Caption: Lionel Messi has been the scourge of English sides over the years
Last Friday’s Champions League draw threw up some mouth-watering encounters, with the managers and fans from the respective clubs either sighing with relief or trying to stifle an inner groan.
From a neutral point of view, it could not have gone much better, and with the draw for the semifinals also being made, it gives us the prospect of a thrilling 6 to 8 weeks of top-class cup ties to look forward to.
Barcelona v Manchester United
Probably the tie of the round sees Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rejuvenated Manchester United take on Barcelona. Talk of the Norwegian’s future will need to take a backseat as he revisits the scene of his greatest night in a United shirt: winning the Champions League in stoppage time against Bayern back in 1999.
There is little doubt that Barcelona will go into the tie as favourites, and history certainly favours Ernesto Valverde’s men. The last two times they have met have been in the finals (in 2009 and 2011), and overall in the competition, Man U have only been victorious once in eight attempts. There is also the little matter of Messi.
The diminutive Argentine is the top scorer anywhere in Europe this season, and his 8 Champions League goals is also more than anyone else. United’s stats are skewed slightly because of the dire football they were playing prior to Solskjaer breathing new life into them.
Though they don’t have the dynamic brilliance of a Barcelona on their day, they can certainly create chances and hurt the opposition. They are also playing with a belief the effects of which should not be underestimated. Regardless of the outcome, what this tie has given us is a banker for both teams to score accumulators.
Tottenham v Manchester City
Spurs will have left the draw the most disappointed team of the eight. Their league form has suffered a dramatic downturn since the turn of the year, though they have still impressed in Europe. Man City will be a very stiff test, and the stats show just how hard it will be for Pochettino’s side.
There are two other factors to throw into the mix. Firstly, three days after the second leg they play each other again—this time in the league at the Etihad. It is very likely that by then City will still be in a dogfight with Liverpool for the title, and Spurs will be fighting for their life for a top four spot, something that seemed nailed on only a few weeks ago.
The other factor is that the home leg—which is the first one of the tie—will be at Tottenham’s fantastic, but much delayed, new grounds. Their game on the previous Saturday against Palace will be the curtain raiser. What effect that has on the game is up in the air, but it could well diminish any home advantage they would have otherwise enjoyed.
Liverpool v Porto
Caption: Klopp won’t admit it, but he will be delighted with Liverpool’s draw
If Tottenham were the least happy after the draw, the smiles on the faces of Liverpool fans would have been the widest. Porto should not be dismissed out of hand, but the Portuguese outfit is undoubtedly the weakest of the eight teams remaining.
The tie is a repeat of last season’s round of sixteen, where Liverpool cruised to a 5-0 aggregate win. Porto, which is currently tied on points with Benfica at the top of their domestic league, have improved since last year’s game, but then so have Liverpool (and even more so).
Being the least glamourous of the round, the fixture could be the biggest danger for Klopp’s side, given their current focus on league matters. However, if the German can get them playing anywhere near their best, they should have far too much for their Iberian counterparts, which sets up an even more intriguing semi-final.
On to the Semis
Those who are successful in the quarters already know whom they could face in the semifinals. The winners of the all English tie will play the winners of the only one without EPL representation. Ajax shocked everyone (but themselves) with the way they unceremoniously dumped Real Madrid out of the competition in their own backyard, and Juventus have a certain Portuguese player who likes this competition above anything else.
If Manchester United triumph against Barcelona, they will in all likelihood face their bitter rivals Liverpool for a spot in the final. That prospect alone is enough to get the heart racing. Whatever happens, this year’s competition is shaping up to be an absolute classic and one where the EPL has reasserted its dominance in European football.