UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Draw Produces Magical Storylines, Subplots

Gianni Infantino, Steve McManamanYou can’t beat the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League as far as club soccer is concerned. It’s where the cream of the crop compete to call themselves “Kings of Europe.”

UEFA held the draw for the Champions League Round of 16 on Thursday. The event created rich storylines, which will be discussed and debated for the next two months. The round won’t kick off until mid-February, but fans are already bubbling with anticipation.

It’s too early to fill out brackets. There will be another draw before the quarterfinals, which will plot each team’s potential route to the final (May 25, 2013 at Wembley Stadium in London). The Champions League Round of 16 has a magic of its own, as it has been known to set teams up for success or failure in the season’s final two months.

Let’s take a look at the matchups:

Galatasaray AS (Turkey) vs.  FC Schalke 04 (Germany)

This one’s a toss-up. Which Schalke will turn up in “hell” on Feb. 20 is anyone’s guess. If it’s the Schalke that shot out of the gate and played so well from August through October, the Germans have a good shot at reaching the quarterfinals. The problem is, Schalke has fallen off a cliff in recent weeks. It hasn’t won since Nov. 21, Head coach Huub Stevens was fired and replaced by Jens Keller. Maybe leading lights Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lewis Holtby will remain at the club through the January transfer window, maybe they wont. The Bundesliga is on its winter break, and Keller has about a month to mold and shape his struggling squad.

Galatasaray leads the Turkish Super League heading into the winter break. It might sign a couple of big names in an effort to reach the quarterfinal for the first time since 2001.

Celtic FC (Scotland) vs. Juventus (Italy)

Attack dogs face the underdogs in this one. Celtic is flying on a cloud of positive emotion after reaching the Round of 16 for the first time since 2008. Unfortunately, it drew mighty Juventus. Manager Neil Lennon understands the magnitude of the challenge.

“In terms of glamour it’s a beauty; in terms of qualification it’s going to be very, very tough,” he told UEFA.com.

Celtic Park (a.k.a. Parkhead) was a fortress in the group stage. Juventus visits on Feb. 12, and Celtic must make the most of home-field advantage if it is to continue its Champions League adventure.

Juventus spent five years in the wildersness, but the “Old Lady” of Italian soccer is back on top. The defending Serie A champion even withstood manager Antonio Conte’s four-month touchline ban and advanced from the group stage. Juventus is a dark-horse contender to lift the European cup, but it must navigate its way past Celtic without the services of Giorgio Chiellini. The Italian international tore a calf muscle, and the injury could sideline him until late March.

Arsenal (England) vs. Bayern Munich (Germany)

Arsene Wenger must be cringing after UEFA handed Arsenal another tough opponent in the Round of 16, but these things happen to teams that fail to win their group. Arsenal has spent much of the season engulfed in pseudo-crisis, and the Arsenal manager is hoping it will have ended by Bayern Munich visits on Feb. 19. Beating last season’s runner-up will silence some of his doubters, but the Gunners must dramatically improve over the next eight weeks to pull it off.

Arsenal forward Lukas Podolski will have something to prove. He failed to make the grade in three years at Bayern — that spell representing the only blip in his career. He hasn’t exactly set the Premier League alight since joining Arsenal last summer, so the Bayern test is a great chance for the German international to prove his worth.

Bayern Munich stormed through the first half of the Bundesliga campaign and won its Champions League group as well. Its squad has quality, depth and experience to spare. Finalists in 2010 and 2012, it looks to win the Champions League for the first time since 2001. The Bavarians should take their English frustrations out on Arsenal, but they are not taking the Gunners lightly.

“I think we enter the tie as slight favorites, but we would be making a mistake by underestimating them,” Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said.

This is one of the matchups to watch in the Round of 16.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) vs. Borussia Dortmund (Germany)

Dortmund won the Champions League 1997. It was nearly bankrupt by 2005. It’s been a long march back to the top, but the German club announced its arrival by finishing ahead of Ajax, Manchester City and Real Madrid to win the vaunted “Group of Death.” Dortmund won a lot of admirers with its group stage performances, including Shaktar head coach Mircea Lucescu.

“Dortmund won the strongest group in this season’s competition and that gives you an idea of how good they are,” he told UEFA.com. “Maybe you wouldn’t call Borussia superstars but their team play has been perfectly fine-tuned.”

The Ukrainians impressed many by finishing ahead of Chelsea (last season’s winner) to reached the Round of 16, but things might be different when it meets Dortmund on Feb. 13. Shaktar will not be in rhythm when the Germans come to town, since Ukraine’s Premier League takes a three-month winter break. Shaktar’s last competitive game was on Dec. 5. Its next is the first leg of the Dortmund series.

It could also lose influential Brazilians Willian and Fernandinho during the January transfer window. Premier League clubs are reportedly eyeing both players. Willian says he’s ready to make the jump. Fernandinho hasn’t publicly pushed for transfer, but that doesn’t mean he’d turn down a move to one of Europe’s top leagues.

Dortmund should prevail in this one.

AC Milan (Italy) vs. FC Barcelona (Spain)

Barcelona eliminated Milan in last season’s quarterfinals, but that might as well have happened a lifetime ago. Milan’s age of austerity has seen a host of stars leave the clubRobinho and Pato could follow their former colleagues in January. Milan is building around on a new core group, led by free-scoring forward Stephan El Shaaraway. But beating Barcelona this season is little more than a pipe dream.

“We are improving and I am sure we will continue to do so until February,” Milan sporting director Umberto Gandini said. “We face a perfect machine even if they had more problems than usual this season in the group stage. Let us just hope we will qualify this time. This is the highest hurdle we could face, but if we manage to jump it we can go all the way.”

Barcelona has been dominant since 2008, and it was thought that this season’s team would be its best ever. That talk ended Wednesday when Barcelona announced that head coach Tito Vilanova suffered a recurrence of cancer. It’s unknown when or if he will return to the bench, and the situation could destabilize the club. But Lionel Messi, Andres IniestaXavi and friends will remain in place, so Barcelona is a safe bet to reach the quarterfinal stage.

The untrained eye will see this as a glamorous matchup, but Milan’s cost-cutting has removed a lot of luster from the occasion.

Real Madrid (Spain) vs. Manchester United (England)

This is the premier matchup in the Round of 16, as two teams with legitimate aspirations of winning the Champions League meet.  Cristiano Ronaldo’s return and the managers’ (Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson) duel make headlines, but there’s more at play in this matchup.

Infighting has plunged Real Madrid into turmoil, and winning the Champions League is the only thing that will redeem what is turning  into a lost season. Mourinho doesn’t have a few months to cure whatever ails his team. He’s got seven weeks. Rumor says he’ll leave the club at the end of the season and losing to United could prevent him from lasting that long.

Things look a lot better from Ferguson’s seat. Forwards Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are scoring for fun, the returns of Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling should improve a leaky defense, and there is genuine competition for places in the midfield. United leads the Premier League heading into the festive period, and it’s showing no sign of slowing down.

These teams last met in 2003, when (original Brazilian) Ronaldo bagged a hat-trick for the ages. Cristiano Ronaldo scored 118 goals in 292 games for United before joining Real Madrid in 2009. The Portuguese superstar has improved since his £80 million ($131.6 million) transfer. He’ll be raring to display that progress in front of old friends and a global audience.

Valencia (Spain) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (France)

Money is at the heart of this matchup. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) has all of it. Valencia needs all it can get.

PSG has signed a handful of stars in an effort to become a European heavyweight, but it hasn’t worked according to plan. The dressing room is reportedly divided, and manager Carlo Ancelotti is under pressure. Will PSG be more of a team in February? Or will the whole thing crumble under the weight of expectation?

Valencia has a rich history in the competition, but that won’t matter in 2013. After a slow start to the La Liga campaign, it fired manager Mauricio Pellegrino and replaced him with Ernesto Valverde in early December. It’s hard to assess the Valverde effect at this point and even harder to predict what Valencia will look like when PSG visits on Feb. 12.

PSG should win this one, but it won’t be easy.

FC Porto (Portugal) vs. Malaga CF (Spain)

Malaga is the newcomer to the ranks of Europe’s elite, which is no small feat. Its preseason was marred by financial concerns and the sale of Santi Cazorla to Arsenal. However, manager Manuel Pellegrini overcame those problems once the season started. Malaga is fourth in La Liga, boasting the meanest defense in the Spanish top flight. It won its Champions League group, but that didn’t result in a favorable draw in the Round of 16.

FC Porto’s second-place finish in Group A is deceptive. The Portuguese champion was every bit as good group winner PSG, as it proved in two thrilling games against the French upstart. In fact, a ghost from the other side celebrated Porto’s victory over PSG in October.

This matchup won’t capture a lot of attention, but it’s worth watching. Both teams are skillful, energetic and there is no clear favorite.

Have a question for Marcus Kwesi O’Mard? Send it to him via Twitter at @NESNsoccer, NESN Soccer’s Facebook page or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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