The Champions League’s Phoney War is over, and now things are really getting serious. The group stages have sorted the contenders from the pretenders, and over the next couple of weeks we’ll see some of the favourites go head-to-head home and away for a place in the quarterfinals.
The action gets underway with perhaps the tastiest clash of them all, as Spanish giants Barcelona aim to prove they’ve still got what it takes against Premier League favourites Manchester City. Meanwhile over in Germany, Bundesliga outsiders Bayer Leverkusen will look to resist the might of another of the Champions League’s newly-minted sides, Paris Saint-Germain.
Wednesday will see ailing AC Milan look to rekindle their old flames and pick up an unlikely victory over high-flying Spaniards Atlético Madrid, who continue to defy all odds and sit joint-top of the La Liga table. Over in England inconsistent Arsenal have the unenviable task of stopping the unstoppable; Pep Guardiola’s runaway Bundesliga leaders and last year’s Champions League winners, Bayern Munich.
Week 2 should provide more predictable matchups, as last year’s beaten finalists Borussia Dortmund travel to play Russian champions Zenit St. Petersburg, while Manchester United look to see off Greece’s Olympiakos despite their recent domestic struggles. That’s before Chelsea face Galatasaray in Istanbul, and nine time European winners Real Madrid face German underdogs Schalke.
First leg: February 18th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), BayArena.
Second leg: March 12th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Parc des Princes.
SB Nation pick: Paris Saint-Germain
Despite some recent slips, Bayer Leverkusen are enjoying an excellent domestic season, with Sami Hyypiä continuing to impress in his first management role. He's led his side to second place in the table, currently just edging out the rather more celebrated Borussia Dortmund to be the best of the Bundesliga rest. They've been regulars in the Champions League for a long time, most notably reaching the final back in 2002, and while they're certainly not a continental powerhouse, they could well make life difficult for PSG.
Paris Saint-Germain have been an important club in France for quite a while, winning the first of their three Ligue 1 titles back in 1986. However, it's only in the last couple of years that they've started to establish themselves as a genuine European force, mainly thanks to some rather significant investment from their Qatari owners. Boasting some of the most exciting players in Europe at the moment -- and none more so than Zlatan Ibrahimović -- they've got all it takes to progress through to the late knockout rounds.
Son Heung-Min has been one of the stars of the Bundesliga so far this season, with the 21-year-old Korean netting eight league goals in 16 starts. Generally drifting off the left in a fierce attacking trident also formed by centre-forward Stefan Kießling and winger Sidney Sam, Son is both a creative force and a goal threat. Picking between Son and Sam is splitting hairs, and both will have to perform if Bayer are to have any success.
Though Zlatan isn't often compared to the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, the Swedish striker has made a habit of doing the comparably impossible, breaking the laws of physics several times on the way to netting 49 times in 58 Ligue 1 appearances since joining PSG a couple of seasons ago. His combination of extraordinary technical skill and immense power make him a unique handful for opposition defences, as he can both lash the ball in from all distances as well as bring into play runners from deep or wide. Good luck stopping him, Bayer.
Though Bayer have been highly impressive domestically this season, they certainly weren't all that good in the group stages of the Champions League. They only progressed on a dramatic final Group A matchday thanks to Shakhtar Donetsk's undeserved defeat to Manchester United, finishing the group stages having twice lost heavily to the Red Devils -- including a horrific 5-0 defeat at home. If they don't improve their European form, they'll be crashing out.
PSG's progression to this stage was rather more routine, having been drawn in a group with three significantly weaker sides. They dropped points only twice; held to a 1-1 draw at home to Anderlecht, and a 2-1 defeat away against Benfica -- though by then they'd already guaranteed their qualification. Bayer are arguably their first proper European test since they were knocked out of the Champions League on away goals by Barcelona last season.
First leg: February 18th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Etihad Stadium.
Second leg: March 12th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Camp Nou.
SB Nation pick: Barcelona
After two seasons of failure in the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City have finally broken through to the knockout stage. They won't be terribly pleased that their reward for getting out of their group is a date with Barcelona. The reigning Premier League runners-up have been boosted by new signings Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Álvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetić, who have them looking stronger than ever. However, injury problems have slowed down City, and it's not clear whether they have the bodies to compete for multiple trophies.
So far, so good for the Gerardo Martino era at the Camp Nou. Barcelona have stumbled a few times in La Liga this season, but they're on top of the La Liga table in a tight title race and breezed through to the Copa del Rey final. They've suffered serious injury setbacks this year, with Lionel Messi and Neymar both missing large chunks of time, but both are fully fit again heading into the Champions League. They're firing on all cylinders, and Alexis Sanchez and Pedro look like excellent complements. The only question about Barcelona is, as always, whether or not their defense can put together enough solid performances consecutively for them to lift the European Cup.
With Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho battling injuries, much of the creative and defensive burden will fall on the shoulders of Yaya Touré. It wouldn't be surprising to see Manuel Pellegrini change up his formation to give Touré some more help in midfield against Barca, but he'll be counted on to do multiple jobs whether he's playing in a two- or three-man midfield. If City sticks with their normal narrow 4-4-2, he'll be asked to do the defensive work of two men in the center. If they add a midfielder and drop a striker, some of the creative and goal-scoring burden will end up on his shoulders.
The addition of Neymar has helped Lionel Messi immensely and has kept Barcelona looking formidable when he was injured or out of form, but Messi is still the Catalans' best player and the focal point of their attack. Spain's winter break allowed him to fully recover from a muscle injury and he's in excellent form headed into Champions League action, as evidenced by his two goals against Rayo Vallecano in the game before Barcelona's trip to Manchester. He's one of the two best players in the world and when he's at the top of his game, he's unplayable.
Manchester City drew two of the toughest groups they could have possibly ended up with in the last two editions of this competition, but they were more fortunate this time around. While the top seed in their group was defending champion Bayern Munich, City had no problem taking all 12 points from Viktoria Plzen and CSKA Moscow. City and Bayern split their two meetings, winning one each, but Bayern won the group with their superior goal differential. That's why City, despite getting 15 points from their group, has to get through Barcelona to reach the quarterfinal.
City will be annoyed to draw such a strong opponent, but Barcelona will probably be even less pleased. They probably counted on getting rewarded for winning their group, but instead will meet arguably the strongest runner-up in the competition. Barca were excellent in their first four games of group play, defeating Ajax and Celtic before drawing at the San Siro, then beating AC Milan at home in the return leg. With qualification locked up, they disappointed away to Ajax in the fifth round, but laid a beating on Celtic at Camp Nou in their final group stage game.
First leg: February 19th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), San Siro.
Second leg: March 11th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Vicente Calderon.
SB Nation pick: Atletico Madrid
On their official website, AC Milan describe themselves as the world's most successful club. Whether that's actually true or not is up for debate, but regardless of their history it's obvious that they're no longer a genuine European force. In fact, they're not even a serious Italian force, with the once-great rossoneri having gradually slid into mid-table oblivion since their last title victory in 2011. They've recently replaced coach Max Allegri with former midfield maestro Clarence Seedorf, though early signs show their problems run deeper than just who's sitting on the bench.
Atlético Madrid have upset the two-horse race tradition in La Liga this season, with Los Colchoneros having enjoyed a meteoric rise under the management of Diego Simeone. It has been almost 20 years since they last lifted the Spanish title, though there's no doubt that they're seriously in the running to upset their cross-town rivals Real this time around. The question now is whether they can replicate their recent domestic success on the European stage, and go one better than the two Europa League titles they've won since 2010.
It's not an exaggeration to say AC Milan are reliant on Mario Balotelli. The former Manchester City striker is nothing short of world class when on his best form, and he's dug the rossoneri out of countless holes by scoring 22 times in Serie A since his move back to the peninsula last January. They lack any other consistent options up top, and, often struggling for penetration in attack, regularly rely on individual moments of brilliance from the Italian to pick up points. If Milan are going to enjoy any success, Super Mario will surely be fundamental.
Diego Costa's case is a bizarre one. In the space of a season he's gone from being a solid 10-goal-a-season man to one of the league's top scorers, so far netting 21 La Liga goals in 24 appearances. Unsurprisingly, he's now courted by some of the best clubs in the world, and will look to continue his hot streak on the continental stage. He's so far scored four Champions League goals in three appearances, with his searing pace and good vision making him perfectly suited to Diego Simeone's counter-attacking style.
It's hardly surprising, given their domestic troubles, that AC Milan only just scraped through their Champions League group. They won just twice in six matches; beating Celtic both home and away, with draws against Ajax and Barcelona enough to ensure they qualified for the knockout stages ahead of the Dutch champions by a solitary point.
Atléti had a rather more routine progression to the knockout stages, despite being drawn in a group with a couple of potential banana skins. They dropped points only once in a 1-1 draw against Zenit in St. Petersburg, otherwise beating them at the Calderón and seeing off both Porto and Austria Vienna home and away. Atléti certainly had the easier group than Milan, and it showed.
First leg: February 19th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Emirates Stadium.
Second leg: March 11th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Allianz Arena.
SB Nation pick: Bayern Munich
Arsenal got off to a fantastic start this season, spending much of the campaign atop the Premier League table, but there were always concerns. They struggled to keep their squad fit and were dependent on players such as Aaron Ramsey being in the best form of their lives. Was that sustainable? It didn't look like it, especially after an embarrassing 5-1 loss to Liverpool dropped them from England's top spot. But they bounced back with a win over the Reds in FA Cup action on Saturday to instill some faith again that the Gunners might be able to win the league and compete with Europe's best.
The defending champions were clearly the world's best team a year ago and, if anything, they're even better this time around. The additions of Mario Götze and Thiago Alcantara gave them two more great players, while Pep Guardiola brought a possession-dominant system that has overwhelmed opponents in Germany and abroad. They have already opened up a 16-point lead in the Bundesliga, essentially wrapping up the league, while making quick work of the DFB-Pokal and cruising through the Champions League group stage to give them a chance at yet another treble.
The signing of Özil was supposed to have transformed the Gunners. It showed that the club were willing to spend and bring in world-class talent. But the German hasn't been as good as advertised and it's the play of those around him that have fired Arsenal into the title chase. That can't be the case against Bayern Munich. With the Bavarians likely to keep the ball and limit the Gunners' possession, Arsenal need to create chances every time they get the chance to go forward. That means Özil needs to be sublime.
It's tough to pick a key player from a team of Bayern's caliber. Every player can be brilliant, while any mistakes by any one player are usually covered by another, but center backs have less margin for error so a mistake there could prove more harmful. Dante had a rough start to the season and while he has been better of late, he may still be prone to a match-changing error. That's a bit of a reach, but singling out anyone as a potential match winner or loser is tough on a team this good.
The Gunners are only in the knockout stages thanks to goal difference. They finished the group stage in a three-way tie with Borussia Dortmund and Napoli, advancing with BVB by a single goal. Arsenal won their first two matches in the group and while they lost at home to Dortmund, they won the return match and beat Marseille to put themselves in the pole position to win the group heading into the final matchday, but a 2-0 loss to Napoli put them on the brink of elimination. One more goal allowed and they would be watching the knockout stages from home, but they held on to advance.
As good as Bayern have been in the league, they weren't quite as strong in Europe (although that's holding them to an absurdly high bar). They won five of their six group stage matches, but they did manage to lose at home against Manchester City, leaving them even on points with the English side and relying on a narrow goal differential margin to squeak into first place.
First leg: February 25th, 2014 (5:00 pm GMT/12:00 pm EST), Petrovski Stadium.
Second leg: March 19th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Signal-Iduna-Park.
SB Nation pick: Borussia Dortmund
Zenit St. Petersburg won their last game before the winter break in the Russian Premier League to go top of the table before the recess, but they were in very average form before that 2-1 victory over second-bottom Ural. They had failed to win their four matches before that, losing twice. They've also been less than spectacular in their winter friendlies in the build-up to this tie, losing three of the four. The Russians have serious firepower up top with Hulk, Danny and Alexander Kerzhakov, as well as plenty of experience in midfield and defense, but their form suggests that they're going to have trouble against Dortmund.
Jürgen Klopp still has Borussia Dortmund competing with Europe's elite, but the loss of Mario Götze has hit them hard, while their injury problems in defense certainly haven't helped. Dortmund currently sit third in the Bundesliga table and look like they're going to face a serious fight for their Champions League spot, with the top six all looking formidable in Germany. However, Klopp's side is currently in very solid form and has to be considered favorites against Zenit. They've won their last four in a row in all competitions and face one more game -- away to stumbling Hamburg -- before they take on the Russians.
Hulk and Alexander Kerzhakov run hot and cold, but Witsel has been a consistent presence in midfield since his arrival. There's no guessing how good Zenit's forwards will be and Luciano Spaletti's teams are usually disciplined defensively, so Witsel will be the key to putting everything together. He's a spectacular athlete who is just as adept at getting forward as he is at winning the ball back. His energy is key and he'll need to be Zenit's best player in both transitional phases for them to have a chance to pull the upset.
Dortmund's superstar Pole will depart for Bayern Munich this summer, but while he's still under contract with his current team, he'll be depended on to score. He's the club's leader in goals with 19 in all competitions, with four coming in BVB's six UEFA Champions League games. Dortmund had a bit of a tough time getting all of their attacking pieces to click early in the season, but it looks like Lewandowski and Marco Reus have finally found some chemistry with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang.
Zenit finished second in last year's Russian Premier League, and as a result were forced to enter the competition in the third qualifying round. They got through both of their qualifiers, crushing FC Nordsjaelland before moving on to comfortably defeat Pacos de Ferreira in the playoff round. Their group stage campaign was a bit less straightforward, but they benefitted from some poor performances from FC Porto. The Portuguese side were abysmal at home, taking just one point from their three games and losing 1-0 to Zenit. The Russian side drew both Porto and Austria Vienna at home -- and were also thrashed away by the Austrians -- but their home draw with Atletico Madrid helped them to finish one point ahead of Porto.
Partially thanks to how evenly matched the top three teams were and partially thanks to Marseille's incompetence, Dortmund were involved in the most exciting group of the tournament. They finished tied with Arsenal and Napoli on 12 points apiece, but their goal differential saw them finish top. On a dramatic final day, Dortmund found an 87th minute winner against Marseille through Kevin Großkreutz. Napoli, apparently counting on Marseille to take points, made minimal effort to make up the goal differential gap and bowed out despite their 2-0 win over Arsenal.
First leg: February 25th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Karaiskaki Stadium.
Second leg: March 19th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Old Trafford.
SB Nation pick: Man United
Kostas Mitroglou has departed for Fulham, but Olympiacos still have the core of the team that outlasted Benfica and gave Paris Saint-Germain all they could handle. No one will mistake Olympiacos for a Champions League contender, but in Manchester United's current form, they have to be seen as a legitimate threat. Javier Saviola is proving he has a few more lives left, while on-loan Arsenal man Joel Campbell looks like he has a future with the Gunners. Olympiacos defend well, counter quickly and have a solid stable of talent, but they're still underdogs against United. Especially after selling their best striker. Marko Šćepović, announce yourself to the world.
David Moyes' first season in charge at Manchester United has been a disaster, but not an unmitigated one. Alex Ferguson left him a team with no midfield, Ed Woodward has done a very poor job of getting deals done in a timely fashion and injuries have plagued Robin van Persie once again. There's enough going wrong at Manchester United that a Champions League quarterfinal exit and a seventh place finish in the Premier League might buy him another year, but it's obvious that Moyes is treading on thin ice. They have the talent to destroy Olympiacos, but does anyone genuinely believe they're going to head to Piraeus and score three or four goals?
It's difficult to pick out a key player for Olympiacos. Not only did they sell Kostas Mitroglou, but they rotate constantly. Almost no one is guaranteed to start except for goalkeeper Roberto Jimenez, but it would be surprising if Joel Campbell didn't get the nod on the wing. Olympiacos aren't going to see a ton of the ball, so they'll need someone who can make the most of limited opportunities on the break. That description fits Campbell, who has been in excellent form this season. If Olympiacos start him on the right and Michael Olaitan on the left, United are going to have a lot of pace to deal with down the flanks.
In recent history, United have only been as good as Wayne Rooney in the Champions League. When he's at his best, United can compete with anyone in Europe. When he doesn't play well, they can get upset by the likes of Olympiacos. It's been a while since Rooney was truly in top form, but he shows occasional flashes of brilliance. With Juan Mata cup tied, most United attacks will probably run through Rooney, who his team will count on to be the Rooney of 2011, not the Rooney of recent times.
The biggest result of Olympiacos' group stage run came in the third round of play, when they pulled out a draw away to Benfica. Two weeks later, they got the better of the Portuguese giants, defeating them at home. That put them in a position to control their own destiny going into the final matchday, where they beat Anderlecht to advance, getting past Benfica even though they managed to upset Paris Saint-Germain. Olympiacos struggled at home against PSG, but nearly stole a point from them at Parc des Princes, with Edinson Cavani stealing a 90th minute winner in that match.
While United were far from impressive in the group stage of the Champions League, they were never in any serious danger of not qualifying for the knockout stage and won their group comfortably. They went on a lackluster run where they drew away to Shakhtar Donetsk, beat Real Sociedad 1-0 at home on a 2nd minute own goal and drew 0-0 away to La Real, but they bounced back in spectacular fashion. On the penultimate matchday, United crushed Bayer Leverkusen, winning 5-0 in Germany. That result meant they were through before the last match was played, and they beat Shakhtar 1-0 at Old Trafford to eliminate the Ukranians.
First leg: February 26th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Türk Telekom Arena.
Second leg: March 18th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Stamford Bridge.
SB Nation pick: Chelsea
It's difficult to figure out exactly how good Galatasaray are. They took four points from Juventus in the group stage of the competition, but split with Copenhagen and got destroyed by Real Madrid twice. They're still in the title race in Turkey, but they currently sit in third place, behind both of their big Istanbul rivals and seven points off the top. Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder both appear to have plenty left in the tank, while the January acquisition of Alex Telles looks like a huge bargain, but it's tough to evaluate Galatasaray with so few games played against solid competition. Their league game against second-placed Besiktas before their match against Chelsea could tell us a lot about who they are.
Chelsea are undoubtedly the favorites against Galatasaray, although the quarterfinals could prove much more of a challenge. An exit in the next round would almost certainly be a disappointment in what hasn’t been the shiniest season of José Mourinho’s career. After out-masterminding Manuel Pellegrini in the league, Manchester easily knocked the Blues out of the FA Cup, and although Chelsea are still in the race for the Premier League title, don’t appear clear favorites over Arsenal or City. A solid win over Galatasaray and a deeper run in the Champions League could go a long way toward burnishing what has been, for Chelsea at least, a rather lackluster season.
Didier Drogba, is the obvious choice thanks to his past with Chelsea, but the big striker occasionally gets left on the bench if Galatasaray change formations or he needs a rest. Wesley Sneijder, on the other hand, plays every game he's fit for and his team's attack usually revolves around him. Whether Gala is playing with a back three or four, with a dedicated advanced playmaker or not, they always find a way to slot Sneijder into the team. Galatasaray's attacks and time on the ball will be limited against Chelsea, so it will be up to Sneijder to make the most of the possession they do have and create chances for his teammates.
With Belgium heading to their first World Cup since 2002, they'll be thrilled to see that Eden Hazard has spent this season making a massive leap. He's been the nation's best young player for quite some time, but he's been Chelsea's best player so far this season and is stepping into the conversation about the best attacking players in Europe, non-Ronaldo or Messi division. Hazard has 12 goals in the Premier League this season, but he hasn't been quite as potent in Europe. If Galatasaray goes compact and defensive, Chelsea will need Hazard to create some magic from the left wing.
Galatasaray were given almost no chance to advance to the knockout stage when they were drawn into a group with Juventus and Real Madrid, but they embarrassed the Italian champions, defeating them on the final day of group play to advance. Their advancement was not without controversy, though. That match was abandoned due to snow, then re-started on a pitch that was thoroughly destroyed by the snow removal, perhaps in a way that was more unfavorable to the visitors than Galatasaray. Earlier in the tournament, they pulled off an unlikely draw at Juventus Stadium, with Umut Bulut scoring an 88th minute equalizer.
Chelsea were stunned by FC Basel on the first matchday, with the Swiss champions pulling off a win at Stamford Bridge, but the Blues were excellent after that. While they lost the return leg against Basel at St. Jakob-Park, they won their other four matches. Basel, on the other hand, were poor against everyone but Chelsea and were eliminated after managing just two points in other matches. Ultimately, Chelsea had little problem finishing top of their group, and bought Mohamed Salah, the Basel player who did the most damage against them.
First leg: February 26th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Veltins-Arena.
Second leg: March 18th, 2014 (7:45 pm GMT/2.45 pm EST), Santiago Bernabeu.
SB Nation pick: Real Madrid
A rough start to the season, which saw Schalke lose three of their first six matches, put Jens Keller on the hot seat, a place he stayed until the winter break when there were even reports that the manager would be sacked. But Schalke stuck with their man and it has paid off to the tune of four straight wins in the league and just once loss since Oct. 26. The result is a jump to fourth in the Bundesliga, just three points back of second placed Bayer Leverkusen.
Carlo Ancelotti was brought in to remake a squad that struggled last season and it started with the roster, which saw Gareth Bale, Isco, Daniel Carvajal and Asier Illarramendi come in, while Mesut Özil, Gonzalo Higuaín, Raúl Albiol and Kaká all left. There were a couple early struggles, notably losses to Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, but they have been flawless since. Real Madrid haven't lost since Oct. 26, advancing in the Champions League and Copa del Rey while moving into a joint tie for first in the league as they begin to look more and more like Spain's best side.
With Klaas-Jan Huntelaar back and Julian Draxler excellent as always, Schalke have a great attacking duo, but it's the emergence of Meyer that may determine whether they can hang with Real Madrid. The 18-year-old has been touted as the future of Schalke for years, but it appears as if the future is finally now. He has started every match since Dec. 7, took man of the match honors against Freiburg, and has two goals in his last four matches. If Meyer is ready to shine against Real Madrid, Schalke has a scary three-headed monster.
The best player on the pitch is always the key player -- even if it's not the most clever of picks -- but that seems especially true with Ronaldo in this year's Champions League. The Portuguese star scored nine goals in the group stage, setting a new Champions League record, and he did it in just 450 minutes for a rate of a goal every 50 minutes. Schalke have allowed just two goals in their last six matches, but they haven't faced Ronaldo yet.
Schalke got off to a great start in the group stage, winning each of their first two matches, but consecutive losses to Chelsea and a draw with Steaua Bucharest sent them to the final matchday in need of a win to advance. That's exactly what they got, with Draxler and Joël Matip scoring second-half goals to earn them second place in the group and their second consecutive knockout stage appearance.
Real Madrid were nearly perfect in the group stage with a draw the lone blemish on their record. Still, 16 points and a plus-15 goal difference was more than enough to fire them to the top of the group with ease. Led by Ronaldo's remarkable play, Real Madrid's point total tied for the best in the entire group stage, while their goal difference was easily tops.