and it promises fireworks not often seen so early in the tournament.
Arsenal is desperate for some traction in this, its eighth season since winning a major trophy, but it drew elite opposition for the Round of 16 for a third year in a row — having fallen to AC Milan last year and Barcelona the year prior. That opponent, Bayern Munich, was arguably the strongest side of this tournament over the 2012 calendar year. Bayern only lost last season’s final to Chelsea on penalties in spite of being the superior team. It demolished its group-stage opponents this season, and will look to get over the hump.
AC Milan was handed perhaps the toughest assignment. For the cash-strapped club, which no longer can build on the caliber of talent on which it forged its name and won this competition seven times, vanquishing any opponent remaining in the field is a big ask. But none more so than Barca, which won the big-eared cup in 2006, 2009 and 2011 with a largely unchanged core that looks as strong as ever this year. Barca, however, is in an unusual sort of turmoil for a soccer team. It is, for now, without its head coach Tito Vilanova, who has been diagnosed with cancer for a second time
and its talismanic left back Eric Abidal, who is recovering from a transplant of his liver,
on which a tumor was discovered. CLOSING TIME Check
the best images from the Champions League's last group stage round.
Manchester United will have to solve a challenge of a different matter. More than any other team remaining in this tournament, it is battling on two fronts. United has built a six-point lead in the Premier League
but will need to exert every bit of its talent and energy to maintaining it in the most treacherous and even of leagues. Thereafter, it will sink whatever resources that remain disposable into taking down Real Madrid.
Madrid, which is the record nine-time winner, will want to win this tournament badly, given that it’s practically out of the domestic league race already, having stumbled too often early on in the season. With manager Jose Mourinho seemingly on the outs after the season is over and the drought of European trophies now extending to 13 years, Madrid will be fixated on winning it — especially after losing to Bayern in last year’s semis on penalties.
In the other matchups, two of the tournament’s three overachievers were handed winnable ties, while one was not. Galatasaray, which has played a refreshing up-tempo game, should be capable of overcoming Schalke 04, whose sporting crisis is such that manager Huub Stevens was fired this week. Malaga, the game’s nouveaux-riches-then-nouveaux-pauvres, dazzled with its cobbled-together-on-a-shoestring side in the opening round. It should best FC Porto, which may be Europe’s best scout and developer of talent but seems to have bled too much of it of late to compete this year. Celtic, the tournament’s fall sensation, was unlucky in being cast in with Juventus, the resurgent Italian giant that finally looks fully recovered from the Calciopoli scandal that saw them ruined and relegated in 2006. TEAM OF THE YEAR
Who made FOX Soccer's best XI for 2012? Find out.
Also intriguing is the affair between Valencia, which continues to amaze with its ability to find jewels on the scrapheap and make its island of misfits harmonious, and Paris Saint-Germain, which does the opposite, buying up only the game’s rich and famous. The Parisians hope to prove that you can, in fact, win continentally immediately after buying a team together whole cloth, something never achieved in less than five years.
But the real hidden gem of the Round of 16 is Dortmund vs. Shakhtar, featuring two of the more fluid and exciting teams in European soccer. Dortmund, painstakingly constructed from within, has managed to hold off the much richer Bayern to win the past two German league titles with a pleasingly attacking style. It also won Group D — or the Group of Death, so dubbed — and was the only team undefeated in it. Shakhtar’s success is largely underpinned by a small army of mobile Brazilian playmakers, who orchestrate their own run-and-gun style and helped the club get the second spot in Group E, knocking out defending champion Chelsea.
And now, the appetite thoroughly whetted, there remains nothing to do but wait. For almost two months . . . Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for the New York Times, the Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderOnFOX.