COMMENTARY I From Bavaria to Barcelona and Milan to Manchester City, the Champions League is back with the first four round-of-16 matches taking place on Tuesday and Wednesday.
When the draw was initially announced in December, calendars the world over noted Feb. 18 and March 12. On those two dates, Barcelona and Manchester City lock horns in the first and second legs of the most attractive tie in the round.
After dipping slightly, Barcelona is back looking lethal. On a related note, Lionel Messi is back to looking like the special little magic man. In a team sport with superfluous talent flowing all over the field, Messi consistently finds ways to accelerate past the best players in the world. That ability to change matches is what makes Messi special, and that is why Barcelona is still the favorite to advance.
Also, Brazilian superstar Neymar is back from injury and set to feature, so Barça's timing could not be better.
Barcelona may be favored, but the difference in talent, quality of play and confidence is slight. Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, who spent the last nine years coaching in Spain, has his side playing football that can and will make a strong argument against the best practitioners in Europe. Although City is not favored to advance, a Manchester victory would hardly be considered shocking considering the talent on hand.
Also, Manchester City's confidence is high after knocking off Chelsea, the domestic league leaders, out of the FA Cup.
Unfortunately, Sergio Aguero is out injured and not expected to be available for the first leg. For Manchester City, that loss may be the difference. Aguero should be fit for the return leg, but earning a positive result at home is vital for City because the March meeting is at Camp Nou, arguably the most intimidating stadium in Europe.
In a match that features tremendous talents at every position, the necessary difference often arrives from the slightest of margins. Aguero is out, Messi and Neymar are in, and so, Barcelona earns the edge in those slight of margins.
As a note, Yaya Toure played at Barcelona from 2007-10 before switching to Manchester City. Toure won two league titles and a Champions League trophy with Barcelona before being shown the door. The three-time African Player of the Year is set to face his former club for the first time, and his central role in Manchester City's setup makes him a critical component in City's success. Toure is a key player to watch in both legs.
Also meeting on Feb. 18 and March 12, Paris St. Germain and Bayer Leverkusen provide, arguably, the least attractive of the eight ties in the round. Leverkusen is struggling and enters the first leg on the back of two defeats. Already viewed as underdogs on the date of the draw, the Germans have not changed minds with recent results.
In contrast, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and PSG are unbeaten in their last five matches, and Ibrahimovic's eight goals during the group stages elevated the Parisians' standing among Europe's elite. With Yohan Cabaye added to the squad, PSG appears to be even stronger, and Leverkusen's chances appear to be even slimmer.
One German team that has not assumed the underdog role this season is Bayern Munich. Munich is poised to defend its European title and is widely considered the overall favorite at this point. For the bruising Bayern machine, Mesut Ozil and Arsenal present the first true test of the title defense.
Unfazed by the Gunners' threat, the Bavarians are potentially in the process of compiling one of the greatest seasons of all time. Nearly seven months into the season, Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich squad has only suffered two defeats across all competitions: a 4-2 loss to Borussia Dortmund in the German Super Cup and a 3-2 loss to Manchester City in a dead tie for the Germans.
In the Bundesliga, Bayern is unbeaten with 19 wins in 21 matches. Although Arsenal appears as tough as it has in several years, Bayern's level of strength supersedes the Gunners' on every measurable scale.
However, one should keep in mind that the Gunners also drew the Bavarians in last year's Champions League round of 16. After Bayern crushed Arsene Wenger's men 3-1 in London, Arsenal beat Bayern 2-0 in Germany and nearly ruined Bayern's historical treble winning season. Narrowly, Bayern advanced on the away goals rule, but Arsenal is one of the few teams that has cause not to fear the German powerhouse.
Considering last season, even if the Feb. 19 meeting ends with Arsenal undressed at the Emirates, the March 11 meeting could yet provide some spectacular drama.
Also playing on those same dates as Arsenal and Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Atletico Madrid hover under the radar. Madrid is suffering a poor run of form and has lost three of its last four matches, but Atleti still remains tied on points with Barcelona and Real Madrid at the top of the Spanish league table.
With Milan struggling in Serie A and well behind in the race for next season's Champions League, beating Atletico Madrid and advancing forward is all that can redeem an otherwise failed season. Milan is already out of the Coppa Italia and a Scudetto is out of the question, so the likes of Mario Balotelli and Kaka only have one competition that can provide silverware this season--the Champions League.
Unfortunately, Riccardo Montolivo, Milan's captain, is suspended for both legs after seeing red in Milan's final group stage match, so Milan is severely handicapped.
Still, Milan's ability to advance out of a group that possessed Barcelona, Ajax and Celtic hints that the last remaining Italian team in the competition may be worth counting in rather than out. Also, Balotelli possesses enough natural talent to give Milan a chance, and he proved that point with a spectacular match-winning goal from 25 yards out against Bologna on Friday.
Featuring the talent of Balotelli and the magic of Messi, the best club competition in the world, the UEFA Champions League, is back.
Shahan Ahmed is a Yahoo Contributor in Sports and has covered the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, and UEFA Champions League for the past four seasons. You can follow Shahan on Twitter @ShahanLA
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