Confronted by a last-16 Champions League draw which could have yielded Real Madrid, Juventus or Bayern Munich, it’s fair to suggest that Manchester United were relieved to be paired with Sevilla.
And Jose Mourinho’s men certainly should be considered favourites for the tie, which gets underway with Wednesday’s first leg at the atmospheric Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
However, United cannot take anything for granted and their meeting with La Liga’s fifth-placed club might not prove to be as straightforward as it seems.
It has been a strange few months for the Andalusian club, who headed into the new campaign rocked by the departure of revered long-serving sporting director Monchi, whose manoeuvrings in the transfer market had kept the club competitive among the elite for more than a decade.
There was also a new manager as Eduardo Berizzo arrived from Celta Vigo to replace fellow Argentine Jorge Sampaoli, along with the tranche of new players which has become inevitable with each passing summer in Sevilla.
And perhaps unsurprisingly amid all that upheaval, Sevilla’s season so far has proven to be consistent only in its inconsistency.
How would you like to judge their campaign so far? On the one hand, you could conclude that United are set for a walk in the park by focusing on Sevilla’s embarrassing 5-3 home derby defeat to Real Betis, or the even more humiliating 5-0 thrashing at Real Madrid, when all the goals were scored in the first half.
Alternatively, though, you could point out how dangerous they can be by looking at their progression to the Copa del Rey final, helped along by a convincing 5-2 aggregate victory over Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals. Or there’s always, of course, their most famous game of the season when they roared back from three goals down to claim a dramatic 3-3 draw against Liverpool.
The strong sense that it’s impossible to know what to expect from Sevilla is enhanced by the fact that they are under new management again after Berizzo, who struggled to get the team playing in a convincing fashion, was controversially fired in December just a month after being diagnosed with cancer.
His replacement is Vincenzo Montella, who enjoyed a moderate amount of success with a series of clubs in his native Italy before heading overseas for the first time to take up the vacancy in southern Spain.
We’re less than two months into Montella’s reign so it’s too early to draw any meaningful conclusions, but he has so far failed to address their inconsistency – just when it looked like their season was finally getting on a roll, having knocked Atletico out of the cup, they showed all their bad old ways by suffering a 5-1 loss at Eibar a couple of weeks ago.
Montella has, however, shown greater consistency in his team selection, with two players in particular benefitting from his arrival: attacking midfielder Franco Vazquez and central enforcer Steven N’Zonzi.
Vazquez had been in and out of the team under Berizzo, but he has become a regular selection since the arrival of the new manager and started to show the form which made him such a hit upon his arrival at the start of last season, with his ability to get between the lines of the opposition defence and midfield proving a valuable asset.
N’Zonzi’s renaissance is even more dramatic. The former Stoke man was strongly tipped to leave the club in the January transfer window and didn’t play from mid-November until the end of the year, but he has been welcomed back into the fold by Montella and will play a key role against United.
Experienced Argentine international Ever Banega has also returned from injury to join Vazquez and N’Zonzi in a strong central core, and considering United’s well-documented problems in midfield that could be a key area for the home team to exploit.
But with Sevilla this season, you just never know.
As we approach what promises to be a highly-entertaining game of football, we take a look at some of the best stats below:
1. Chelsea have a history of frustrating Barcelona in their past meetings. The Blues have drawn five of their last six matches against the Catalans in all competitions.
2. Messi has never scored against Chelsea in 655 minutes of football over eight games.
AC Milan are the only side he has played more minutes against (eight matches, 720 minutes), and he has struck eight times against them.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) February 18, 2018
3. Barcelona are attempting to reach the quarter-finals for a record-extending 11th straight year.
4. Chelsea have only advanced beyond the last 16 once in the past five seasons, losing at this stage to Paris Saint-Germain in their two most recent knockout ties.
5. This is one of only two last-16 ties featuring a pair of former European champions. The other being between Liverpool and FC Porto.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) February 19, 2018
Unstoppable Poland striker Robert Lewandowski’s injury-time penalty – his 27th of a typically prolific campaign – capped off a scintillating comeback against Wolfsburg at the weekend. This 2-1 triumph was their 22nd from the last 23 matches in all competitions, in which time Bayern have put together a cumulative scoreline of 58-14.
The decision in October to drag club legend Jupp Heynckes out of retirement for a fourth stint in charge will look even better if a similar result is attained for this UEFA Champions League round-of-16 opener when Besiktas visit their Allianz Arena.
A mission impossible, then, for the Super Lig holders? Not necessarily.
Although they sit fourth in the table and five points in arrears to upstarts Istanbul Basaksehir, they have only lost two of their last 24 matches in all competitions. They also did the double against Bundesliga’s RB Leipzig to top an intriguing Group B.
Clearly, the ragtag squad which has answered the anthemic “Come to Besiktas” call have gelled far better than expected. Curious chemistry is at play as head coach Senol Gunes has managed to make a coherent XI out of errant ex-Al Ain and Liverpool forward Ryan Babel, former Al Ahli and Porto winger Ricardo Quaresma and Manchester City misfit Alvaro Negredo – whose place is under threat from January recruit Vagner Love.
Even Bayern’s imposing home form can be viewed positively.
They might have won their last 13 games at the Allianz, but only one clean sheet has been kept in their last seven on home soil. These defensive frailties give hope of an away goal or two which could yet prove decisive in the febrile atmosphere at Istanbul’s Vodafone Park.
Still without injured No1 Manuel Neuer, first-class protection must be provided by Germany centre-backs Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels. The weekend return of Thiago Alcantara potentially adds a rarefied air to Bayern’s midfield.
It is now coming up to five years since Heynckes inspired them to their zenith of the 2012/13 quadruple. Domestic records were broken and German football was redefined in the Pep Guardiola years, but neither he nor Carlo Ancelotti could gift a sixth Champions League crown.
In all probability, Besiktas will just be a stop-off point. True tests await to see whether Heynckes, at 72, still can get Bayern over the line.