All eyes on the UCL draw

Posted by Rob Train

Carlo Ancelotti GettyImagesCarlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid strolled through the group phase.

Real Madrid pretty much strolled through Group B in the Champions League's opening phase. Record for most goals scored in a group stage? Equalled. Record for most goals scored by a single player in the six group matches? Bettered by Cristiano Ronaldo's nine strikes, in just five games. Real also had a goal difference of plus-15, there were nine clear points between top spot and second-place Galatasaray, and all in a group completed by Italian champions Juventus, who went out, and FC Copenhagen, who had never been beaten in the Parken Stadion in Champions League group stage play until Carlo Ancelotti's team rolled into town. It was all rather convincing.

Finishing top of the group was the priority. There are few strolls in the park in the last 16, but the eight teams comprising the seeded section of Monday's draw reads like a who's who of Europe's most destructive sides. Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini caused much media mirth in the U.K. this week by admitting that he wasn't aware that another goal in his side's incredible comeback win at Bayern Munich would have secured top spot in the group. Maybe the Chilean left his abacus in Manchester, but what was largely lost among the thigh-slapping British tabloids was that City beat Bayern. In Munich. After going two goals down against a side that had won their last 10 Champions League matches on the bounce.

Suffice to say, Pellegrini's side are the one to avoid on Monday, as Ancelotti admitted after the final round of fixtures this week: "City are the most dangerous opponent in the next round."

Premier League leaders Arsenal were handed their backsides on a plate over the weekend in a 6-3 drubbing at the Etihad, where City have scored 29 goals in their last six Premier League home games; they have been beaten only once at home all season, by reigning European champions Bayern.

Of all the teams in the unseeded pot (Bayer Leverkusen, Galatasaray, Olympiacos, Manchester City, Schalke, Arsenal, FC Zenit and AC Milan), only Galatasaray cannot face Real in the last 16 as all the remaining Liga sides are on the other side of the draw.

Olympiacos would probably be the first club from a seeded manager's lips if asked which team he would prefer. Coached by former Real midfielder Michel, the Greek club secured qualification to the knockout stages with a last-gasp 3-1 win over Anderlecht that served to dump Benfica out of the competition on goal difference. A familiar face to Liga fans bagged an all-important brace (and missed a penalty): "The Rabbit," Javier Saviola.

But Olympiacos might not be the softest touch in the mix: eight points clear of PAOK at the top of the Super League, Michel's side contains one of Europe's current hottest properties in Kostas Mitroglou, who has banged in 17 goals in 15 matches this season, including four in Europe.

Bayer Leverkusen boasted a formidable home record until very recently, when a hardly vintage Manchester United team stuffed five past the Bundesliga outfit in the BayArena. Sami Hyypia's side then needed a favour from David Moyes' men to ensure qualification in the final round of fixtures; not exactly perfect preparation for the knockout stages, but it is Bayer, not Borussia Dortmund, keeping pace with mighty Munich in the Bundesliga.

Germany's other Pot 2 representative, Schalke 04, are not faring so well domestically and lie a full 20 points behind Bayern Munich at the time of this posting. Jens Keller's side was also sent crashing out of the German Cup by 1899 Hoffenheim and reached the last 16 of the Champions League in the final round of matches by beating Basel (who played with 10 men for an hour) 2-0 in one of the weakest groups in the competition.

Schalke’s fortunes are inextricably tied to the form and fitness of Julian Draxler, the 20-year-old setting hearts and checkbooks aflutter across the continent. Kevin Prince-Boateng was bought from Milan in the offseason to add some creativity to midfield, and in Jefferson Farfan and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Schalke have plenty of experience up front. On their day, a dangerous opponent; but those days are fewer and further between at the moment. Chelsea, who lost twice to Basel in Group E, picked up six of their 12 points at the expense of Schalke.

There is, though, the German "curse" to consider in eyeing the Bundesliga's lesser lights as an attractive draw: Real have not won a match in Germany since 2000.

A trip to Saint Petersburg might be more appealing from Real's -- or anybody's -- point of view: The Russian Premier League's winter break started a week ago and runs to March 7. The first-leg last 16 matches in the Champions League are scheduled for mid- to late February with the return fixtures to be staged in March, a week or two after Zenit return to domestic action, depending on the draw. It's no coincidence that Russian sides rarely trouble the quarterfinals of the competition; under the previous system in the Russian Premier League, the season didn't start until March. Being fresh is one thing, but being out of competitive action for three months makes Zenit arguably the juiciest name in the tombola for any of the seeded sides.

Real's final two possibilities are seven-time champions but currently misfiring AC Milan, who are already out of Serie A title contention. Despite being far from the force they once were, the Rossoneri still possess enough talent to spring a surprise on any of the seeded sides and their lack of domestic impetus will allow Massimiliano Allegri to condition his players for an assault on the quarterfinals in Europe.

Arsenal, along with City the team to be most feared by the seeded clubs, have the opposite problem; without a trophy since 2005 and currently top of the Premier League, Arsene Wenger has a difficult balancing act to perform if that remains the case in February. Notoriously brittle, the Gunners' squad is always a little light and the glut of festive games in the U.K. will stretch Wenger's resources to the limit, while La Liga and the Bundesliga put their feet up for a couple of weeks.

Ancelotti will be desperate to avoid Arsenal, who were also a goal away from topping the Group of Death, but if recent seasons are anything to go by, Wenger will probably wind up locking horns with bête noire Barcelona, which would be an interesting matchup -- and a relief for everyone else in the competition.


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