After a two month absence the Champions League returns the week with the first batch of round of 16 first legs. Here is a look at the four games slated for this week:
Bayer Leverkusen v Barcelona
Josep Guardiola’s side may be struggling to keep pace with Real Madrid in La Liga but at first glance they should present a tough task for Leverkusen. But if are to play Barcelona then this is the round to play them because since Pep Guardiola took charge of Barcelona, the team has never won the away leg of the last-16 round.
Barca’s away form has been dismal in La Liga this season while Bayer have yet to be beaten at the BayArena in Europe this season. If is always difficult to bet against Messi and Barcelona but I would not be surprised to see Leverkusen win here.
Lyon v APOEL
The least experienced of the 16 clubs still standing in the competition, APOEL have nonetheless made it this far in impressive fashion. Victories over Porto and Zenit St Petersburg hint at a steely resolve as they take on Lyon, who edged through on matchday six only by virtue of a 7-1 win at Dinamo Zagreb.
While Lyon are in the round of 16 for the ninth season running, APOEL are the first Cypriot team to get this far. They look to have their work cut out if they are hoping to take an advantage back to Nicosia – with Lyon having lost at home just once at this stage, 2-0 to AS Roma in the 2006/07 edition. Anything less than a Lyon win will be a major shock.
AC Milan v Arsenal
Milan are unlikely to be delighted at drawing Arsenal, with the Rossoneri’s last three UEFA Champions League campaigns having ended in elimination by an English side in the round of 16. Still jostling with Juventus for Serie A supremacy, Milan have not experienced the most fluent of European challenges so far and will no doubt recall exiting the competition at the hands of Arsenal in 2007/08.
The Gunners, famously won 2-0 in the San Siro a couple of years ago and they will have been boosted by their come-from-behind win at Sunderland on the weekend. This will be the tightest match this week and I expect a scoring draw.
Zenit St Petersburg v Benfica
This is a tough match for Zenit as the Russian season is still on winter break, plus they will be without forward Danny who is out for the season. Benfica on the other hand have not made it to the knockout rounds since 2005/06. This time around, the double European champions got through having topped their group for the first time since 1995. It will be cold in Russia, but I expect Benfica to progress.
The remaining four round of 16 first legs take place on 21 and 22 February: