by Anthony Lewis
Politically, the European issue in the UK is a controversial and divisive one between those who favour more European integration and those who would have us separate from our continental friends for good. On the football front this season, the European issue is an extremely exciting but equally volatile and fragile issue. Last week’s final round of group matches decided which teams would progress and in what order they would do so. Of course, the usual suspects such as the Barcelonas, the Bayern Munichs and the Real Madrids of this world were there as were four English teams in the shape of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City (for the first time) and Manchester United. PSG, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and AC Milan could hardly have been a surprise either. In terms of the other qualifiers, Schalke, Galatasaray, Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Olympiakos don’t exactly jump off the page in comparison.
And so to the business of an UEFA draw. Ah UEFA you complex and ridiculous little thing. If I had to equate such an event to you it would be like spending hours on end being lectured to on how the paint drying is going to work, before discovering that the paint drying was the shortest and best part of the event. Anyway, to business! In order to prevent your mind dissolving in the tortuous formalities and tediousness of the ‘procedure’ I will provide a basic summary of how it works. In practice, each group runner up would be drawn at home in the first leg against a group winner. They were not allowed to face a team from their own country or from their same group. That’s it. Take notes Platini, on my mastery of the art of succinctness.
To the results then and there is something about Champions League knock out stage draws that has a real disliking of all things Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s men have had some real humdingers of draws in the past at this and later stages and this time, having faced one German giant in the groups, they will face THE German giant in the Last 16. None other than the imperious Bayern Munich. As holders and German champions, they boast a squad full of top international players. A squad so packed with a plethora of talent it could probably win a footballing Oscar. Despite the presence of the likes of Ribery, Muller, Schweinsteiger, Neuer, Lahm, Gotze, Mandzukic and others, Arsenal can take heart from a certain second leg 2-0 victory at the Allianz at this stage last year. Of course, they lost 3-2 on aggregate, but it was a memorable night in the hearts of Gooners everywhere. In fact, English clubs have enjoyed a lot of success in the current European Capital of Football of late. Chelsea beat Bayern themselves in the 2012 Final on a penalty shootout. Still the only recorded English victory of a German side from twelve yards. Not to mention only last week when Manchester City came from going 2-0 down after just eleven minutes to win dramatically 3-2. So fear not Arsenal, there are precedents and despite their 6-3 hammering to that very same Manchester City, their Premier League form and current lead will give them confidence.
To the Blues of Manchester themselves now and if Arsenal had the toughest draw then City certainly had a close second. The mighty Barcelona. Currently leading La Liga and having progressed through a tricky group with Milan, Ajax and Celtic, Messi along with Neymar and others are looking ominously like returning to their best after arguably an uncharacteristic blip in Europe last year. Manchester City’s imperious Premier League home form will have to stand up in this one if they are going to have a chance at the Camp Nou in the return leg. Whatever the results of these two ties, they are mouthwatering prospects involving top English sides pitting their wits against the cream of Spain and Germany.
To a perhaps less impressive but equally significant tie now. Chelsea’s reward for eventually topping their group will see them face up to an old hero. Didier Drogba and his Galatasaray side will host the Blues in Istanbul before Didier returns to Stamford Bridge for the first time since he left a club where he was so successful including in this competition quite recently as mentioned above. Drogba was also integral to the Premier League winning sides under current Chelsea boss Mourinho in the mid-2000s and so his return is sure to be emotional for him and the Chelsea faithful. There are other threats for Chelsea to worry about including the Dutch midfield maestro Wesley Sneijder and Turkish striker Yilmaz. However, Chelsea’s attacking prowess with the likes of Oscar, Mata, Schurrle, and co alongside second leg home advantage should be enough to see them edge this tight affair. Manchester United have perhaps, unsurprisingly, been handed one of the so called ‘easier’ ties of the round. Although there are no easy ties in the Champions League knockout stages, David Moyes would have been quite happy to see his side drawn against Greek champions Olympiakos. With the second leg at Old Trafford, if Moyes’ men can get a decent result in the hostile and hot atmosphere of Piraeus they should be well on their way to the Quarter Finals. But with their stuttering Premier League campaign and the lack of RVP, things may not be as simple as they seem.
A quick run-through of the other ties sees Leverkusen take on PSG, Milan v Atletico Madrid, Zenit against Dortmund and Schalke taking on Real Madrid. As this wonderful old competition enters the proverbial advent of its progression, this is where things really start to get interesting. The dross of the group stages is jettisoned and the quest to find Europe’s finest truly begins. And with so many candidates this year, it promises to be more intriguing than ever.