The much-awaited Champions League Round of 16 match-ups have finally been revealed and the months of February and March are blessed with some mouth-watering fixtures.
We take a look at the top three fixtures which should be on top of your priority list when European football returns from its winter hiatus.
Liverpool v Bayern Munich
A fixture that could probably have been worth of a final sees two heavyweights lock horns fresh out of the group stages. Liverpool and Bayern Munich equally share 10 European titles between them.
The Reds qualified on the last matchday of the group stage, defeating Napoli 1-0 at Anfield and finishing as runners up of Group C.
Bayern Munich topped group E and are yet to face defeat in a European fixture. However, the Bavarians have not been at their sharpest of late.
The Reds – who are currently on top of the Premier League – will be considered favourites, given that they managed to qualify from a more competitive group and are unbeaten in the league.
However, Bayern will fancy their chances in the first leg at Anfield as Virgil van Dijk will be missing the tie due to suspension. The Dutchman is a hugely influential figure in the Liverpool backline and his absence could affect them immensely. The German giants need to go out all guns blazing and try to get those important away goals.
Liverpool need to trust their system and treat Bayern just like any other team. The Reds have overcome Manchester City’s ‘juego de posicion’ and Manchester United’s deep-block by employing the same tactics of gegenpressing and quick transitions. There’s absolutely no reason why this should not work against the Bundesliga’s defending champions.
Liverpool: It’s a no-brainer that Mohamed Salah will be Liverpool’s best bet at providing a game-changing moment. Sadio Mane, Fabinho, Van Dijk and Alisson will be crucial as well. A certain Swiss power cube who goes by the name of Xherdan Shaqiri, a former Bayern player, can prove a super-sub.
Bayern Munich: Robert Lewandowski ended up as the top-scorer in the group stages, netting eight goals and will be looking to extend his tally. Thiago Alcantara, Kingsley Coman and Joshua Kimmich are other potential match-winners.
Prediction: Liverpool qualify
Atletico Madrid v Juventus
Atletico Madrid and Juventus are pitted against each other in a battle between two of the most elite defences in Europe. This fixture also sees Cristiano Ronaldo return to Madrid as a hostile environment awaits him at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Atletico were touted to top Group A but qualified as runners-up after they were thumped 4-0 by Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund. Juventus went down to United at Turin before being subjected to a shock defeat at the hands of Young Boys. But the Bianconeri managed to top group H.
The pair have lost two Champions League finals each in the last five years and will be looking to break the curse and go all the way this season, but a stern test awaits them at every step.
The Rojiblancos have looked vulnerable at the back this season and a team with advancing full-backs that stretches the defence can really hurt them. Juventus can produce exactly that through Joao Cancelo, who has been phenomenal this season.
The fact that Atletico are exactly the team that can beat Juventus makes this tie all the more interesting. The Italian giants had their flaws exposed against a flawed United, as it revealed that a team that absorbs pressure, and somehow score a goal against the run of play due to physical or aerial superiority, can hit Juventus where it hurts. This is something Atletico excel at and it’s safe to say that we are in for a juicy tie here.
Atletico Madrid: Antoine Griezmann has been Atletico’s best player this season by a mile. Rodrigo, Lucas Hernandez and Diego Godin will be absolutely crucial. Arguably the best keeper in the world, Jan Oblak can really frustrate Ronaldo and Co.
Juventus: A crunch Champions League fixture against Atletico calls for a Ronaldo masterclass and the Portuguese will be desperate to deliver after a frustrating group stage. Juventus also have plenty of match-winners in Mario Mandzukic, Miralem Pjanic and Paulo Dybala.
Prediction: Juventus qualify
Ajax v Real Madrid
A rather less-hyped fixture, but this tie featuring Ajax and Real Madrid can prove to be a nail-biter. The resurgence of Ajax has been timed exactly to match Madrid’s apparent downfall, which makes it hard to pick a winner here.
Ajax qualified as runners-up of Group E and stayed unbeaten despite having faced German giants Bayern Munich twice. On the other hand, Real Madrid hold a 0-4 aggregate disadvantage against bottom placed CSKA Moscow.
Ajax employ a free-flowing ‘juego de posicion’, the same system that engineered Barcelona’s famous 5-0 victory over Los Blancos in 2010. Erik ten Hag’s Ajax could even be seen as a low-budget 2008-12 Barcelona, the team that spelled Madrid’s doom. The Dutch team might not be favourites but they will fancy their chances against a shaky Madrid.
The European champions will be banking on quick counters courtesy of Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale as they take their first major step in defending the title for the third time. A quick counter against a dangerously high backline that Ajax employ can be the key for Madrid.
Ajax: Dusan Tadic has been one of the best players of the group stages and will be looking to assert himself on the Madrid defence. Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech will be looking to build on their excellent run of form.
Real Madrid: Gareth Bale has had a horrible start to his season but when the other options are Karim Benzema and Asensio, the Welshman has to play the role of a talisman against Ajax. Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric and World Cup winner Raphael Varane will have to play their roles to perfection if Madrid are to see this tie through.
Prediction: Ajax qualify
Being paired against the runaway Ligue 1 leaders PSG was perhaps not the kindest outcome which under-pressure United boss Jose Mourinho would have been hoping for.
While the Red Devils were handed the most testing of fixtures, the other English teams will all face German opposition following Monday’s draw for the knockout stages.
Tottenham, who qualified as runners-up in their group behind Barcelona, will take on current Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, for whom England teenage forward Jadon Sancho continues to impress.
It is, however, United’s clash with the French side, unbeaten in their own domestic division this season with some 44 points from 16 league games, which proved the pick of the ties.
United have never faced PSG before, but could come up against former midfielder Angel Di Maria in their squad, as well as Neymar, the world’s most expensive player, and France World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe.
Tuchel’s side scored 17 goals in their Group C campaign to qualify ahead of Liverpool, but were beaten 3-2 at Anfield during September.
The German coach maintains there will be no sense of complacency when they head back to England, the first leg set for February 12, with the game in Paris on March 6.
“We have the quality to win at Old Trafford. I’m confident for my team, but it’s a great test, a challenge,” Tuchel said at a press conference ahead of the Ligue 1 game against Orleans.
“If I were a spectator, I would watch this game on television.
“The round of 16 is always tough. I do not think we are favourites.
“We must respect the clubs that have experience of these major meetings in the Champions League, such as Manchester United. They have won this competition several times.
“It will be important to show our desire to win, but also that in the two months before we play every game thoroughly – it would be a great mistake to now just focus on the Champions League game.”
Spurs host Dortmund on February 13, and will play in Germany on March 5.
Bayern Munich, meanwhile, have shown form in Europe, winning Group E, despite their lack of consistency in the Bundesliga, where they are third and trail Dortmund by nine points.
Schalke are down in 13th place, and came through Group D as runners-up. City will be away in the first leg on February 20 and at home on March 12.
Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic believes the Germans face “the team of the hour” in Liverpool.
“These are the challenges that you look forward to as a player and that you have to overcome,” he said on the Bayern website.
The first leg is set for Anfield on February 19 and the return fixture will be in the final set of games on March 13.
The Video Assistant Referee system will be in place for the Champions League knockout stages.
Elsewhere in Monday’s draw, Atletico Madrid will take on Serie A leaders Juventus, Lyon play Barcelona, Roma face Porto, while Dutch club Ajax are set to meet holders Real Madrid.
Madrid will play Ajax, who finished second in their group behind Bayern Munich, and Barcelona face a Lyon side that are currently 13 points behind Ligue 1 powerhouses Paris Saint-Germain.
Meanwhile, Premier League leaders Liverpool have been handed a Champions League last-16 tie against German giants Bayern Munich.
In the first fixture drawn in Nyon on Monday morning, Premier League champions Manchester City were paired against German club Schalke.
Manchester United were handed a tough tie against French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
Tottenham Hotspur, who qualified as runners-up in their group behind Barcelona, will also face Bundesliga opposition as they face Borussia Dortmund.