Given the overarching unexpectedness of the first half of the Champions League season, it was probably fitting that the second half promises to stay true to that narrative when it begins in February. Because Monday’s knockout stage draw of the 16 remaining teams presented all manner of interesting matchups in a tournament that had felt stale and repetitive in recent years.
Again and again, it seemed, the same teams were playing each other at the same stages.
From 2014 through 2017, Real and Atletico Madrid met each other in the knockout stages four consecutive times – two of them in the final. Paris Saint-Germain played Chelsea three times and FC Barcelona three in the span of five years – all in the knockout stages. Arsenal lost to Bayern Munich three times. Bayern, in turn, clashed with either Real or Barca five times in six years, losing five times. And Juventus has played Barca, Bayern and Real eight times in the last six years.
But this has been a bizarre season in that it has yet to produce any obvious or convincing favorites for the European crown. Three-time defending champion Real and perennial contender Bayern are in obvious decline. PSG and Juve had uncommonly troubled group stages. Barca and Atletico are clearly not at their best this season – or not yet, anyway. And Manchester City and Liverpool are locked in a titanic title race on the domestic front that will sap huge amounts of energy.
Everybody else – Schalke, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund Tottenham Hotspur, Lyon, Roma, Porto and Ajax – seems deficient in some other way, whether it be a lack of depth, quality, experience or all of the above.
That makes their pairings all the more intriguing, as the matchups were set with the first legs to be played in mid-February and the return ties in the first half of March.
Of the two Manchester sides, City got just about the easiest opponent it could have hoped for while United got the hardest. Had United not neglected to win at a poor Valencia side on the final day of the group stage, it would have avoided PSG. But it didn’t, so it didn’t. Now, the beleaguered Jose Mourinho faces a nearly impossible task – if he’s still manager by then. PSG has already built up a 10-point lead in Ligue 1 – with two games in hand! – and will have two months to prepare at their leisure. While Mourinho continues to fight for his job game after game, trying to scrape by and avoid humiliation.
Oh, and City got Schalke, which lost its first five Bundesliga games of the season and is still slumming it in 13th place. Easy-peasy.
Not so for the Madrid sides. Atletico drew Juventus in a battle of teams who have lost two finals in the last five years. Both are seasoned collectives of veterans with wily coaches known for constructing impregnable defenses. They’ll play a game of 3D chess that’s likely to put a premium on scoring chances but entertain the tactics nerds.
Real, for its part, got Ajax. And it’s telling for the record champions’ steep drop-off that the back-to-back-to-back title-holders aren’t the overwhelming favorites against a team that hadn’t been to this stage since the 2005-06 season. While Real has won this tournament four times in the last five seasons and never failed to reach the semis in that stretch, Ajax’s scintillating young talent has little to lose at this point.
Butragueno “Ajax are playing very well, mix of youth and experience, and extraordinary dynamism in their play. It’ll be spectacular for the fans, two historic clubs who’ve contributed to the development of this competition, two teams who aim to attack. Difficult for us for sure.”
— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) December 17, 2018
Both Bayern and Dortmund drew English teams in Liverpool and Spurs, respectively. Liverpool is the clear favorite against the Bavarians, signaling the shifting sands of this season as Bayern has fallen hopelessly behind Dortmund in the Bundesliga. What’s more, Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp is intimately familiar with Bayern, twice beating them to the Bundesliga title with Dortmund and, more recently, turning down the job there.
Dortmund and Spurs are both awash in attacking talent and could put on a festival of goals. Their managers, Lucien Favre and Mauricio Pochettino, respectively, have both built attacking juggernauts from teams that are more known for underperforming than anything else. Yet both are thin on experience in the knockout stages and prone to mercurial stretches, making this one of the most intriguing matchups. Because there’s really no telling what will happen.
That’s also true for the final game between AS Roma and FC Porto. Roma snuck into the semifinals last season as the edition’s Cinderella story. Porto, for its part, is in the round of 16 for the fourth time in five years but has advanced to the quarterfinals just once. Both teams have talent, and the survivor could potentially make a deep run with a friendly draw at the next stage.
That’s true for everybody, really. Because one of the most unpredictable editions of the Champions League in years looks likely to remain that way well into the spring.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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