The world's biggest club tournament (sorry FIFA, but the Club World Cup isn't nearly as big as you wish it was), the UEFA Champions League gets into the first part of the real drama of their tournament with the draw for the knockout stages at noon on Friday afternoon, Central European Time. The biggest teams in Europe, including Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and more will all find out who they will play in the Champions League Round of 16 when the tournament resumes play in February.
The Round of 16 comes on the heels of the Group Stage, in which there were eight, four-team groups with the group winners and group runners up advancing to the knockout stages. In the Round of 16, each of the eight group winners will be matched up against one of the eight group runners up, although they cannot be drawn against the team who also advanced from their group or another team from their country. Here are the 16 teams who have advanced to the knockout stages by group winner and group runners up status.
The overwhelming favorite to win the tournament are Barcelona, who the bookies have made 12/5 favorites. Their destruction of Real Madrid a few weeks ago at the Camp Nou made them the clear best team in the world to most and you can bet that every group runner up is praying that the draw doesn't match them up with the Catalans. Even though Barcelona made minced meat of them, Madrid are still considered by some to be the second best team in the world and wherever they fall in one's personal club rankings, they are a threat to win the Champions League as Jose Mourinho looks to win back-to-back titles with two different teams. Bayern Munich are hardly at top form, sitting in sixth place in the Bundesliga, but the German giants do have enough talent in the team that by the time February comes around, they can be a real threat.
All four English teams made it through to the knockout stages, three as group winners. Neither Manchester United nor Chelsea had much trouble getting through their groups, but while United sits atop the Premier League in their best run of form this season, Chelsea are in their worst run of form and could be vulnerable. Tottenham Hotspur also won their group and while they have holes in the back, their attack has been scintillating to make for some thrilling matches.
The final English team through to the Round of 16 is Arsenal, but they were the biggest surprise of the Group Stage as they failed to finish top of their group. The Gunners now have to go up against another group winner and they will certainly be hoping that they draw Schalke because their only other options are Barcelona, Madrid or Munich. In all likelihood, the Gunners versus whoever they draw will be one of the highlights of the Round of 16.
The other possible highlights lie in the two Milan clubs, Inter and AC. AC Milan is atop the Serie A table and will be the team that every group winner hopes to avoid. Should Milan find themselves against Manchester United or Chelsea, the intrigue will be a sky high and a chance for Serie A, which some think is sinking below the English Premier League and La Liga, to shine. The same goes for Inter Milan, although their hopes are not as high. The reigning European champions, Inter have been a mess under new manager Rafa Benitez and there are questions about whether or not Benitez will even be managing the team by the time the Round of 16 begins in February. Although it would likely spell doom for the Italian club, if the draw sets up Inter versus Madrid and gives Mourinho the chance to face the club he took to Champions League glory in May, mouths would water.
All the intrigue around the draw seems to be for the Champions League, which is to be expected for the world's top club competition, but UEFA will also conduct a draw for the knockout stages of the Europa League. The Europa League has group winners and group runners up from the prior round like the Champions League, but the eight teams who finished in third place in their Champions League group also join the fray in the Europa League knockout stages.
The biggest surprise in the Group Stage of the Europa League was undoubtedly Atletico Madrid, the trophy holders, being eliminated. With Atletico out, Manchester City looks to be the favorite in the competition. The Citizens are playing well in the Premier League and have more talent that you would expect from a Europa League club, but with the Carlos Tevez saga and the rest of the drama at Eastlands, you are never sure what to make of them.
Unlike the Champions League, which has produced finalists from the world's four biggest leagues almost exclusively of late, the Europa League produces surprises and a chance for clubs from lesser known leagues to prove their quality. Clubs from Ukraine, Russia, Scotland, Portugal and France have all made their way to the Final in recent years. With that in mind, it would not be the least bit surprising to see a club like CSKA Moscow go deep into the tournament and provide the world a chance to see the dazzling talents of Keisuke Honda.