Not the pairing Barcelona were hoping for, nor what Bayern Munich would have chosen after last season’s scare.
This feels rather more like a proper Cup competition than usual, with a couple of genuinely delicious ties to savour, spiced with a little intrigue: Aguero v Messi, Mourinho v Mancini and the return of Didier Drogba.
There are just three countries that count now, said one of the Italian journalists yesterday: Germany, England and Spain, followed by Turkey, Italy, Greece and Russia and Paris Saint-Germain which is like a country on its own. For the big names who have dropped out of the competition it’s the moment of painful realisation. Juventus, having been eliminated as a consequence of a freak snowstorm, are now obliged to return to Turkey to face Trabzonspor, about as unglamorous as it could get for Italy’s most aristocratic club.
Somewhat unwisely, Milan midfielder Sulley Muntari decided to pronounce on the draw before it happened and declared “if I have to choose I’d prefer to face Atletico Madrid as they’re the weakest opposition.” Be careful what you wish for, commented Madrid’s sports paper Marca, pointing out the rossoneri qualified with a modest nine points, whereas Atletico finished up with 16.
“I’m glad Muntari is happy,” added Atletico midfielder Raul Garcia, his tongue protruding firmly into his cheek. If anything, La Liga’s third club look to be the strongest of the outsiders, especially with their latest goalscoring revelation Diego Costa up front.
Atletico manager Diego Simeone was greatly admired as a player in Serie A — he started with Pisa and later spent six years at Inter and Lazio — and if anything, he is even more respected today.
“He’s achieved a miracle,” said the Gazzetta dello Sport yesterday. “In two years he’s rebuilt a team who (were) going through a crisis of confidence and results. He’s won three trophies, the Europa League, the Super Cup and the Copa del Rey, snatched from their hated rivals in their own Bernabeu stadium.”
Milan-Atletico is a challenge the Italians will look forward to with a bit of anxiety. For the Spanish there are special ingredients to the Barca-City clash.
To start with it has Leo Messi, Maradona’s heir, up against Sergio Aguero, Maradona’s son-in-law, now labelled “a wimp” after his split from daughter Giannina.
More seriously, it sets up a clash at Camp Nou that Manuel Pellegrini’s side will relish. He only just lost out to Pep Guardiola for the title when he was in charge at Real Madrid and City have the physical strength to trouble the Catalans, especially with Barca old boy Yaya Toure in midfield.
City have now taken Liverpool’s place as honorary citizens of La Liga and they even have Tziki Beguristain on the board. “Old friends who have never met” is how Marca is calling this one. It is definitely a tie made for the media as well as the fans.
Written in the Stars is the obvious tagline for Galatasaray’s tie with Chelsea. As well as Drogba’s return to his old club and manager, there is also Wesley Sneijder’s reunion with his former boss — “my second father” — at Inter. They will be emotional occasions, but the Turkish champions want to be serious contenders in this competition as they showed against Juventus. Sentimentality will be in limited supply.
“Dortmund have had a bit more luck than we have,” commented Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge after the draw.
“You hope to get easier opposition at this stage of the competition.”
With four teams in the last 16 there is a feeling in Germany that this is the time to prove that the Bundesliga is more than just two big sides.
But it’s fair to say there isn’t huge confidence in Germany about the chances of Schalke and Leverkusen in February/March. They let in 15 goals between them over four matches against English opposition in the group stage, and with away wins for Arsenal and City the balance is definitely in favour of the Premier League so far.