It feels like an age since the Champions League group stages – exactly two months in fact – and finally Europe’s greatest club competition returns with a multitude of mouth-watering last 16 ties. By now everyone will likely have their own pick for who will lift the ‘trophy with the big ears’ in June, but as Porto proved in 2004, nothing is beyond the realms of possibility.
Real Madrid are still on course for a farcical fourth straight Champions League crown, while four Premier League sides are all in the hunt for success this year, or could Schalke 04 spring an almighty surprise?
Here we look at each tie and see who stands the most chances of making the quarter finals.
8. Roma vs. Porto
Considering the quality of league both sides partake in, your natural choice would be to back Roma to get past 2004 winners Porto. That said, Eusebio Di Francesco’s side have struggled in Serie A this season, currently occupying seventh place, while also boasting the worst defensive record in the top half of the table.
Porto meanwhile, are top of the Primeira Liga, having shipped just 11 goals in their 20 matches, and losing twice all campaign. Similarly, Porto led the pack in their Champions League group with aplomb, while Roma finished second in theirs – just two points ahead of minnows Viktoria Plzen.
With 15 goals scored in just six group matches, Porto will have too much for a leaky Roma defence, who will ruffle feathers of their own with Edin Dzeko and Cengiz Under up front, yet you would back Sergio Conceicao’s men to make the last eight.
To Progress: Porto
7. Manchester United vs. PSG
When the news broke that Neymar was set to miss both of his side’s encounters with Manchester United, many Red Devils’ fans (and players) were surely licking their lips at the possibility of a first Champions League quarter final appearance since 2014. However, it would be unwise to discount PSG, who are much more than just their Brazilian ace.
United have seen a resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign, but PSG are more than just a different kettle of fish to the likes of Burnley, Brighton and Newcastle, they’re a different cauldron of sharks.
Kylian Mbappe continues to improve as a player, while Angel di Maria has found the form that eluded him during his short stint at Old Trafford. The diversity and pace in which they go forward is frightening, running defences ragged, and it’s hard to see how United’s back four will cope. Ashley Young and Luke Shaw will need the games of their lives to stunt the French side’s front three, yet do pose their own threat with the in form Marcus Rashford.
Thomas Tuchel’s side suffered their first league loss recently, and Liverpool showed that they can be overcome when they faced off in the group stages, however you would back Mbappe and co. to showcase why they are so feared on the European stage.
To Progress: PSG
6. Tottenham vs. Borussia Dortmund
Can a Champions League last 16 tie come down to the fitness of one man? It seems the outcome of this tie bears heavily on whether Harry Kane will be back in time to feature for Tottenham.
Heung-min Son is having his best season to date, yet Kane is unquestionably Spurs’ best player and the chances of Mauricio Pochettino’s side progressing are significantly increased with the Englishman on the pitch. Fernando Llorente won’t be the man to fire them to Champions League glory, as Spurs’ paucity in attack is evident for all to see.
You could argue that even with a fully fit team, they come up against the Bundesliga league leaders, a side in imperious form with quality oozing from every facet of the squad. The battle between Jadon Sancho and Danny Rose is something to look out for, but both sides boast creative talent in midfield and this tie will surely see a good number of goals. However, you just feel even without Kane in just one of the legs, Borussia Dortmund hold the advantage.
To Progress: Borussia Dortmund
5. Ajax vs. Real Madrid
When the draw was made, it was arguably Real Madrid who were the happiest of the bunch.
Ajax are currently locked in an engrossing battle for the Eredivisie title, while Madrid are looking at the Champions League and Copa del Rey as their hopes of silverware this term.
Undoubtedly weakened since the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, Santiago Solari’s side are certainly not favourites to claim a fourth successive Champions League trophy, but given their wealth of experience in the competition, should be able to overcome their Dutch opponents over two legs. It will be anything but straightforward, however, as Ajax demonstrated their class by progressing from their group unbeaten, twice drawing with Bayern Munich.
This tie could be the one where Vinicius truly announces himself on the European stage, and you would back him to bag his first Champions League goal for the club.
To Progress: Real Madrid
4. Lyon vs. Barcelona
In the past three seasons Barcelona have left a lot to be desired in the Champions League, exiting the competition at the quarter final stage in three consecutive years.
Lyon were another unbeaten side in the group stages, with their only win coming in the opening fixture away at Manchester City. The French side like a draw, with seven in Ligue 1 and five in the Champions League potentially offering an indication of their inability to balance attack with defence.
Unfortunately for them, it is Barcelona that they face. La Blaugrana’s front three of Messi, Luis Suarez and the returning Ousmane Dembele are unlikely to allow Lyon any time on the ball, and their outstanding Champions League form at the Nou Camp will stand them in good stead. Furthermore, the world’s greatest player on Europe’s greatest stage rarely disappoints, and Ernesto Valverde’s side’s all round ability will prove too much for Lyon on this occasion.
To Progress: Barcelona
3. Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich
It speaks volumes of the progression Jurgen Klopp has made at Liverpool when you would back them to overcome Bayern Munich over two legs in a Champions League last 16 tie.
Everyone knows how close they came last season, with a combination of Gareth Bale’s magnificence, Sergio Ramos’ ‘misbehaviour’ and a Loris Karius in between the sticks, costing them club football’s ultimate prize. Going forward you have no concerns that Liverpool will score goals, the fluidity and pace that Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino possess could trouble any defence in Europe at any time.
It is in defence where you worry for Liverpool. A mixture of injuries, and players out on loan, has left them severely lacking in the right back department, something that has hampered them in the Premier League. The saving grace, however, is that Bayern are not a pacy team. Kingsley Coman will fancy his chances against James Milner, but as long as Liverpool double up, the Frenchman is Bayern’s only speed merchant.
Certainly, with Robert Lewandowsku up front, Bayern will fancy their chances of getting a goal or two but you feel matter how many goals the German side score, you will always back Liverpool to score more.
To Progress: Liverpool
2. Atletico Madrid vs. Juventus
Flying high in Serie A, Juventus have been unstoppable this season, largely due to the goal scoring exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo. However, it would be wrong to discount Atletico entirely, who are just six points off Barcelona in La Liga.
The Italian side exude quality in every department, scoring for fun in Serie A while also maintaining the division’s best defensive record. However, Atletico are far less poignant in attack, with Griezmann often left with the role of spearheading Diego Simeone’s side all on his own.
Los Rojiblancos will aim to make this a tight affair, sneaking a draw at the Allianz Stadium with the intention of grinding out a win at home in the first leg, but it would be wrong to look past Juventus making the quarter finals for a third successive season.
To Progress: Juventus
1. Schalke 04 vs. Manchester City
It might have been somewhat premature to suggest that Real Madrid would be the happiest side after the draw was made, as Manchester City take on a Schalke 04 side not even in the Bundesliga top ten.
It was a monumental effort by the German side to make the knockout stages – albeit in a favourable group – yet it is simply unfathomable to suggest they could topple Pep Guardiola’s side and make the last eight. The club are hardly pulling up trees in their league, sitting 12th with just six wins all campaign.
On the other hand, City are still on course for the quadruple this season. It appears likely that Sergio Aguero will add a few more goals to his season tally of 20 goals at some point over the two legs, as they will surely breeze past Domenico Tedesco’s team.
To Progress: Manchester City (handsomely)