The Champions League knockout draw brought some of Europe's best teams together. Miguel Delaney gives his five observations from the ties.
If the majority of the group stage ground to something of a halt, the tournament is set to immediately accelerate again. That was confirmed by the first pairing drawn, which is this year’s equivalent of Real Madrid-Manchester United: Manchester City versus Barcelona. Of course, the 2013-14 campaign also has its own Arsenal versus Bayern Munich. It emphasises just what a different competition this feels like from the last 16 on, as it all gets so real. That is not just down to the obvious fact it is sudden death, but because of the scale of these gigantic ties. They are becoming a defined trend of the second round, even though the tournament should not get too intense until the quarterfinals. It emphasises the fact that the modern Champions League may now be the highest-quality tournament football has ever seen.
One other consequence of such an exciting last 16 is how much it conditions the remainder of the tournament. Look at it this way. Of the eight likeliest winners based on both the group stage and the domestic form, at least two are definitely set to drop out. By contrast, a stage as late as the quarterfinals will involve either a team struggling like Manchester United or a thoroughly average Olympiakos, as well as potentially a Paris Saint-Germain that should be by no means ready to win such a tournament. Even though the feeling is that one of Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Real Madrid will eventually prevail in Lisbon, it is for reasons like this that Liverpool were able to win in 2005 and a dysfunctional Chelsea in 2012. Has this particular draw helped condition such a path? It certainly feels more likely now than it did immediately after the group stage finished.
Easier games, harder edges?
On the other hand, given the manner in which the two grandest ties could unsteady those big teams, it is perhaps the more lopsided pairings that could become the most relevant for later in the tournament. It is difficult to see any of Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund or Real Madrid having too much trouble. Given that those three sides have not yet fully calibrated after the key changes of the summer -- two with the manager, the other with major sales -- this relatively soft draw offers that bit more breathing space. As Jose Mourinho always insists, too, once you’re in the quarterfinal you’re a contender.
The themes behind the teams
If there are only two truly scintillating ties, there are at least plenty of subplots. Mourinho claimed after his side finished first that he wanted to draw Galatasaray so that Didier Drogba could receive a proper hero’s welcome-back at Chelsea, and both will get that. A lot has been said about Manuel Pellegrini’s relationship with Mourinho, too, but just as interesting is his dynamic with Barcelona. They were surveying his future before City made their move, even though his exquisite football has always found trouble against the Catalan approach. Then there is the repeat of last season and all the narratives that offers. Given how much has been made about the evolutions of Arsenal and Bayern -- and whether one side can finally win a trophy, and the other finally retain the Champions League itself -- their tie will provide an interesting barometer as to how much has changed since this stage last season.
This season's dark horse?
For all those extremes, it’s also possible that a side like Atletico Madrid could find an ideal middle ground. Sure, they aren’t yet at the level of the “super favourites,” and they don’t have the Champions League experience of some flailing bigger clubs like United, but they are hugely dangerous opponents. Their tie also offers an interesting case study, given that it is between one big team on the wane in Milan and one on the rise in Diego Simeone’s dynamic outfit. This season’s Borussia Dortmund? As with everything else about this draw, we await with excitement.