After two months away, the UEFA Champions League returns this week February 14-15 with the first batch of round of 16 first legs. UEFA.com looks ahead to the opening four fixtures of the knockout stage, with reigning champions FC Barcelona and surprise package APOEL FC among the teams in action.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen v FC Barcelona
Josep Guardiola’s side may be struggling to keep pace with Real Madrid CF in the Liga but they are sure to present a tough task for Leverkusen. Though even their group stage campaign – in which they dropped just two points – was somewhat overshadowed by Madrid, who emerged from their section with six wins from six, there is no doubt about the threat posed by last season’s victors.
Barcelona scored 20 goals in coming through Group H yet their Bundesliga opponents can at least take solace from an unblemished record at the BayArena in Europe this term. Nevertheless, Barcelona have not lost on any of their last seven trips to Germany – since a 2-1 defeat by Leverkusen in the 2000/01 first group stage.
Olympique Lyonnais v APOEL FC
The least experienced of the 16 clubs still standing in the competition, APOEL have nonetheless made it this far in impressive fashion. Victories over FC Porto and FC 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 GNK 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.
AC Milan v Arsenal FC
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, still without Jack Wilshere, have endured something of a lull since they were last in continental action, but will have been boosted by ending a four-game winless run in the Premier League in emphatic style on 4 February – triumphing 7-1 at home to Blackburn Rovers FC.
FC Zenit St Petersburg v SL Benfica
With no domestic assignments because of the Russian winter break, Zenit – who have lost forward Danny to injury for the season – have not played competitively since they knocked out Porto to progress on matchday six. They return to the European scene against another Portuguese outfit, Benfica, who had 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.