Two of the last three Champions League finals will be repeated in February thanks to the draw for the last 16. A competition that produced quirky pacesetters and sunk some traditional heavyweights in this season’s group stage has now crammed four of the favourites into two ties. The rest can look at this European Cup and see it as refreshingly open.
For the favourites, Manchester City, the draw seemed kind once theirs was the second name drawn from the glass bowls at Uefa headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland. RB Leipzig, beaten 6-3 by City last season, had been the first.
City will be wary of their first-leg trip to East Germany, where they lost in the 2021-22 group phase, but by the time Monday’s ceremony was over, City can only have appreciated the fact that at least two of their chief challengers for the title will not make it into the last eight.
Liverpool, City’s fiercest domestic rivals over the last five years, must play holders Real Madrid. Ambitious Paris Saint-Germain will meanwhile duke out a quarter-final berth with Bayern Munich.
Bayern defeated PSG 1-0 in the final in 2020. Liverpool and Madrid have become agonisingly familiar: They contested the 2018 final, a 3-1 Madrid triumph; Madrid then knocked out Liverpool in the last-eight stage in 2021. Madrid won again in the Paris final six months ago, a Vinicius Junior strike and the excellent goalkeeping of Thibaut Courtois consigning Liverpool to defeat.
But the anxious frown on the face of Emilio Butragueno, the former Madrid centre-forward and the club’s delegate in Nyon, as soon as the former Madrid midfielder, Hamit Altintop – ambassador for the competition’s Istanbul final – drew Liverpool and Madrid together told a story.
Real 1 Liverpool 0: Champions League final ratings
The Spanish champions will be concerned, however irregular Liverpool’s recent form has been. Madrid recall how tight the Paris final was, and how the steady trail of recent collisions with Liverpool generates a fierce desire at Anfield to make amends.
With a World Cup soon to grab the attention and sap some of the energies of leading players, Butragueno and Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti also fear that the likes of Croatia’s Luka Modric, France’s Karim Benzema and Germany’s Toni Kroos will come into 2023 tired from their exertions in Qatar.
Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, by contrast, has no World Cup in his diary. He should go into the new year fit, fresh and with a sense of his own gathering momentum.
Salah’s brace in the weekend’s 2-1 victory at Tottenham Hotspur carried him to nine goals from his last eight matches. He scored seven times in Liverpool’s six group games in the Champions League, the major trophy his club are targeting, given that a tilt for the Premier League, from 15 points behind leaders Arsenal, seems unlikely.
PSG, impatient to add a first European Cup to their honours board and unsparing in their investment on players capable of seizing that trophy, are confronted with a Bayern who swept aside Barcelona and Inter Milan to extend their record of unbeaten group-phase games to 34.
PSG face a set of Champions League experts. But the last meeting, a quarter-final two seasons ago, finished narrowly in favour of the French champions. Since then Lionel Messi has joined them, and, this season, blossomed in their colours.
Juventus 1 PSG 2: player ratings
Tottenham must play AC Milan, a resonant date for Spurs manager Antonio Conte, given his past as player and coach at Juventus, and, more recently, his time in charge of Inter. Vibrant Napoli will feel relatively blessed at having drawn Eintracht Frankfurt, newcomers to the knockout phase, as are Brugge, of Belgium, who play in-form Benfica.
Porto meet Inter, a special fixture for Porto’s manager Sergio Conceicao, a former Inter winger. Chelsea are paired with Borussia Dortmund, former employer of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Christian Pulisic, two of the men charged with sharpening the 2021 European champions’ waning firepower.
Best tie of the calendar? There’s a case for suggesting it may be neither the one played out between Anfield and the Bernabeu, nor in Paris and Munich, but rather the standout clash from the play-offs for the last 16 of the Europa League, also drawn in Nyon: Barcelona versus Manchester United.
A dozen years ago, United and Barcelona were used to contesting Champions League finals against each other even more frequently than Real Madrid and Liverpool do.
They now find themselves in Uefa’s second tier, where they meet over two legs in February. It’s a collision that should persuade United’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barca’s Robert Lewandowksi that, while Europa League football feels to them like a step down, to the combined 170,000 who fill up Camp Nou and Old Trafford, this feels like a true clash of heavyweights.