Now that the group stage of the UEFA Champions League is complete, it’s time to look ahead to the draw for the first knockout round, which will be held next Friday.
There are a lot of intriguing possibilities that could play out when the names are pulled out, and we will likely see some of Europe’s most elite clubs pitted against one another in matchups that would be more suited for, at worst, a quarter or semifinal.
So, who could play whom? We unearth all of the delicious possibilities below, starting with Group A.
Rafa’s Reds were the favorites to win Group A, given their recent success in the competition. But, let’s not forget that Porto preceded the Reds as European champions in 2003/04, when they defeated Monaco in the final in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. And the surprise group winners hope to get one step closer to glory with a favorable round of 16 matchup, but can’t get too excited as of yet, as second-placed sides Arsenal, Roma, or Lyon could await. Two of the three times they’ve been in the round of 16 since it began in 2003/04, they’ve been paired with English sides (Manchester United in 2003/04, Chelsea last season), so a matchup against Arsenal wouldn’t be a surprise. They could also be drawn with Schalke, and make a return to where they earned their Champions League success four seasons ago, but would do so with a side that looks nothing like the one that triumphed under José Mourinho.
As for Liverpool, Rafa Benitez could see one of his former La Liga rivals from his time with Valencia, but he will be praying for a match-up with Sevilla, and not with Barcelona or Real Madrid. However, for the sake of redundancy, there is the chance that we could see a re-match of two of the last three Champions League finals, with AC Milan, who topped Group D.
As expected, Chelsea won Group B rather easily, and should avoid one of the elite sides, though a matchup with Lyon or Roma won’t be a cakewalk. Avram Grant’s side, along with Manchester United, likely have the easiest road to the quarterfinals – that is, unless they do draw Lyon or Roma.
Schalke 04, who snuck into the second spot with a 3-1 win over Rosenborg on Tuesday, could be left wishing they were in the UEFA Cup, as one of Europe’s giants will likely be their opponent – Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan or Inter, Manchester United, or even Porto, all sides who have been European champions on multiple occasions.
Real Madrid finished top of the group based on the head-to-head tiebreaker with Olympiakos, and as a result, may have earned themselves a matchup with Arsenal, Liverpool, Roma, or Lyon. But, Bernd Schuster will hope his side can avoid one of those clubs and instead get paired with Schalke, Fenerbahce, or Celtic. This is the first time since 2003/04 that Real have gone through as group winners, which they should be ecstatic about, considering second place has meant round of 16 elimination in the last three years.
If the latter does indeed happen, they could feel themselves a lot more fortunate than the Greek side, who will be looking to make only their second appearance in the quarterfinals of the European Cup/Champions League. They will likely be drawn with any of the first-place finishers outside of Real, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll be an easy ticket to the quarters – coming into this year’s competition, they’d been cursed by a winless away record in Champions League competition in the last decade, but defeated Werder Bremen and Lazio away, and had Real Madrid on the ropes before Real’s class and man advantage proved to be too much in the late stages at the Bernabeu.
AC Milan have made at least the quarterfinals of the Champions League in each of the last five seasons, and you have to fancy their chances of doing so again, even with Arsenal, Liverpool, or Lyon potentially being paired with them. They’ve been atrocious at home in Serie A this term, but it’s been the complete opposite in Europe, where they won all three group matches at the San Siro. That prowess will come in handy if they do wind up getting one of the tougher matchups in the draw.
There could be an all-British clash in the round of 16, as group runners-up Celtic could face either Chelsea or Manchester United in the round of 16. Outside of that potential encounter, Hoops fans might be hoping for a pairing with Porto, in a rematch of the 2002/03 UEFA Cup final, which Porto won 3-2 in extra time.
Barcelona have faced English competition in the round of 16 the last three seasons, and with Arsenal and Liverpool in the draw, it could be four years in a row. Ideally though, Frank Rijkaard would love to see one of the weaker second-placed sides pulled out, where they just have to survive away and dominate at home.
Lyon may have needed Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Rangers to secure their qualification for the round of 16, but may be a harder foe to dispose of in the round of 16 than the SPL side may have been, as they have made it to the quarters of the Champions League three of the last four years. However, the previous four times, they advanced as group winners, and had to go up against the likes of Real Sociedad, PSV, and Werder Bremen.
Alain Perrin’s side could face a familiar foe though, in Manchester United (2004/05 group stage), Porto (eliminated Lyon in 2003/04 quarters), AC Milan (eliminated Lyon in 2005/06 quarters), or Real Madrid (paired with in group stage in 2005/06 and 2006/07).
Manchester United easily won this group, and as a result, will be paired with, at worst, Lyon. Their other possibilities are Olympiakos, Schalke, Fenerbahce, or Celtic.
It is a little early for Sir Alex Ferguson to count the chickens though, because the last time United won a group this easily, in 2003/04, they were paired with Porto, who won the tie with a late goal in the second leg at Old Trafford and went on to win the whole thing. United have made it hard on themselves to reach European glory with their away form in the knockout stages, with wins over only Juventus (1998/99 semis), Deportivo La Coruna (2001/02 quarters), and Lille (last year’s round of 16) in the round of 16 and beyond since they made their return to Europe’s highest club competition (1993/94). And, with the likes of Olympiakos, Fener, Lyon, and Celtic all being formidable home foes, a troublesome first leg could lie ahead. However, with the historic implications of their run in this year’s Champions League, destiny may be on United’s side, with the 40th anniversary of their first Champions League triumph and the 50th of the Munich air tragedy in the coming months.
Roma finished second, which means they could wind up facing Barcelona, Arsenal, or Chelsea. However, there may be bigger things to worry about right now, after the pre-match violence that occurred prior to Wednesday’s match with United, the latest incident involving violence at matches on Italian soil.
Inter won’t have to worry about facing Roma, but they could be paired up with Arsenal, Liverpool, or Lyon, and could have a tough tie with Olympiakos, who have won on Italian soil already, having beaten Lazio 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico on Matchday 5. A pairing with Arsenal would be a chance to erase bad memories from the 5-1 demolition the Premiership giants inflicted the last time they visited the San Siro, in the group stages of the 2003/04 CL.
Fenerbahce would like their Champions League run to be extended at least one more round, but it’s hard to picture them finding a way past Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United, Chelsea, or Barcelona. However, if they can get an advantage after the first leg in Istanbul, which is doable given their excellent home record, they could, like Olympiakos, pull off one of the shocks of the tournament.
Sevilla‘s reward for finishing top of Group H could be a tie with Schalke, who they defeated in the semifinals of the UEFA Cup two seasons ago. As good as they were in the group stage, this could be where Sevilla excels, given their runs in the last two UEFA Cups. They’ll be looking to emulate the success of Villareal, who surprised their way to the semifinals two years ago, losing out on an all-Spanish final by a lone Arsenal goal in the first leg.
With Arsenal finishing second in the group, it means there could be a rematch of the 2005/06 final between Arsene Wenger’s side and Barcelona, which the Catalan giants won 2-1, which would see former Arsenal star Thierry Henry make a return to the city that he departed this past summer. They could also be paired with Porto, who they edged for top spot in Group G last season or Real Madrid (who they defeated in the round of 16 two years ago), or could face one of the Milan sides..
Next week’s draw will give us some dream matchups, and will certainly, like the impending fixtures themselves, deliver a surprise or two. For some, it’ll be ‘ho, ho, ho!,’ and for others, it’ll be ‘no, no, no!’ And for you, it’ll be another reason to keep regularly checking out Soccerlens, as we’ll have the pairings and an in-depth look at them when the draw is revealed next Friday.
In the meantime, you can have a look at the table below, outlining the possible pairings in the Round of 16 draw next Friday. As a reminder, 1st-ranked teams from the Group Stage will be drawn to play against 2nd-ranked teams, and clubs from the same nation, as well as clubs who were in the same group during the Group Stage phase cannot be drawn to play one another.
Possible pairings in Friday’s Round of 16 Playoffs Draw:
|Real Madrid||Real Madrid||Schalke||Roma|
|Inter Milan||AC Milan||Celtic||Celtic|
|FC Porto||Inter Milan||Lyon||Lyon|
|AC Milan||Inter Milan||Roma||Porto|
|Real Madrid||Barcelona||Real Madrid||Real Madrid|
|Man Utd||Man Utd||Sevilla||Man Utd|
|AC Milan||AC Milan||Chelsea||AC Milan|
|Inter Milan||Inter Milan||Inter Milan||Barcelona|