The Champions League returns this week and has thrown up some mouthwatering ties in the first round of the knockout stage.
Manchester City are set to experience the knockout rounds for the first time as they face four-time winners Barcelona. Whilst Manuel Pellegrini would have loved an easier path to the quarter-finals, there is room for optimism.
Barcelona demonstrated their defensive frailties in last year’s semi-final demolition at the hands of Bayern Munich, and they have done nothing to strengthen that area. A new centre-back to partner Pique was required, but their summer transfer dealings saw funds being used to bring in Brazilian forward Neymar instead. Aguero’s expected absence will be a blow for City, but Alvaro Negredo will be relishing the opportunity to eliminate many of his Spanish teammates from the competition.
Arsenal’s failure to top their group means they are faced with the task of taming reigning champions Bayern Munich, who seem to have only grown in strength this season under Pep Guardiola. Munich find themselves 13 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga having won 18 of their 20 games this season.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have a worrying tendency to collapse away from home against the stronger sides, having been beaten 6-3 at Manchester City and 5-1 at Liverpool. The first leg will therefore be vital in this tie. Arsene Wenger will need to ensure his side improves from their last home outing against German opposition, which saw a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Borussia Dortmund. No team has ever won the Champions League two years in a row, but it’s difficult to see Arsenal being the ones to halt Bayern Munich’s progression this year.
Manchester United and Chelsea find themselves with far easier routes to the last 8. Man Utd face Greek champions Olympiakos who haven’t made it past the Round of 16 since United’s treble winning season of 1998/99. Despite David Moyes’ first season in charge of the club currently being a domestic failure, he’ll be very confident of advancing them in Europe, especially after Olympiakos sold top goalscorer Konstantinos Mitroglou to Fulham in January.
Chelsea come up against Roberto Mancini’s Galatasaray, in a tie which will see Didier Drogba return to Stamford Bridge for the first time since leaving for China. Chelsea have found form at the right time, rediscovering the defensive resilience which characterised Mourinho’s first stint at the club. Despite beating Juventus to reach the knockout phase, a Galatasaray side led by ageing stars will struggle to cause Chelsea any real problems.
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