Friday's draw in Nyon for the first knockout round of the Champions League has produced a quartet of bill-toppers. Two breathtaking Anglo-Spanish encounters stand out: Chelsea-Barcelona and Real Madrid-Arsenal, plus a pair of splendid German-Italian duels: Werder Bremen-Juventus and Bayern Munich-AC Milan.
Two other fascinating clashes pit former winners of the trophy against each other. Holders Liverpool have the slight advantage of welcoming Benfica to Anfield for the second leg, while Inter Milan (winners of the trophy in 1964 and 1965) entertain Ajax Amsterdam.
Quadruple French champions Lyon, again at the top of Ligue 1, will take on PSV Eindhoven. Gerard Houiller's charges are sure to be out for revenge against the side than knocked them out in the quarter-finals of last year's tournament (1-1, 1-1, 4-2 on pens.).
The other match will be contested by two outsiders. Both Glasgow Rangers and tournament debutants Villarreal of Spain will be delighted to have avoided the big boys at this stage of the competition.
An early crunch matchThe attention of planet football will be fixedon Stamford Bridge on 22 February, and again on the Nou Camp come 7 March, for what many will see as the final in all but name, between the two big favourites for the tournament. Last year, the Chelsea-Barcelona double-header produced two top drawer matches. At the end of two meetings embellished by innumerable slick moves and moments of fine individual skill, most notably Ronaldinho's extraordinary goal at Stamford Bridge, the pendulum finally swung in favour of the future champions of England (1-2, 4-2), who made excellent use of their home advantage in the second leg.
This season, the two teams are once again out in front in their respective championships, but Chelsea will have to play the second leg away from home this time. As the Blues only finished second in their group behind Liverpool, they have been drawn against another top contender for the trophy at the last-sixteen stage. Barcelona, in contrast, were dominant in their own group, outclassing Werder Bremen, Udinese and Panathinaikos.
The problem is identical for Real Madrid, who came second behind Lyon in the group phase. Consequently, the Galacticos have to travel to Highbury for the second leg against the Gunners, who were unbeaten during the group stage but are already off the pace in the Premiership. Arsène Wenger's men are now pinning all their hopes on the Champions League. The match will bring together Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, two of the driving forces behind the France team, while for Arsenal's French coach, it will serve as another opportunity to sample the atmosphere at the Bernabeu, where he is so often mooted as the next manager.
The third battle of the big guns involves Bayern Munich, comfortable leaders in the Bundesliga, and AC Milan, currently a chasmic eleven points behind Juventus in Serie A. This Champions League classic always seems to generate extremely tight encounters. In the spring, Bayern will play the second leg in the San Siro against the Rossoneri, who are currently enduring a difficult period.
Juventus, for their part, have been treated more kindly by a draw that sees them travel to Bremen in the first leg to play Werder. But the Juventus vice-chairman Roberto Bettega is certainly not counting his chickens: "We know just how solid German teams are and Werder Bremen are not in the last sixteen of the Champions League through luck." Conversely, Thomas Schaaf, Werder's coach, professed himself to be "very pleased with the draw against very interesting opponents."
The quality of the these bill-toppers notwithstanding, the other ties also promise to be highly entertaining. Indeed, this sensational draw could again work in favour of an outsider, as it did in the last two seasons when first Porto, then Liverpool were crowned European champions.