Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho
When UEFA president Michel Platini slightly reconfigured the UEFA Champions League to offer more chances to champions of weaker leagues like Romania for example at the expense of say, fourth place teams in leading leagues like Italy, many critics accused him of watering down the quality of the competition. Time though has somewhat vindicated the French legend.
Last season, Cypriot side, APOEL Nicosia against all odds managed to get to the quarter finals off the competition before being ousted by an admittedly more superior Real Madrid. Basel also qualified at the expense of Manchester United.
This season has seen even more teams upset the applecart. Only four of the top seeds in the group stages won their groups. While many fancied teams including defending champions Chelsea and English champions Manchester City have fallen by the wayside.
This has thrown up a lot of intriguing matches in the second round of the competition; traditionally strong teams are getting to face each other early, while a few dark horses faceoff for a chance to progress further in the competition.
Examples are the ties between Manchester United against Real Madrid, and Barcelona versus AC Milan. These matchups were possible because Borussia Dortmund and Malaga – less fancied teams, topped groups that included Madrid and Milan respectively.
Below is a preview of the eight matches to be contested in the second round of the world’s best club competition.
Manchester United v Real Madrid
This is by far the most eye-catching tie of the stage. There is also a potential job audition for Mourinho, who a few pundits tip to replace Sir Alex Ferguson at the United helm when the Scot finally retires. Mourinho came to prominence when his Porto team edged out United at this stage of the competition in the 2003/2004 season.
The match would also be the first time Cristiano Ronaldo faces up against his old team after his 80 million pound world record move from United to Madrid three seasons ago.
This will also be the first time these two teams go up against each other since that legendary quarterfinal in 2002-03, the one in which the original Ronaldo scored a hat trick at Old Trafford. United won 4-3 and were still eliminated.
It was also the game which -- legend has it -- made Roman Abramovich fall in love with football and decide he wanted a club of his very own.
Milan v Barcelona
Between them, these two clubs have won five of the past 10 European Cups. In other words, this clash is as drenched in history as they come.
Of course, these are also two clubs going in different directions. Barcelona are off to their greatest-ever start in La Liga; Milan are rebuilding on a relative shoestring. On paper, the prospect of unleashing Lionel Messi against Philippe Mexes and Mario Yepes is a terrifying one ... for Milan. But there is such a thing as “European DNA” and, as the Rossoneri remind us, they have plenty. Enough to derail Barca? Probably not, though Stephan El Shaarawy’s heroics offer a glimmer of hope.
Arsenal v Bayern Munich
Having lost last year’s final in the most heartbreaking way, Bayern put all their chips on the table this summer, spending big to assemble one of the deepest squads in Europe in what will be Jupp Heynckes’ final year in charge. The result is a side second only to Barcelona, one whose second-string front three is arguably better than Arsenal’s first-choice front trio.
Shakhtar Donetsk v Borussia Dortmund
These two teams arguably played the best football seen in the group stage, and both are legitimate dark horses. It feels a bit weird to describe them as upstarts when Shakhtar have won four straight Ukrainian titles and the spine of this team has been together for years, and when Borussia play in front of 80,000 every week and have won two Bundesliga titles on the bounce.
But both these sides are ready for their coming-out party among Europe’s elite. They have a statement to make and it’s all about subverting the established order.
Valencia v Paris St. Germain
This is where Carlo Ancelotti is in his element: Europe’s big stage. This is where he can wipe out PSG’s domestic stutters in one fell swoop.
The man who reached three Champions League finals as manager of AC Milan was brought in precisely for the task of leading PSG where it matters most.
And Valencia, having changed managers a few weeks ago and stuck in mid-table in La Liga, is about as kind a draw as he could have hoped for. Screw up here and, regardless of what happens in Ligue 1, it could be curtains for Carlo come the end of the season.
Celtic v Juventus
Celtics underdog status isn’t quite as dramatic this time around as it was against Barcelona in the group stage, and we all know what happened there. Had the two Barca games been in the knockout round we would have gone into extra time and maybe penalties and, at that point, there’s no legislating for what can happen. That’s the key thing to bear in mind here.
For their part, Juventus will feel they match up well.
This is one of the mentally toughest, most intense teams in Europe and one that seems cut out for this format. Oh, and if you believe in numbers, their unbeaten streak in European games stands at 16.
Galatasaray v Schalke 04
Galatasaray sit atop the Turkish Super Lig, having just dispatched archrival Fenerbahce. Schalke are in free-fall in the Bundesliga. The fear among Schalke fans is that this could end up being a repeat of two years ago, when they reached the semifinals of the Champions League while battling to avoid relegation.
The subplot here, though, is Burak Yilmaz versus Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Both are old-school centre forwards supposedly at the peak of their careers. Between them, they scored 81 goals last season in all club competitions. This year, the Galatasaray forward has kept up his pace after moving from Trabzonspor -- he’s at nearly a goal a game -- while the Dutchman has been on the slide.
Porto v Malaga
On paper, this one’s easy. It’s the perennial Portuguese giants, the kings of third-party ownership and clever scouting who always manage to stand toe-to-toe with the elites -- at least until this phase of the competition -- versus the plucky club who thought they were Manchester City or PSG, but found out the hard way they were not.
But beyond that, this is the clash between two of the most crystal-clear young talents in Europe, Malaga’s Isco and Porto’s James Rodriguez. They’re 20 and 21 years old, respectively, and you simply can’t imagine them staying at their clubs much longer. This could be the start of a rivalry we’ll enjoy for years to come.