Europe’s 32 best club soccer teams have been pared down to 16 as the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League start on Feb. 18. England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain and Turkey are the remaining countries with teams represented, with four teams from England (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United) and Germany (Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke) respectively, three from Spain (Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid) and one from each of the other countries (Paris Saint-Germain from France, Olympiacos from Greece, AC Milan from Italy, Zenit St. Petersburg from Russia and Galatasaray from Turkey). Instead of brackets, teams are drawn randomly before each round, so it is hard to predict a winner since the two teams likely to make it all the way could be drawn against one another in the quarter finals. The UEFA Champions League final, which attracted an audience of 206 million viewers last year compared to last year’s Super Bowl, which attracted only 106 million viewers, is set for May 24 in Lisbon, Portugal.
The Round of 16 matches are Manchester City vs. Barcelona, Olympiacos vs. Manchester United, AC Milan vs. Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen vs. Paris Saint-Germain, Galatasaray vs. Chelsea, Schalke vs. Real Madrid, Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich. As long as Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are not drawn as opponents before the final, these two teams are the favorites to lift the most prestigious club sport trophy this year, with Bayern Munich, the current winners, looking invincible since last year, and Real Madrid chasing after the Decima (their tenth time to lift the trophy after having previously won the competition nine times) and Cristiano Ronaldo on a mission to prove that he is the best player in the world.
So let’s break down the matches, starting with Manchester City and Barcelona. The Catalonian giants are favored to advance over the English giants. Manchester City has never had great success in the competition and exited at the group stages last year. Manchester City, with new manager Manuel Pellegrini, is a strong team with players like Sergio Aguero and Joe Heart. However, Manchester City is also faced with a tight race in the Premier League with Arsenal and Chelsea. Barcelona, who has won the competition four times since 1992, is a tough team to defeat with their tiki-taka style and team composed of some of the best midfielders in the world (Andres Iniesta and Xavi Martinez, to name two) and the attacking duo of Lionel Messi and Neymar. Barcelona is also faced with a difficult domestic race, but Barcelona is the more experienced of the two teams and one of the best teams in the world based on the team’s depth, talent and history of success.
Olympiacos and Manchester United will not be necessarily the most interesting game, but the result will come from Manchester United’s disappointing season and Olympiacos’s challenge of facing a big European powerhouse. Sir Alex Ferguson retired as Manchester United’s manager after 26 years and was replaced with David Moyes, who has struggled to live up to expectations. United has struggled domestically in the Premier League, despite winning last year, and United has been knocked out of every competition except for this one. With no hope of maintaining the league title, this is the only competition United has to fight for, but it is a tall order since Moyes keeps repeating that this is “a year of transition.” Olympiacos are the perennial champions in Greece, but have never made an impact in Europe; the farthest they’ve gone in the competition was the semi-finals in 1999. Manchester United is favored to win due to their experience and talent, but it all depends on whether United can get it together during the games.
AC Milan and Atletico Madrid is a much more even draw, but Atletico Madrid is favored to go far in the competition as this year’s dark horse. AC Milan, the only Italian team left in the competition, has not had much success in Serie A and are often very good or very bad. AC Milan has reached the finals more than any other team since 1993 and won three of them; however, Milan has struggled since their loss of star players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andrea Pirlo and Thiago Silva. But Kaka has returned to Milan and can help carry the team through the competition. Atletico Madrid is this year’s Borussia Dortmund, with their success coming fairly recently after defeating their main rivals, Real Madrid, in the Copa del Rey final last year and tied on points with Barcelona in La Liga. Atletic Madrid can challenge to be a team other than Barcelona and Real Madrid to win the league. Atletico lost its star player Ramadel Falcao to AS Monaco, but has been flying in recent form due to Diego Costa, Koke, new signing from Barcelona David Villa and goalkeeper Thibault Courtois. Diego Simeone, Atletico’s manager, has been careful to not appear over confident with the team’s success, but Atletico Madrid can overcome the challenge posed by Milan if the team’s current form continues.
In a game of Germany versus France, Bayer Leverkusen and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the French are favored to win. Bayer Leverkusen, managed by Sami Hyypiä, who won the competition in 2005 as a player for Liverpool, barely managed to make it to the knockout stages of the competition. Due to the team’s current position in the Brundesliga, the domestic German league, they have a real chance of causing big teams problems with a high-tempo counter-attacking style of play led by their key player Sidney Sam. However, they face Zlatan Ibrahimovic and PSG. Despite the loss of former manager Carlo Ancelotti to Real Madrid, Laurent Blanc, regardless of his relative lack of experience in the competition, has a team composed of some of the best in the world due to the club’s big spending power, with the before-mentioned Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and new arrival Edison Cavani. The spectacle that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack and PSG’s solid defense led by Thiago Silva is what will ensure PSG’s progression in the competition.
Galatasaray versus Chelsea will see Wesley Sneijder facing his former manager Jose Mourinho when they were both at Internazionale Milano (Inter Milan) and Didier Drogba facing his former manager and former club that he spent eight years playing for. The Turkish giants splashed cash in order to become a European powerhouse by purchasing players like the previously mentioned player. But the team has yet to see a result and will require some time before challenging for the title, but can still progress in the competition. Chelsea, who won the competition in 2012 and the Europa League in 2013 has seen the return of “the Special One,” Jose Mourinho. Mourinho, who has won the competition with Porto in 2004 and Inter Milan in 2010, is set to try and win again with a third team. Chelsea is favored to win with its slew of attacking midfielders, including Eden Hazard and Oscar, and new striker Samuel Eto’o, but Galatasaray is sure to put up a good fight.
Schalke versus Real Madrid is sure to go in Los Blancos’ favor. Despite the arrival of Kevin Prince-Boateng to the German side, the constant experimentation in the team’s formation and the relatively weak defense are sure to ensure Real Madrid’s progression. Real Madrid, one of the best teams in the world, desperately wants to win the competition for the tenth time, and seeing as they have fallen into third place behind Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in La Liga, they can focus all of their efforts on this competition. If Cristiano Ronaldo was not enough upfront for Real Madrid, Gareth Bale joined Real Madrid from Tottenham Hotspurs for $132 million. Despite his relatively slow start due to injuries, Real Madrid is sure to challenge Schalke goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand. Real Madrid will advance with ease against Schalke, who just made it to knockouts, despite the relative ease of their group.
Zenit St. Petersburg is set to face last year’s underdog and finalist, Borussia Dortmund. Zenit added Hulk and Axel Witsel to their team in September 2012, but have had little success in Europe and qualified for the knockout stages with a record low of six points from the group stages. Zenit has been dominating their domestic league in Russia and has benefited from Russia’s winter break, since Zenit’s players are able to rest and heal while other leagues continue their demanding schedules. With some high profile signings and a solid team, Zenit is sure to give Borussia Dortmund a challenge. Dortmund, the team that everyone fell in love with last year, is likely to win; however, Dortmund has had a difficult year so far. After losing Mario Götze to their rivals, Bayern Munich, last year, Dortmund’s striker, Robert Lewandowski, is also joining the Bavarian giants after the summer. Dortmund has lost the momentum they had last year, and while they are sure to do well in the competition, it does not look like they will make it as far as they did last year. Even if the game is not as entertaining as one would hope, Jurgen Klopp, Dortmund’s manager, is sure to provide all the entertainment needed.
Arsenal fans were dismayed when they discovered that their team was to face Bayern Munich, yet again. Bayern Munich knocked Arsenal out of the competition last year, and is set to do the same. Arsenal has not won a trophy in eight years, while Bayern Munich won five trophies just in the 2013 calendar year, including the Champions League trophy. Arsenal has been off to a great start this year and is challenging for the Premier League title, with the help of Mesut Ozil, who joined this season from Real Madrid. Despite Arsenal’s current form, they are no match for Bayern Munich, who has only improved since their last encounter. Bayern Munich has signed Thiago Alcantara and Mario Götze, as well as the replacement of Jupp Heynckes with Pep Guardiola. Bayern has arguably the best defense in the world, a midfield that rival’s Barcelona’s and an attack that is sure to produce an impressive aggregate. Bayern will go far in the competition, and is favorites to win the competition again.