When the balls are unscrewed, and the names of either Real Madrid or Barcelona are unfurled by a legend flashing a toothy grin, it almost makes watching the Champions League draw a worthwhile exercise.
Fawning videos and tedious explanations finally give way to something magical – that moment of wondrous speculation as fate in the form of Xabi Alonso decides where the most famous teams on earth are heading in February.
A pessimistic Chelsea fan will have felt a pang of emotion when Alonso, a man known for his link-up play, paired them with Barcelona. And though Paris Saint-Germain’s rise may not be a tale for the romantics, on strictly footballing terms at least, there is a lot to love about Real’s impending visit to the French capital.
Spanish football’s greatest exports never fail to stir the emotions. Yet the one emotion that need not creep into their European opponents this year is fear. These clubs are still Real Madrid and Barcelona, just not as we know them.
The last time that neither Real nor Barca qualified from the last 16 is not even that long ago – in 2007 – but one or both have been at the pinnacle for so long that a younger generation of football fan will never have known it any other way. This could be the season that the perception shatters.
Ernesto Valverde has sewed together the ragged remnants of Luis Enrique’s reign and his functional fingerprints are all over this current Barca side. Outside of the magic of one Lionel Messi there is no space for the flourishes that for so long have encapsulated the Blaugrana brand.
Without Neymar, there is little pace, which made up for some of the attacking deficiencies since the departure of other important components. Without a marauding Dani Alves, there is a lack of attacking overload. A superb Ivan Rakitic is the metronome, but not the generational Xavi. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen is one of their most important players – Victor Valdes, back in their halcyon days, rarely needed to be more than an afterthought.
That’s not to say Barcelona aren’t very good. Sometimes they are still great, but Valverde has ultimately brought order – albeit to a team that desperately needed it – without recapturing the awe.
Of course, Pep Guardiola has long left Camp Nou, but even last year there was something palpably frightening among Barcelona’s dysfunction as that beautiful chaos conjured one of the most breathtaking comebacks of all time against PSG.
Chelsea, should they strip away the history and the emotion, will come to learn what current day Barca represents – an opportunity.
Provided they shackle you-know-who, Barca may not have the outlets to get behind Chelsea’s wing-backs and the time on the ball with N’Golo Kante as chief heel-nipper.
As for Real, their drop-off can this year can in some way be explained by their merry-go-round of suspensions and injuries, with Gareth Bale as ever operating those particular controls.
This team could also benefit from a sprinkle of Valverde pragmatism. The weekend’s battering of Sevilla aside, they have been disjointed in attack and the ineffectiveness of Karim Benzema as a spearhead is reaching boiling point.
Casemiro, Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal – not to mention Cristiano Ronaldo’s fit of pique in the Spanish Super Cup – have been indicative of a lack of discipline and sloppiness which allowed Tottenham to qualify from their Champions League group as winners.
PSG are hardly the most ordered of outfits themselves but having scored a record 25 goals in topping their own group, that triumvirate of Edinson Cavani, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe will make Real think twice and thrice again.
Unai Emery may be struggling to juggle his players’ egos, and capitulation at knockout time has become an unwelcome habit, but Real – even though they are aiming for a three-peat – have shown they are at least living on the same mortal plane this season.
And that is well the point. There will be no quarter-final given lightly to La Liga’s juggernauts. For once, both of them are in the leading pack rather than the runaway favourites.
The draw for the last 16 of the Champions League took place at UEFA’s headquarters in Switzerland on Monday.
Here’s a look at all the sides involved.
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
Star man: Lionel Messi
Champions League/European Cup best: Winners 1992, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2015
The LaLiga leaders have shrugged off the loss of Neymar this season and came through Group D unbeaten to top the group above Juventus. They’re probably the last team Chelsea would have liked to face in the Round of 16.
Coach: Senol Gunes
Star man: Cenk Tosun
Champions League/European Cup best: Quarter-finals 1987
Although they topped a relatively weak Group G ahead of Porto, the reigning Turkish champions have suffered indifferent form this season and sit fifth in the Super Lig table. Few clubs ever fancy an away trip to Istanbul, but there are far tougher teams you could pull out of the hat.
Coach: Jurgen Klopp
Star man: Mohamed Salah
Champions League/European Cup best: Winners 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005
Liverpool romped to first place in Group E, scoring 23 goals as they ran up the score in big wins over Sevilla and Maribor. With an attacking unit including Salah, Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino there is no end of goals in this team, but their defensive vulnerabilities remain and may well be exposed as the standard of competition ramps up.
Coach: Pep Guardiola
Star man: Kevin De Bruyne
Champions League/European Cup best: Semi-finals 2016
Guardiola’s team have been widely hailed as the best in Europe after a swashbuckling start to the Premier League season, and they cruised through Group F, winning their first five games before fielding a much-changed side away to Shakhtar Donetsk. But converting plaudits into silverware is the task ahead, and these relative Champions League novices still have plenty to prove.
Coach: Jose Mourinho
Star man: Paul Pogba
Champions League/European Cup best: Winners 1968, 1999, 2008
Mourinho’s men topped Group A with a mixture of silk and steel as they averaged two goals a game but conceded only three in all six outings. Key summer signing Nemanja Matic has added the missing teeth to United’s midfield to go with the goal threat of Romelu Lukaku and the fit-again Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Coach: Unai Emery
Star man: Neymar
Champions League/European Cup best: Semi-finals 1995
Paris St Germain have made little secret of the fact the Champions League is their number one priority, and with Ligue 1 appearing to take care of itself – they top the table by nine points – they will go all in. World-record signing Neymar has elevated their game considerably, but Edinson Cavani is keeping up in the scoring rates and they look extremely dangerous.
Coach: Eusebio Di Francesco
Star man: Edin Dzeko
Champions League/European Cup best: Runners-up 1984
With Edin Dzeko in the form of his life – the 31-year-old earned a Ballon d’Or nomination this year – Roma managed to edge out Chelsea to top Group C. They are far from the full package, but as Chelsea will attest from their 3-0 hiding in the Italian capital, they should not be underestimated.
Coach: Mauricio Pochettino
Star man: Harry Kane
Champions League/European Cup best: Semi-finals 1962
They may be struggling to match recent form in the Premier League, but Tottenham are having another coming-of-age season in the Champions League. Their 3-1 win over Real Madrid at Wembley felt like a huge moment, and it is a big achievement to top a group boasting both the current holders and Borussia Dortmund. Just how far can they go?
Coach: Raphael Wicky
Star man: Dmitri Oberlin
Champions League/European Cup best: Quarter-finals 1974
Basel impressed as they finished runners-up to Manchester United in Group A, beating Jose Mourinho’s side at home and putting five past Benfica. In Oberlin, the 20-year-old striker on loan from Red Bull Salzburg, they have one of the hottest young properties in European football.
Coach: Jupp Heynckes
Star man: Robert Lewandowski
Champions League/European Cup best: Winners 1974, 1975, 1976, 2001, 2013
After a slow start to the season Bayern are humming once more under Heynckes, the man who masterminded their last Champions League triumph in 2013. They could only finish runners-up in Group B behind Paris St Germain, but won five of their six group stage matches.
Coach: Antonio Conte
Star man: Eden Hazard
Champions League/European Cup best: Winners 2012
With their Premier League title defence faltering, Conte could be tempted to go all in on the Champions League. That said, after finishing runners-up in Group C, they now face Barcelona, which will be no easy task.
Coach: Massimiliano Allegri
Star man: Gianluigi Buffon
Champions League/European Cup best: Winners 1985, 1996
With Gianluigi Buffon seeking a fairytale ending to his career after three times suffering defeat in the Champions League final, Juve are once again leaning heavily on their defence. They kept clean sheets in three of their six group stage matches, including a goalless draw with group winners Barcelona.
Coach: Sergio Conceicao
Star man: Vincent Aboubakar
Champions League/European Cup best: Winners 1987, 2004
Porto might be the kindest draw any of the group winners could hope for in the last 16. Runners-up in a weak Group G, they conceded almost two goals a game, and though striker Aboubakar has been in good form, they do not appear to have the weapons to go much further.
Coach: Zinedine Zidane
Star man: Cristiano Ronaldo
Champions League/European Cup best: Winners 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2014, 2016, 2017
The back-to-back winners made a slow start to the season – made clear by the fact they remain fourth in LaLiga – but found their mojo in the Champions League, even if they had to settle for runners-up spot behind Tottenham in Group H. Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo scored nine goals in the six group matches and they remain as dangerous as they come.
Coach: Eduardo Berizzo
Star man: Wissam Ben Yedder
Champions League/European Cup best: Quarter-finals 1958
Sevilla won only two of their Group E fixtures but got through on the back of being hard to beat – all except for the complete aberration which was their 5-1 loss to Spartak Moscow in October. That exposed their key weakness – although they can score plenty, they struggle to keep the back door closed, and kept just one clean sheet against lowly Maribor.
Coach: Paulo Fonseca
Star man: Bernard
Champions League/European Cup best: Quarter-finals 2011
Manchester City were always favourites in Group F but Napoli were supposed to follow them through. Shakhtar had other ideas and immediately tore up the script by beating the Italians in their opening match. By the time they wrapped up the group by beating a much-changed City side, Fonseca had to fulfil a promise to turn up to his press conference dressed as Zorro.
Cristiano Ronaldo‘s Real Madrid will resume their bid for a first European Cup treble in 42 years against Neymar‘s Paris Saint-Germain after the big-spending duo were on Monday drawn together in a mouth-watering Champions League last 16 clash.
No club has won the European title three years running since Bayern Munich in the mid-1970s, underlining how big an achievement it would be if Madrid – 12 times winners overall – won the trophy again in the final in Kiev in May.
Barca’s Spanish rivals Real know exactly what it takes to be European champions, and in Ronaldo have the most prolific goal-scorer in the competition’s history.
Emilio Butragueno, a Real director and former striker, regretted that one of the favourites would be eliminated so soon in the competition.
“For the potential of the two teams, luck has worked out this way and one of the two teams will be out at the last 16 stage, which we think is a bit soon taking into account they are two of the contenders for the title,” Butragueno told BeIN Sports Spain.
PSG made waves in the transfer market in the close season when they signed Brazilian star Neymar for a world-record 222 million euros ($261.5 million), followed closely by great French hope Kylian Mbappe, who will cost 180m euros when his loan deal becomes permanent next summer.
“Every summer they have signed great players, they get stronger all the time and they have had a nearly impeccable group stage,” acknowledged Butragueno.
“With Neymar and Mbappe they have improved a lot up front, they are a very dangerous team who will demand the best of us. We need to face both games like finals and for the fans it will be a thrilling tie.”
PSG ambassador Maxwell said the Real tie threw up the chance for the Parisian club to atone for their 6-1 hammering by Barcelona that eliminated them in the last 16 last season.
“It’s a good draw, with two good games to play,” Maxwell said. “Our fans will like it after we were knocked out by Barcelona last season.
“It will be nice. It’s a beautiful challenge for the club. I think we’re ready for that.”
Barcelona will be wary of Chelsea, the English club enjoying four wins to three in their 12 previous Champions League meetings, their most recent coming in the semi-finals in 2012 as the London side marched to the title.
“It is a good tie, the factor of playing the first leg away can always help you a little,” said Barca director Guillermo Amor.
“We are very optimistic, we are confident and want to keep going in this competition.
“We will see who arrives better for the dates of the game. We hope we will be strong because we are facing a strong team, an English team that runs and is very physical but also has very good players.”
English Premier League leaders Manchester City play Basel, who have had some fine results against English sides in recent years, while five-time winners and current Bundesliga table toppers Bayern Munich drew Turkish giants Besiktas.
Bayern’s director of sport Hasan Salihamidzic said the Germans would not be underestimating Besiktas, who should enjoy some raucous support from the city’s Turkish community.
“We know how strong they are after we followed their games against Leipzig. It will be a difficult task, but we are looking forward to the unusual atmosphere in their stadium,” he said.
“One always says that it is a disadvantage to play at home in the first-leg, which is right — it certainly won’t be an advantage – but we are strong enough to accept that and we will give our all.”
England’s three-time champions Manchester United face Sevilla, Liverpool, five-time winners, will be up against two-time former champions Porto, and Tottenham take on last year’s beaten finalists Juventus.
Juve vice-president Pavel Nedved dubbed Spurs a “very solid team”.
“Juventus have been there (finals) twice in the last three years, it’s something that definitely does not happen to everyone, for now we think of Tottenham and nothing else.”
Unfancied Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk will play Roma to round out the eight ties, with first legs set for February
Basel (SUI) v Man City (ENG)
Bayern Munich (GER) v Besiktas (TUR)
Chelsea (ENG) v Barcelona (ESP)
Juventus (ITA) v Tottenham (ENG)
Porto (POR) v Liverpool (ENG)
Real Madrid (ESP) v PSG (FRA)
Sevilla (ESP) v Man Utd (ENG)
Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR) v Roma (ITA)
First legs to be played on February 13/14 and 20/21. Second legs – March 6/7 & 13/14