The late reversal of fortune has been Manchester United’s trademark in this season’s Champions League. But Monday’s abrupt turnaround, far from any action on the pitch, was something new even to the masters of the surprise comeback.
United may feel quietly content with the way their outlook in Europe’s principal club competition changed over the course of three hours. At lunchtime they were digesting the prospect of meeting runaway French league-leaders Paris Saint-Germain in the last-16 stage. United would have started that as second favourites. By mid-afternoon, they had a revised tie against an inconsistent Atletico Madrid - a more even-looking match-up.
The cause of the confusion had been an embarrassing administrative error by Uefa, governing body of European football and custodians of the Champions League. The drawing out of balls from bowls to see who plays whom in the knockout phase is a major television event for Uefa, but as the names were assigned to opponents just after midday in Nyon, Switzerland, viewers around the world realised the system had malfunctioned.
Clubs who have already met in the group phase are supposed to be kept apart, and it became clear that the names Villarreal and United, who had been involved in a see-saw contest at Old Trafford in the group stage, had not been properly guided into distinct lanes. “A technical problem with the software of an external service provider,” Uefa explained.
There was enough doubt about the process, in which United finished up being drawn to play PSG, for Uefa to re-run the whole process.
So instead of Ralf Rangnick, United’s new interim manager, plotting how to contain Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe over 180 minutes, he can begin a rigorous study of what has lately been an unusually leaky Atletico Madrid defence.
For neutrals, there may be disappointment that a possible contest between Messi and United’s Cristiano Ronaldo for a quarter-final spot turned out to be the result of a Uefa system failure. But Atletico against United has plenty of compelling hinterland. There’s the long history of Ronaldo versus Atletico, given how many Madrid derbies, including two European Cup finals, Ronaldo played in his Real Madrid days.
After the re-run of the draw, it was Real Madrid who ended up drawn against PSG, a spiky tie given Mbappe’s current situation, with the France international approaching the last six months of his contract and Madrid making no secret of their intention to sign him.
If PSG against Real Madrid looks the most glamorous tie, Liverpool’s contest with Internazionale, the Italian champions, has a heavyweight aura. But then so did AC Milan against Liverpool, on the last matchday of the group phase. Liverpool strolled through that to register their sixth win in six European games.
That form makes Jurgen Klopp’s team one of four clear favourites to win this European Cup, as least from the perspective of mid-December 2021.
Manchester City are in the quartet and should be optimistic about their last-16 tie against Sporting, the champions of Portugal. It promises entertainment, slick City against intrepid Sporting, with added piquancy for the several City players with pasts at Benfica, Sporting’s local rivals - that’s Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo.
No less attractive a tie as Sporting against City is Benfica against Ajax. Much may depend on how worldly Benfica warriors like Nicolas Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen can cope with the youthful verve of Ajax or contain Sebastien Haller, who scored 10 times in the group phase, and Dusan Tadic.
Chelsea have been kept away from Bayern Munich, which will be a relief to Thomas Tuchel’s European Cup holders. They finished second in their group but can count themselves among the competition’s favourites along with City, Liverpool and Bayern. Chelsea’s next trip will be to Lille, who won Ligue 1 last season but currently languish in 11th place in France’s top division.
Bayern must face Salzburg, the Austrian upstarts, and though they will beware Salzburg’s speed on the counter-attack, will be thankful not to have been paired with PSG or Chelsea.
Villarreal, the Europa League holders, take on Juventus, a tie that Unai Emery, the Villarreal head coach, can regard as winnable. Juventus have two months or so before the last-16 first legs to find a groove of good form, but it has been elusive so far this season.