Good news: Five English Premier League (EPL) clubs are in the last 16 of the Champions League, the No 1 competition in Europe. Never before have so many clubs from one country reached this stage of the tournament.
It became possible to enter five teams only from 2015-16, when the Europa League winners were awarded a Champions League place. Spain had five clubs in the 2015-16 group stage after Sevilla won that tournament but only three progressed. Manchester United’s Europa League triumph last season put them in the Champions League with Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool. Liverpool won a play-off against Hoffenheim to make it five English clubs in the group stage.
Not-so-good news: Monday’s knockout draw has not been too English-kind with Chelsea having the worst of the lot with a date with Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur entertaining Italian champion Juventus.
But the ‘Match of Death’, the most high-profile tie of the round fell outside the Premier League sphere: Real Madrid versus Paris Saint-Germain.
Two of the tournament favourites, the highest-spending Paris Saint-Germain and the holders Real Madrid, must go head-to-head and the price of elimination will be high. PSG billionaire chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, looked ahead to some “magical football moments” between the two but his under-pressure coach, Unai Emery, might have hoped for a smoother path to the latter stages than this.
This is, in my books, a perfect mouth-watering tie that usually befits the biggest European final. The big daddy, some say. The colossus, probably. The match that will leave Uefa’s suits jumping up and down, clapping and squealing like a toddler who’s just got a new puppy for Christmas!
The pundits say: Old money versus new money, the established nobility versus the fresh upstarts. This feels like one of those films in which one giant being or robot hits another giant being or robot for two hours.
Whether you find those sort of movies entertaining or not is entirely down to your personal taste, as with this game: You might think it’s more a celebration of finance than football, but it will certainly be a spectacle. And, for the sake of variety, it might be better for the competition if the “new rich boys” PSG go through.
Luck of the draw, curse of the lottery, you may say.
Liverpool and Manchester United will be smiling with ties with Porto and Sevilla.
In my opinion, the back-log of EPL fixtures in early Spring will be a crunching factor. It will be difficult to face English teams, especially in February. But then in March, April, when you accumulate many games in the players’ legs it will be more difficult for them to reach something important.
But at the same time, something tells me, with this unpredictable draw, this could be the right season for an English team to win the Champions League.
Here’re my honest views on each English club’s chances of progressing:
FC Basel v Manchester City:
This is probably the best-of-best draw and City, on paper and form, is virtually handed a place in the last eight, or quarter-finals. Then there is going to probably be four of the biggest sides going out, so they have a fantastic chance.
Basel, with a Switzerland reputation, has got some awkward results against English clubs but they’ll play both legs like they are away. I still have my doubts as to whether a Premier League club will win the biggest European trophy but City have the standout opportunity.
Just be wary of the Swiss club’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United last month, which may serve as a reminder that the runaway league leaders can take nothing for granted.
Raphael Wicky, the Basel head coach, welcomed the chance to face City, who he believes is “currently the best in the world”.
VERDICT: Manchester City to progress
Chelsea v Barcelona:
Awkward on paper but I will stick my neck out and say this is a 50-50 one for me.
Barcelona 2017 is still nowhere near at their best and not playing anywhere to optimum form. Ernesto Valverde has not adapted to the Barcelona style.
In my books, selling Brazilian prodigy Neymar was obviously a heart-piercing blow and Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi have distinctly suffered in form because of that. Gerard Deulofeu is not up to it so teams can get away with putting two men on Messi and Chelsea can do that with their system.
Antonio Conte, a shrewd tactician, now says finishing in the top four is Chelsea’s immediate priority after drawing Barcelona! Smarty bloke, I must say.
Ousmane Dembele might be back and fit and that would make a difference, but, while they have improved a bit defensively, you can still go at their defence and I think Chelsea have a seriously decent chance if they can manage Messi.
Take specific note that the sides’ previous meetings – they have played 12 times in the Champions League and Chelsea is unbeaten in the last seven.
VERDICT: 50-50 but Chelsea may steal something
Juventus v Tottenham:
Tottenham blows hot and cold, sometimes looking like title-winners, other times just an average slogger.
Seriously, Spurs were looking at Juventus and Bayern Munich as the sides to avoid and this is a tie which belongs at Wembley.
I must admit that Juve are not quite the side which has made the final in two of the last three season as they have lost Leonardo Bonucci and a lot of their other players are getting towards the twilight of their careers.
On hindsight, one feels sorry for Spurs, whose hard work in disposing of Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund was rewarded with a fiendish tie against the 2016-17 runners-up Juventus.
Mark it out that Spurs defeated the same opponents 2-0 in a pre-season friendly at Wembley and Juve consider themselves forewarned.
I’ve some faith in Spurs’ Argentinian coach Mauricio Pochettino, who somehow manages to get the very best out of their attacking potential in big European matches.
VERDICT: Too close to call but I wish Tottenham
Porto v Liverpool:
Liverpool has been walking the right course in recent weeks with a lot of exciting attacking flair. I see Liverpool coming through here.
It’s an inspiring draw, especially being away from home first. The level of Portuguese football has generally dipped in terms of quality from their league. They don’t have any household names anymore. Most people wouldn’t be able to name three Porto players, which wouldn’t have been the case a couple of seasons ago.
Liverpool scored 23 Champions League goals in the group stage – the most ever by a British team – and the Reds can go there and counter-attack them ruthlessly.
Yes, Jurgen Klopp’s team are poor at the back but Porto are more technical than physical, which allows them to regain their shape, so I see this as a very good draw and definitely in Liverpool’s favour.
VERDICT: Liverpool to progress
Sevilla v Manchester United:
Jose Mourinho is still on a hangover after the weekend’s derby defeat to Manchester City. He will be making his excuses over the next few weeks.
But the core of the issue is that the Red Devils just don’t have the same belief without Paul Pogba. The counter-attack also isn’t quite working as effectively for Mourinho now as it used to because everybody expects it.
Sevilla is on very dodgy form. They were getting absolutely overrun at the weekend by Real Madrid but they are very unpredictable, with a volatile stadium where they can really go after you.
I believe United should still have too much quality to ultimately swing the cards in their favour and, touch wood, we could well be in a position where there are five English sides in the quarter-finals.
VERDICT: Manchester United to progress
Here you go for the full draw: Juventus v Tottenham; Basel v Manchester City; Porto v Liverpool; Sevilla v Manchester United; Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain; Shakhtar Donetsk v Roma; Chelsea v Barcelona; Bayern Munich v Besiktas.
Please note your diary: The group winners will be away in the first legs on February 13-14 and 20-21 and at home in the second legs on March 6-7 and 13-14.
The big question: Have four clubs from one country made the quarter-finals before?
Yes, twice – and involving English clubs each time.
Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United got that far in 2007-08; then Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United repeated the trick the following season.
Keep your fingers really crossed for the English clubs.
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