The path to the 2020-21 Champions League final in Istanbul has now reached the knockout phase, and the draw for the round of 16 has thrown up some truly heavyweight encounters, with Barcelona vs. Paris Saint-Germain emerging as the outstanding tie with Lionel Messi and Neymar going head-to-head for a place in the quarterfinals.
Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea will see Diego Costa return to Stamford Bridge for Diego Simeone’s side, while Cristiano Ronaldo has the chance to play in Portugal once again following Juventus’ pairing with FC Porto.
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Reigning champions Bayern Munich will expect to overcome Lazio to reach the quarterfinals, while Real Madrid and Manchester City will believe they have a strong chance to progress at the expense of Atalanta and Borussia Monchengladbach, respectively. There is also an intriguing match-up between RB Leipzig and Liverpool, while reigning Europa League champions Sevilla take on Borussia Dortmund.
But ties that look like they may go a certain way now could be a completely different story by the time the games come around in February. So much can change — form, fitness, managers — while the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic ensures that nothing can be taken for granted. But with two months until the Champions League returns, here is ESPN’s way-too-early look at how the ties will shape up and play out.
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Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Manchester City
Manchester City have become an experienced Champions League force under Pep Guardiola, but they have never gone beyond the quarterfinals under the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach and have only reached the semifinals once, under Manuel Pellegrini, in 2015-16. At some point, it surely has to be their year. City have made an unconvincing start in the Premier League this season, but they cruised through Group C with five wins and a draw and will be relieved to have avoided the likes of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the round of 16.
But Gladbach will worry Guardiola because of their unpredictability. Marco Rose’s team hit 10 past Shakhtar Donetsk over their two group games and held Real Madrid to a draw in Germany before losing their final two games at home to Inter Milan and in Madrid. French striker Alassane Plea is the threat to City, having scored five goals in the group stage, but the reality is that the English team should win this tie comfortably.
Who qualifies? Manchester City
Lazio vs. Bayern Munich
It will be the shock of the 2020-21 Champions League so far if Lazio, in the knockout phase for the first time since 1999-2000, can eliminate champions Bayern when the two clubs meet for the first time in competitive action. Simone Inzaghi’s team were unbeaten in Group F, finishing runners-up to Dortmund, but they managed just two victories in six games. Their 3-1 win at home to Dortmund will alert Bayern to Lazio’s ability, though, and the Italians will always carry a threat if striker Ciro Immobile is fit and available.
But Bayern are once again looking like the team to beat in the Champions League. They hit 18 goals in six games in Group A and topped the section with a staggering seven-point lead over Atletico Madrid. If fans are allowed back inside the Stadio Olimpico in big numbers by the time the first leg comes around in February, Lazio may be able to pull off a surprise win, but it’s almost impossible to imagine Bayern failing to progress from this tie over two legs.
Who qualifies? Bayern Munich
Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea
Chelsea have shown signs of becoming a force again under Frank Lampard this season, but their tie against Atletico will be an acid test of their progress. Former Chelsea striker Diego Costa is battling injury problems that have kept him on the Champions League sidelines so far this season, but he is hoping to be fit within a month, so could yet face his old team alongside Luis Suarez. But the real threat posed by Atletico comes in the form of Joao Felix, the Portuguese forward, who is now justifying the €126 million price tag following his move from Benfica in 2019.
Having beaten Liverpool over two legs at this stage last season, Atletico will be confident about securing a similar result against Chelsea, who are still developing under Lampard. Two months out, this feels like a game where the experience of Atletico and Simeone will prove too much for Chelsea and Lampard, but it’s a close one to call.
Who qualifies? Atletico Madrid
RB Leipzig vs. Liverpool
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will be wary about the clash with Julian Nagelsmann’s Leipzig because the German outfit are a dangerous opponent who have no fear of reputation or tradition. They are also resilient, as proved by their ability to overcome a 5-0 defeat at Manchester United in the group stage before eliminating Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side with a 3-2 home win in the final game. Leipzig also defeated Paris Saint-Germain in Group H and have clearly overcome the loss of star striker Timo Werner to Chelsea this summer.
Left-back Angelino is a big threat going forward and his encounter with Trent Alexander-Arnold will be a highlight of the tie, as will centre-half Dayot Upamecano‘s ability to contain Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. Leipzig beat Spurs 4-0 on aggregate at the same stage last season, so they know how to win against English teams, but having conceded 12 goals in six group games, they will give Liverpool chances and that will be the decisive factor in this tie.
Who qualifies? Liverpool
Porto vs. Juventus
Sergio Conceicao’s Porto should not be underestimated in this tie as they displayed their tenacity and ability to frustrate a highly-rated opponent by holding Manchester City to a 0-0 draw in the group stage. They have the experience of Pepe at the back and the goal threat of Moussa Marega and Luis Diaz up front and, while they will be the underdogs against Juventus, Porto will ensure that this tie is close over the 180 minutes.
Juve are desperate to win the Champions League, however, and after a round-of-16 exit against Lyon last season, this could be the final shot for this team and Cristiano Ronaldo, who will be 36 in February. Ronaldo scored one of the best goals of his career with a 40-yard strike for Manchester United against Porto at Estadio do Dragao in 2009, and he will want to leave his mark back in Portugal. Juve beat Porto 3-0 over two legs at this stage in 2016-17, and they will need Ronaldo to be fit and firing to ensure that they have a similar result this time around.
Who qualifies? Juventus
Barcelona vs. Paris Saint-Germain
This is an epic tie and would have been worthy of the final itself, but thanks to the luck of the draw, one Champions League heavyweight will suffer an early elimination, which could have huge implications for the coach of the losing side. It is tough to see Barca’s Ronald Koeman or PSG coach Thomas Tuchel surviving in their job if they lose this tie. Meanwhile, with ongoing uncertainty over the future of Lionel Messi at Barcelona and Neymar in Paris, this could be the last chance for both players to win the Champions League with their current employers.
Barca are a declining force, as shown in their 8-2 hammering by Bayern last season and, on form, the odds look to favour PSG. The firepower of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe should be too much for Barca’s unconvincing defence, but Barca have won their past 13 round-of-16 ties and PSG will still have the scars of their 6-5 aggregate round-of-16 defeat in 2016-17, when they went out despite winning the first leg 4-0. Four years on, PSG look ready to avenge that humiliation.
Who qualifies? PSG
Sevilla vs. Borussia Dortmund
This is a tie that pits genuine European trophy-winning experience in Sevilla against a team packed with emerging stars in Dortmund. Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla team displayed their nous and big-game mentality by overcoming Manchester United and Inter Milan to win last season’s Europa League — their sixth Europa League title this century — but they have never been able to translate their success in that competition into the Champions League.
If they can handle the goal-scoring threat of Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho, and nullify the star talents of teenagers Gio Reyna and Jude Bellingham, Sevilla will progress, but much also depends on the situation in the coach’s position at Dortmund following the sacking of Lucien Favre. Assistant Edin Terzic has taken over in the interim and will hope to keep the upheaval at Dortmund to a minimum as he bids to turn their league form around.
Who qualifies? Sevilla
Atalanta vs. Real Madrid
Few teams in Europe are as unpredictable as Atalanta and Gian Piero Gasperini’s side tend to save their best and worst performances for the Champions League. They reached the quarterfinals last season despite taking just one point from their first four group games and have booked their place in this year’s round of 16 by responding to a 5-0 home defeat by Liverpool with a 2-0 win at Anfield three weeks later.
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane will be concerned about the dangers that lurk for his team against Atalanta, who have the creative force of No. 10 Papu Gomez and goal-scoring threat of Duvan Zapata up front. Real made it through with a final-game win at home to Borussia Monchengladbach, so they have to improve quickly or face a third successive elimination at this stage. Atalanta’s attacking ability will cause Real problems, but this is a tie that the Spaniards should win. It will be entertaining however it turns out.
Who qualifies? Real Madrid
The knockout stages of the Europa League promise to be tougher than ever with the draw for the round of 32 including the leaders of the English, French, Spanish, German and Italian leagues.
With the competition winners earning direct qualification for next season’s Champions League, the race to the final in Gdansk will be intense with such a huge prize at stake. And the biggest clubs in the Europa League had mixed fortunes when the draw for the round of 32 was made on Monday.
Wolfsberger AC vs. Tottenham
Having already beaten Austrian league high-flyers LASK Linz in the group stage, Spurs should have no concerns against Austrian side Wolfsberger AC, who are mid-table and out of the European places in their domestic competition.
Midfielder Michael Liendl, with four goals in five group games, will be the biggest threat against Spurs, but Jose Mourinho will be able to rest his star players for this tie and still confidently expect to go through.
Who qualifies? Spurs
Real Sociedad vs. Manchester United
The tie of the round, but also the worst possible draw for two clubs with genuine ambitions of winning the Europa League this season.
La Real are the surprise leaders of La Liga, with former Manchester City midfielder David Silva inspiring the team to the top of the table. Former United midfielder Adnan Januzaj is another player for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team to watch.
Having dropped into the Europa League from the Champions League, United would have hoped for a much easier tie and they will need to be at their best to make it through this one.
Who qualifies? Manchester United
Benfica vs. Arsenal
A Champions League fixture being played out in the Europa League — that is the harsh reality for these two great clubs ahead of their round-of-32 encounter.
Benfica are second in Portugal right now, while Arsenal are in the bottom sixth after their worst-ever start to a Premier League season. But by the time the game comes around in February, Arsenal will surely have emerged from their slump. Won’t they?
Who qualifies? Arsenal
Red Star Belgrade vs. AC Milan
A throwback clash between two European Cup winners from the 1990s, but one which sees the unbeaten leaders of the Serbian SuperLiga take on the unbeaten leaders of Italy’s Serie A.
Red Star will be a tough opponent for Milan, but with Zlatan Ibrahimovic still going strong at 39, the Italian giants should be favourites to go through.
Who qualifies? AC Milan
Royal Antwerp vs. Rangers
Steven Gerrard’s Rangers are unbeaten in all competitions this season and on course to win the Scottish title for the first time since 2011, but their progress in Europe has been an unexpected bonus for the former Liverpool captain.
Rangers will expect to win this tie and make it to the round of 16, where they could secure a “Battle of Britain” clash against one of the four remaining Premier League teams.
Who qualifies? Rangers
Slavia Prague vs. Leicester
This looks a comfortable tie for Leicester, but Czech champions Slavia have an emerging team of homegrown players who were able to beat German Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen in the group stage, as well as record home and away wins against Nice.
Brendan Rodgers has a team more than capable of progressing, but Slavia are dangerous and Leicester will pay the price for any complacency.
Who qualifies? Leicester