Champions League: Final 16 preview

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As the world’s premier club competition resumes, 16 teams remain, all of which will be hopeful that they can go on to be crowned champions of Europe. With just six former winners represented in the draw though, the chances that the trophy is destined for a new home are reasonably high. However there are only a handful of sides that seem likely to be contenders in the Lisbon final but, with four English sides left in the competition, the possibility remains that the trophy could return to the birthplace of football this May.

High-flying Arsenal’s chances of reaching the Quarter-Finals were dealt a blow when they were drawn against reigning European champions Bayern Munich, although the Gunners will not be perturbed by the prospect of facing the team they met at the same stage last season. Whilst the Bundesliga leaders have carried on the form that saw them secure five trophies in 2013, Arsène Wenger’s side will be hopeful that they can build upon their second-leg victory over Pep Guardiola’s men a year ago. However, the five time champions of Europe seem all too powerful and whilst the North London team will not be easily swept aside, their passage to the next round seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, fellow capital club Chelsea face Galatasaray in the last sixteen and start the two-legged affair with a trip to Istanbul on February 26th. Like their opponents, Roberto Mancini’s men remain well placed to challenge for the league title domestically; nevertheless, the chances of the Turkish club coming out on top in this tie seem remote. Although they have quality in their ranks, most notably Wesley Sneijder, who won the competition in 2010, their opposition have greater strength in depth and should overpower Mancini’s men over two legs. José Mourinho will be desperate for his side to regain the trophy they won for the first time in 2012 and with progress in this round likely, the chances of it happening are greater.

It is not just the London clubs that are holding aspirations of Champions League success though, with the two Manchester clubs still in contention. Manchester United were drawn against Olympiakos and arguably face the feeblest opponent of all the English sides. The Greek team have been weakened in the January transfer window having seen key player Konstantinos Mitroglou depart for Fulham, whilst David Moyes’ side have been buoyed by the arrival of Juan Mata from Chelsea. Whilst their domestic form has been sporadic, the Old Trafford club finished top of Group A and are one of only three sides to have not yet lost in this season’s competition. A pair of victories look likely and the Red Devils will be hopeful of another favourable draw at the Quarter Final stage.

On the other side of Manchester, Manuel Pelligrini will have found himself in a similar position to Wenger following the draw that saw his side pitted against Barcelona, although there is no reason why his free-scoring team cannot overcome Gerardo Martino’s men. Whilst the Catalan club have proven to be a formidable force in recent years, Pelligrini is at the helm of juggernaut that looks increasingly unstoppable. If Manchester City can secure a narrow win, or merely not concede, in the home tie they will be in a strong position ahead of the return tie at the Camp Nou on the March 12th. Ex-Barça man Yaya Touré embodies the marriage of natural ability and physical prowess that the Manchester club excels in and will be key if his current side are to topple his old employers.

Elsewhere in the round of 16, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid face Schalke and will be hoping to replicate the performances that have made them the competition’s top scorers thus far. The nine time winners will be hopeful that the FIFA Ballon d’Or holder will lead his side to victory and bring the trophy back to the Bernabéu for the first time since 2002.

In addition Borussia Dortmund, last season’s beaten finalists, take on Zenit St. Petersburg whilst fellow German side Bayer Leverkusen entertain nouveau riche Paris Saint Germain at the BayArena on Tuesday night. On Wednesday night, Clarence Seedorf makes his managerial bow in European competition, as AC Milan host Atlético de Madrid, who have been the surprise package in La Liga this season.

With a plethora of competitive ties in prospect, the last 16 stage of this season’s Champions League looks set to be as hard-fought and exciting as ever. Whilst the results of the two legs will see eight teams fall away, there already seem to be certain clubs most likely to advance to the final. Smart money should be placed on Bayern Munich retaining their crown, though Manchester City, despite their lack of European pedigree, could be this year’s dark horses.

 

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