The UEFA Champions League is back
Cardiff 2017
13 February 2017

The UEFA Champions League is back

The Road to Cardiff continues this week with the UCL knock-out stage serving up some mouth-watering fixtures.

In little more than 100 days’ time, two of the 16 sides from six different countries drawn out of the pots at UEFA's HQ in Nyon will arrive in the Welsh capital aiming for the greatest club title in the game.

But such a prize doesn't come easy, proven with the mouthwatering last-16 ties set-up by the draw that sees old foes reunited, heavyweights going head-to-head and Welsh stars with their work cut out to make it a dream homecoming on 3 June 2017.

THE KEY GAMES

Despite Arsenal having topped their group for the first time since 2012, their struggles in the knock-out stages in recent years saw many pessimistic fans predict they might face one of the big guns who slipped off their perch. It came as little surprise, then, that the Gunners were paired with German giants Bayern Munich who had finished runners-up to Atletico Madrid in Group D. Incredibly, it means a fourth meeting in five seasons between the sides, Bayern having knocked Arsenal out in 2013 and 2014 having also met in the group stages last term – which included a 5-1 win for the Bundesliga champions. With former Chelsea manager and Real Madrid's 2014 Champions League-winner Carlo Ancelotti at the helm of the Allianz Arena club, they'll know exactly what it will take to try and continue their winning streak as they look towards reclaiming the trophy they last won in 2013.

Holders Real Madrid were another side that finished second in their group but will be pleased with the good omens after being paired with Napoli. Los Blancos faced Italian opposition in the last-16 12 months ago, overcoming Roma over two-legs on their way to glory in Milan. The La Liga leaders will be aiming to keep their unbeaten stretch in this year's competition going against the side currently third in Serie A.

Favourites before the draw having eased through a difficult group stage, FC Barcelona will not have it easy in their round of 16 tie with Luis Enrique's men having to get past Paris Saint Germain if they want to stay on their way to Cardiff. Barca dropped points just once to the knock-out stages – a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City having already qualified – and have recent success over the Parisians in their favour, including wins in the quarter-finals of 2013 and 2015. PSG have not had it all their own way in Ligue 1 this year after the loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Manchester United in the summer, but proved their quality by staying unbeaten in their group stage. However it remains to be seen whether they will end up regretting having allowed Arsenal to pip ahead of them on the final matchday after drawing with Ludogorets.

With two-time UEFA Champions League manager Pep Guardiola brought in to help secure the club's European dreams, Manchester City may be left reasonably happy with their draw. Having finished behind Guardiola's former club Barca in the group stages, City will fancy their chances of bettering AS Monaco in the first European meetings between the two clubs. Still as the Citizens look to go one better than last year's semi-final appearance by making it to Wales they will have to be wary; Monaco have already wrecked the Cardiff dreams of one English club – and their Wales international Ben Davies – after qualifying at the expense of Tottenham in the group stages.

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FAW Cwpan y Bobl 2017
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THE BEST OF THE REST

Borussia Dortmund still have dreams by bringing the Yellow Wall to the land of the Red Wall, impressing by finishing above Real Madrid in the group stage. That progress came after two wins over Sporting Lisbon and they will have to get past Portuguese opposition again after being paired with Benfica.

The 2015 finalists Juventus will have to get past FC Porto, but the Old Lady won't underestimate the 2004 winners who finished in good form in Group G after a difficult start.

Last year's runners-up, Atletico Madrid, would love to make it a third time lucky having also been beaten by a certain Gareth Bale in 2014, but will have to beat a Bayer Leverkusen side that owed their second-place finish in Group E to a vital win at Wembley over Spurs.

And finally Leicester City, who have wowed all with the ease in which they've taken to European life on their Champions League debut, have a dangerous opponent in the shape of Sevilla. Under the charge of Jorge Sampaoli, they have made the race for La Liga a four-way race and have plenty of European know-how after picking up three consecutive Europa League crowns.

THE DREAMING DRAGONS

Gareth Bale is still aiming to be fit to make it back in time for the games, the first-legs of which will take place on either February 14/15 or February 21/22. Having recently undergone ankle surgery, he may well have a chance of the second-legs on March 7/8 or 14/15, teeing him up nicely for Wales' 2018 World Cup qualifying fixture against the Republic of Ireland later that month. With a partisan San Paolo ready to host the second-leg, it could be some comeback in Naples.

Aaron Ramsey will be hoping Arsenal change the record against Bayern to keep his own Cardiff dreams alive. Ramsey will miss the first leg this week after suffering injury against Watford but could be available to go head-to-head with Portugal midfielder Renato Sanches in the second leg for a opportunity of a small bit of EURO 2016 revenge.

Despite Leicester’s current standings in the EPL, Andy King will look to his side’s incredible 2016  as inspiration to continue their UCL run which has seen the Foxes showing little signs of their domestic form affecting their continental aims ahead of the games with Sevilla.

THE PREDICTIONS

It doesn't get any easier for Arsenal and although their domestic form has been impressive of late, it may well be too tough an ask to stop Bayern Munich under the wily charge of Ancelotti – a previous winner in Cardiff after his Super Cup success with Real in 2014. The away leg, where Arsenal have often thrown it away, must be kept tight if they are to have a chance of changing their track record, knowing that Bayern – who they beat at the Emirates in the group stage last year – aren't unbeatable.

Conversely, Real have looked better in their national league than they have in a somewhat stumbling group stage but will know they have avoided the big pressure games that could have been thrown up at this stage, the home leg at the Bernabeu key if they are to make the last-eight where a fit and firing Bale could make the difference.

Barcelona having been firing on all cylinders in La Liga though look like they will take some stopping, Edison Cavani a threat to beware but PSG perhaps not the challenge they once were and a Camp Nou second leg vital.

Leicester face their toughest challenge so far after making light work of the group stage and it's a wonder whether Sevilla will be naïve to allow their counter attacking game to flourish, the tie likely to be decided by what happens in Anadlusia .

Man City – who could have drawn Atleti, Dortmund or Juventus – should be confidence of progress against Monaco, even if they are playing some of the best football in France at present.

Atletico should have too much for Bayer, likewise Juventus against Porto and Dortmund when they come up against Benfica, which should all lead to a tantalising last eight.

THE DRAW

The unseeded sides – those who finished second in their groups – will play at home first. The winners over two-legs – where away goals count – will go through to the March 17 draw for the quarter-finals, the first time in the competition where there are no seedings and teams from the same association and previous groups can play each other. 

Manchester City (ENG) v AS Monaco (FRA)

Real Madrid (ESP) v SS Napoli (ITA)

Benfica (POR) v Borussia Dortmund (GER)

FC Bayern Munchen (GER) v Arsenal (ENG)

FC Porto (POR) v Juventus (ITA)

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (GER) v Atletico Madrid (ESP)

Paris Saint-Germain (FRA) v FC Barcelona (ESP)

Sevilla (ESP) v Leicester City (ENG)

 

First legs: 14–15 & 21–22 February 2017

Second legs: 7–8 & 14–15 March 2017