Something of a first, at least in recent times, for the Champions League round of 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.
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 Blues 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 between now and then.
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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?
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 in it. 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 Lionel Messi’s mind. The Champions League is said to singularly obsess him this season, as he has gradually come to the realisation that 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 style 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 a rare window for proper progress.
It again illustrates how well balanced this draw has been, how few mismatches there are.
There is very little of this stage’s usual old repetition. There is just likely to be high drama repeated night after night.