By Gabriel Ameh, The Sight News
Antonio Conte believes this could be the season when Premier League clubs break a run of five years without a Champions League title, provided they master the backlog of fixtures that builds up in the spring.
Chelsea will face Barcelona in what, among the top flight’s five representatives, is the stand-out tie of this year’s round of 16. If Conte seeks an omen he might take note that the last time the clubs met coincided with the most recent English winner, Chelsea coming through a tense last-four clash in 2012 before beating Bayern Munich in the final. The ensuing drought has rarely looked like being broken but he detects an increased threat this time.
“I think the first round showed great power for the English teams,” Conte said.
“Four teams arrived at the top of their group and it means they are really strong. It will be difficult to face English teams, especially in February. But then in March, April, I don’t know because when you accumulate many games in the players’ legs it will be more difficult for them to reach something important. But at the same time this could be the right season for an English team to win the Champions League.”
The draw was made amid a problematic period for Chelsea domestically, with resources stretched and Conte in effect writing off their title defence after Saturday’s defeat at West Ham. He was reluctant to speak specifically about Barcelona’s first-leg visit on 20 February, saying it “makes no sense” to do so, although he did emphasize that the sides’ previous meetings – they have played 12 times in the Champions League and Chelsea are unbeaten in the last seven – should be consigned to the past.
Chelsea were, in fact, the only English team to occupy a group runners-up spot and most of their peers were accordingly granted ties that look less complicated.
The exception was Spurs, whose hard work in disposing of Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund was rewarded with a fiendish tie against the 2016-17 runners-up Juventus. “They’re a very solid outfit with a great coach in Mauricio Pochettino, who manages to get the very best out of their attacking potential.”
Manchester City will be overwhelming favourites to defeat Basel, although the Swiss side’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United last month may serve as a reminder that the runaway league leaders can take nothing for granted.
Raphaël Wicky, the Basel head coach, welcomed the chance to face a side he believes is “currently the best in the world”.
United themselves will not be disappointed that Sevilla, who finished behind Liverpool in Group E, lie in wait, although former City players Nolito and Jesús Navas are capable of providing a sting in the tail. “I dreamed that we would play Manchester United,” Nolito said after the draw.
Jürgen Klopp was pleased that Liverpool, dealt a tricky assignment against a Porto side who are capable of testing them defensively, will face the Portuguese leaders away from home first. “This year again they’re a difficult side to play,” he said.
“They came through in a difficult group; they kept [RB] Leipzig – a really good side in Germany – behind them. It will be interesting. It’s good that we have the first game at Porto, the weather is better there in February.”
The most high-profile tie of the round fell outside the Premier League sphere. Two of the tournament favourites, Paris Saint-Germain and the holders Real Madrid, must go head-to-head and the price of elimination will be high.
The PSG chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, looked ahead to some “magical football moments” between the two but his under-pressure coach, Unai Emery, might have hoped for a smoother path to the latter stages than this.