The draw for the last 16 of the Champions League was made in UEFA’s Nyon headquarters this morning and Europe’s big guns will have largely liked the outcome.
England’s two remaining representatives, Arsenal and Manchester City, were handed kind draws in Porto and Copenhagen, while Real Madrid were paired with RB Leipzig.
Of the more established big guns, Barcelona face arguably the toughest task, having been paired with last season’s Italian champions Napoli.
Here, our experts cast their eye over the draw and what could happen next.
Which game are you most excited about?
Oliver Kay: Napoli vs Barcelona. Both clubs are experiencing hangovers from last season’s title success, but what better than a tie like that to get them going? In terms of individual talent, tactical intrigue and the atmosphere expected in Naples in particular, this tie sticks out. Second choice: Paris Saint-Germain vs Real Sociedad.
James Horncastle: Maurizio Sarri will be disappointed. The Lazio manager wanted the chance to coach at the Camp Nou. Nevertheless, Lazio vs Bayern Munich sees him face Thomas Tuchel, pitting a couple of cantankerous ex-Chelsea coaches against each other in the ‘Miroslav Klose-ico’. Inter Milan vs Atletico Madrid is also Simone Inzaghi vs ex-Interista Diego Simeone and looks delicately poised, particularly because last year’s finalists face one of the better vintages of Simeone’s Atleti.
Laia Cervello Herrero: Barcelona vs Napoli. It could be an interesting match, especially given how Xavi’s team are faring. They are unpredictable and that makes the match more attractive. It will also be the first time in three years that we will see Barca in the knockout stage of the Champions League.
Liam Tharme: PSG vs Real Sociedad. Two teams that will go toe-to-toe, playing out and pressing. Don’t expect this to be a typically cagey knockout game. PSG just about squeezed through their group — even if Group F was the hardest of the lot — and will need a statement performance. They have looked vulnerable when pressed high and La Real will certainly do that.
Sebastian Stafford-Bloor: Peter Bosz against Borussia Dortmund. Now flying at PSV Eindhoven, Bosz lasted half a season at the Westfalenstadion in 2017 and the way his Dortmund side fell apart still impacts how he’s viewed. Bosz is a punchline to some and he will be thrilled to take his brilliant PSV side (16 wins from 16 in the Eredivisie) to Germany. Fascinating — and that’s without even considering the questions surrounding Edin Terzic’s future.
Round of 16: February 13/14/20/21 and March 5/6/12/13
Quarter-finals: April 9/10 and 16/17
Semi-finals: April 30/May 1 and May 7/8
Final (Wembley): June 1
Who will be happiest with the draw?
Oliver Kay: Manchester City. No disrespect to Copenhagen, but that is the opponent all the group winners wanted. The Danish team were a real surprise package in the group stage, but they will find City a rather tougher proposition than their neighbours.
James Horncastle: City, as usual. I look forward to Stefan Ortega, Micah Hamilton, Oscar Bobb and Mahamadou Susoho helping the treble winners reach the quarter-finals. Serie A leads this season’s UEFA co-efficient sweepstakes and, alongside Ligue 1, still has a full contingent of teams across UEFA’s three competitions. The draws look tough for Italy’s representatives but in the Champions League, Barcelona are not what they used to be and Inter got the ‘right’ team from Madrid, too.
Laia Cervello Herrero: City, without a doubt. They’ve been drawn with the lowest-ranked opponents and they still have the tag of reigning Champions League winners. They can already see themselves in the quarter-finals.
Liam Tharme: Presumably City, even if they did draw in Copenhagen in the group stages last season. They have missed the big hitters and get the bonus of a chance to eliminate the team that went through in place of their city rivals — not that they needed to justify which of the Manchester teams is faring better.
Sebastian Stafford-Bloor: Bayern Munich. Tuchel will probably have two or three new players to weave into his first team at the end of the transfer window and this tie, against Sarri’s underwhelming Lazio, should offer a chance to grow into the latter stages of the tournament. Bayern’s worst-case scenario would have been a fast-paced, vertical opponent, and Lazio certainly aren’t that.
Which ‘giant’ could be in the most trouble?
Oliver Kay: Barcelona, although I would still put them as slight favourites to overcome Napoli. It’s a funny season. None of the heavyweights are performing particularly well, so it’s possible to imagine any one of Barcelona, Bayern or Real Madrid coming unstuck — plus PSG, whom I’m not going to categorise as giants.
James Horncastle: The underwhelming Barcelona. Will Xavi still be in charge come February? Robert Lewandowski seems a shadow of himself. Of course, a lot can change in two months. But a Spalletti-less Napoli still has enough skill to win the ‘Maradona derby’.
Laia Cervello Herrero: Real Sociedad have shown a great level in La Liga and the Champions League and they have a chance against PSG, who are not having the best season.
Liam Tharme: PSG, for all the reasons I mentioned above. Luis Enrique was brought in as a project coach — which is reflected in their summer signings, more youth and less galactico-y — but PSG have gone out in the last 16 in the past two seasons (though to bigger European clubs, in Bayern Munich and Manchester City). If they lose to Real Sociedad, it will probably be down to tactics.
Sebastian Stafford-Bloor: The draw didn’t create too much jeopardy, but it’s probably Barcelona. Napoli are not what they were under Spalletti, but Xavi’s Barca have so little life in them — and so few goals. You can imagine them losing in Naples.
Your predicted quarter-finalists
Oliver Kay: Arsenal, Barcelona, PSG, Atletico, Dortmund, Bayern, City and Real Madrid.
James Horncastle: Arsenal, Napoli, Real Sociedad, Inter, Dortmund, Bayern, City and Real Madrid.
Laia Cervello Herrero: Arsenal, Barcelona, PSG, Atletico, Dortmund, Bayern, Manchester City and Real Madrid.
Liam Tharme: Arsenal, Napoli, Real Sociedad, Inter, Dortmund, Bayern, City and Real Madrid.
Sebastian Stafford-Bloor: Arsenal, Napoli, PSG, Inter, PSV, Bayern, City and Real Madrid.
What would be your dream final from these teams?
Oliver Kay: I’m not going to say an all-English final (too parochial) and I’m not going to say one English club and not the other. From a neutral perspective, in terms of what the clubs stand for, I like the idea of Real Sociedad vs Borussia Dortmund, but that’s not going to happen, is it?
James Horncastle: Copenhagen against Real Sociedad. You asked for a dream final and this is the wildest fever dream. Jokes aside, I would like to see an outsider make it to Wembley on the 20th anniversary of Porto’s victory in Gelsenkirchen.
Laia Cervello Herrero: Barcelona vs Manchester City. Although it is unlikely and it would be painful for the Catalans, I would like to see a final between Pep Guardiola and Barca.
Liam Tharme: I would love to see Inter get to the final again, so wouldn’t be against a repeat of last season’s final, or perhaps against Arsenal, for another clash of styles.
Sebastian Stafford-Bloor: City against Real Madrid. They bring out the best in each other; something always happens to make those games a spectacle. Adding Jude Bellingham seems unlikely to make it any less so, but the broader sub-plots are just so compelling. The contrasting historical and evolutionary dynamics have really made this into an absorbing rivalry between a symbol of the game’s past and a vision of its future.
How will Arsenal view the draw?
Arsenal will feel slightly at ease by drawing Porto for the round of 16, but should not be lulled into a false sense of security.
They have missed most of the big names in the draw, including PSG, Inter and Napoli, but Porto are doing well in Liga Portugal. They have an identical record to Sporting Lisbon, with both clubs two points off league leaders Benfica and a game in hand against each other tonight (Monday). Last season, Arsenal drew Sporting in the Europa League round of 16, which was seen as a favourable draw, but the Portuguese side advanced via a penalty shootout.
Even so, Arsenal have looked exceptional in this year’s Champions League and should be strong enough to progress. They had the best goal difference (+12) of any team in this year’s group stage and have looked more free-flowing in Europe than the Premier League.
Mikel Arteta has not rotated his side as much as he did in the Europa League last term. A consistent team, mixed with the fact that European defences do not defend as deep or tightly as English ones, has allowed his attacking players to flourish on Champions League nights. These encounters should lift Arsenal’s confidence before they kick on into the business end of the season.
And there is an intriguing sub-plot, as well: a reunion for Fabio Vieira with his boyhood club, the midfielder having signed from Porto in the summer of 2022.
Art de Roche
How will Manchester City view the draw?
It will be a great trip to a lovely city for the fans (albeit a bit pricey) and City should win.
They only played each other last season and the game at Parken was a goalless shocker, but only after City had back-up left-back Sergio Gomez sent off in the first half.
City have got their problems but we have seen time and time again, not just with this club but many others (often Real Madrid), that issues in December often count for very little by the time the last 16 rolls around in February.
And even if City are still struggling with silly mistakes (which is basically what is costing them) there should still be a big enough margin for error given how strong they are compared to Copenhagen.
Inter and PSG could have caused a bigger headache and, while you can never say never in football, City can be very pleased with this draw.
How will Real Madrid view the draw?
They avoided Kylian Mbappe’s PSG, Inter and Lazio, but Real Madrid won’t consider Leipzig comfortable opponents. Far from it.
Last season, Leipzig beat Madrid 3-2 in the Champions League group stage — a defeat that will not have been forgotten. And even though Leipzig have seen important players move on since, including Josko Gvardiol, Dominik Szoboszlai and Christopher Nkunku, they are doing well this season; third in the Bundesliga behind Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, comfortable runners-up behind Manchester City in Group G.
That is why Carlo Ancelotti’s Real should not be overconfident — although, as always in European matches, they start as favourites. Even more so when bearing in mind that the second leg is at the Santiago Bernabeu, where the atmosphere always helps.
How will Barcelona view the draw?
With Barcelona seven points behind Real Madrid in La Liga and with Girona still to play Alaves this evening, the Champions League is a huge deal.
Falling short on domestic expectations means Xavi has to deliver in Europe — and returning some self-esteem to a club that last played in the knockout stages in 2021 would greatly help overcome the trauma of recent European failures.
The draw could have been better, but it could have been way worse — especially with PSG in the mix.
Barca and Napoli have met twice in knockout ties over the past four years. In February 2022, Xavi helped Barca past the Italians in the Europa League intermediate stage in his first season in charge. In 2020, Barca beat them over two legs in the Champions League last 16.
This term, Napoli have struggled to match their dominating form of last season. Barca are struggling under Xavi, too, but this match-up will at least mean they can have realistic hopes of reaching the quarter-finals — which would also provide a huge financial relief.
(Top photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)