Hint of the predictable for familiar Champions League rivals

As a rule there is nothing more predictable than the Christmas TV schedules. Except the draw for the Champions League knockout round.
Hint of the predictable for familiar Champions League rivals

Munich in Turin, Barcelona at the Emirates, Chelsea in Paris… And for all that Madrid’s football paper Marca is telling its readers that Roma and Real “haven’t met as often as you might think”, nine repeats in 15 years is, like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, at least three too many.

Uefa is not wholly to blame if the same teams come through the group stage each year, but given that teams from the same country are initially kept apart, perhaps it’s time they were allowed to meet in the last 16.

Familiarity breeds contempt. And however much Paris Saint Germain are billing their tie with Chelsea as “The New Classic”, three times running has supporters of both clubs stifling the yawns. Maybe not so much for the neutrals: the Spanish papers are describing PSG-Chelsea as one of the ties of the round, along with Juventus-Bayern.

At least PSG start the tie as favourites this time, which adds some spice. As L’Equipe points out, they are the only unbeaten side in Europe’s top five leagues. Chelsea by contrast are bidding for the Most Out Of Sorts award, in domestic football anyway.

PSG, 5-1 winners against a weakened Lyon side on Sunday, already have the title race sewn up: “despotique” is the word L’Equipe is using to describe their 17-point lead. They will probably be able to rest players in advance of both legs (their matches against Lille and Montpellier are both at home). Moreover this is a tie that will be won and lost in midfield, and Chelsea have Nemanja Matic suspended for the first leg.

The hope for Chelsea, according to the Catalan sports paper Mundo Deportivo, is that PSG won’t maintain the same level all season and that “little by little, Mou’s men seem to be recovering from their dreadful season”.

Barcelona evidently start as favourites against Arsenal.

Manager Luis Enrique has fond memories of the first time the two sides met — he scored in both group stage matches. Lionel Messi’s scoring record is however what tips the balance of expectations.

The “four-goal demolition” lives in Catalan memories as Messi’s finest hour in the Champions League – four years after he was left out of the team in the final against Arsenal and refused to join the celebrations.

So Barcelona will be confident, although it’s worth noting that Messi has not scored once against Petr Cech in the eight matches when they have faced each other and, says Mundo Deportivo, “the old rocker is living a second youth at the Emirates”.

Arsenal also showed great resilience to come back from the dead in the group stage, clearly impressing the Catalan paper, which says that the manner in which they defeated Olympiacos “may have changed Arsene Wenger’s losing dynamic”.

Mundo Deportivo also notes that both Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla were missing in Athens, but should be fit and ready to face Barcelona.

The neutrals generally feel that Bayern will be too strong for Juventus, although the Juve defence always causes the Germans difficulties and they have the personnel in midfield to disrupt Bayern plus the rising star Paulo Dybala in attack.

The Gazzetta dello Sport is pessimistic about the chances of both the Italian sides, with Juventus up against their former player Arturo Vidal and possibly also the on-loan Kingsley Coman.

“A match worthy of the final” is the Spanish verdict on this one: both Barcelona and Madrid were grateful to be avoiding Juventus and Bayern, as well as PSG.

The bad news for the Italians is that this draw has diminished their chances of gaining ground on England in the competition for a fourth Champions League spot. Both countries are probably favourites to have two fallers at this stage, but Manchester City are clearly favoured to advance against Kiev, who have to play their home leg in an empty stadium.

So if Italy are to make progress, their teams will have to perform much better than the English sides in the Europa League.

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