After a lacklustre group stage the Champions League draw has pulled out a couple of plums.
It is a draw that favours the Spanish sides, who face three of the weaker qualifiers plus Paris Saint-Germain.
No-one would call PSG weak, but they are up against a significant challenge in the French league, in third place behind Nice and Monaco. For Barcelona they are definitely preferable to the opponents they were most worried about, namely Bayern Munich.
Which brings us to Arsenal, and by far the most intriguing tie of the round.
The Champions League has a habit of repeating fixtures at the knockout stage, and this is one Arsenal fans were fearing, but this time there is less reason for trepidation.
For one thing they are better equipped, with a more reliable defence and a sharper cutting edge in attack.
The main reason, however, is Bayern’s patchy form thus far this season.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side haven’t lost many, but they have rarely been in control of games. Even discounting the bizarre 3-2 defeat in a sub-zero Rostov, against a team they had beaten 5-0 ten weeks earlier, their crisis of confidence in November was more than a hiccup.
Ancelotti has come under fire for lacking Pep Guardiola’s authority over the players and also for sticking with tactics (4-3-3) which were not getting the best from them.
German commentators made the point that Guardiola was able to adapt and give his team options, even when injuries forced him to chop and change. Ancelotti is by nature a more conservative coach, and also more relaxed, inclined to let people do their own thing.
Ancelotti’s start at Bayern was in fact better than Guardiola’s. But losing three games in his first four months does not look good compared to his predecessor, who had already won the league when he suffered his first defeat in March 2014.
It may be that Guardiola’s own difficulties at Manchester City have protected the Italian from more severe criticism, but the media have picked up on individual players being indulged and lacking focus.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge weighed in with his own criticisms of Bayern’s defence, and specifically Jerome Boateng, after that defeat in Russia: “We simply squandered these points. If you score twice here, then you should normally win.”
At home, the shocking experience of trailing to the upstarts of RB Leipzig has also invited criticism.
Don’t overestimate the Bayern crisis however.
They are back at the top of the Bundesliga after thumping Wolfsburg 5-0 and should remain there during the winter break, although their final match before Christmas is against the upstarts. Ancelotti has also modified his tactics with immediate results.
Thomas Muller looks a lot happier playing as second striker behind Robert Lewandowski rather than out wide.
Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben have made successful comebacks and are still a dangerous pair of wingers even if they’re now showing their age.
And in midfield Bayern now have a potentially excellent combination of Thiago Alcantara and the young Portuguese Renato Sanches.
Sanches still looks like a potential yellow card every time he plays but he’s a dynamic player and Bayern are the better for that intensity.
The big unknown factor in this tie is that winter break.
Arsenal should have momentum going into February. Bayern’s season only restarts on January 20th, after which they play Schalke (a needle match) and are away to Ingolstadt, who are down at the foot of the table.
The break will be a new experience for Ancelotti and it can work both ways. Players can lose focus but it gives the manager a chance to review and reinforce tactically, and of course it means that players avoid some wear and tear.
The second leg on March 7th will probably be the crunch. Bayern will be coming off a relatively straightforward warm-up in Cologne whereas Arsenal are away to Liverpool.
Yet while the odds against Arsenal have lengthened and Bayern are among the favourites to go through, there is a real chance of at least two Premier League contenders qualifying for the quarter-finals in the spring.
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