By Peter Staunton, Goal.com
The draw for the last 16 threw up some lopsided matches, with the likes of Arsenal and Real Madrid faring better than the French clubs.
No more excuses. Arsenal has fallen at the last-16 stage the past four seasons straight. Arsene Wenger has presided over continental failure on a consistent basis with Arsenal's ambition in the Champions League seemingly limited to qualifying from the groups. The malcontents around the Emirates will point at the club's underwhelming European record in recent seasons as one of the myriad reasons why Wenger should now depart.
But now, there is a chance for Wenger to evade the arrows, for a little while longer at least. Stiff resistance was met in the last two seasons with Bayern Munich accounting for the Gunners; the serial German champions have made huge forward strides in the competition in the past half-decade while English elites have regressed.
Finally, Arsenal has the plum draw. "Porto or Monaco" was trending on Twitter on Monday morning as Arsenal fans described their dream opposition for the knockout round. Those two were seen to be among the less capable group winners in the Champions League draw with Monaco even weaker than their Portuguese counterparts.
Monaco only managed four goals in the weakest Champions League group, seeing off Zenit and Benfica to qualify along with Bayer Leverkusen. Arsenal, then, could not have wished for a better draw considering the big names like Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez have departed Monte Carlo.
Given Arsenal's recent struggles, this tie will come as a huge boost.
Cast your mind back 12 months and Real Madrid was preparing to face Schalke in the Champions League last 16. It might have been seen as a tricky draw for the soon-to-be European champions but Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, in 90 short minutes, made a mockery of those suggestions. They were 6-0 up heading into injury time in the first leg at the Veltins Arena before Klaas-Jan Huntelaar hit a spectacular consolation.
Much has changed around Gelsenkirchen since, with Jens Keller replaced by Roberto di Matteo. Results in this competition have been maddeningly inconsistent with intrepid displays like the draw at Chelsea being leveled out by abject defeats to the same opposition, as well as Sporting. Schalke is indeed capable of matching illustrious opponents and there is plenty of talent in the ranks but there are glaring weaknesses in too many sectors.
It has not yet played to its collective strengths on a consistent basis. For that reason, Real — the defending champion and Liga leader — will be looking to feast on the Bundesliga side.
The Swiss champions have been rewarded for their elimination of Liverpool with one of the kinder draws in the knockout stage. There were plenty of sharks lurking in the last-16 draw given the might of the group winners all around Europe but Basel has managed to land one of the relatively small fry.
Porto has blown hot and cold in the Champions League so far and remains a work in progress under new coach Julen Lopetegui even if it has boasted one of the stars of the competition in Yacine Brahimi.
Basel, on the other hand, has been the model of consistency this season and has not missed a beat under new coach Paulo Sousa. Furthermore, Basel fought off interest in its two big stars Fabian Frei and Fabian Schar over the summer and, if the club keeps those two beyond the transfer window, it will be a good match for Porto.
Basel's football is fluent and its way of working gives a template to other smaller clubs in similar situations. It produces world-class talent, scouts well and makes plenty of money in selling those players on. At the moment, however, the team added competitiveness at the top level to its list of attributes.
We could see Basel among the list of the top eight teams in Europe come spring if it plays to its potential against Porto.
— Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) December 15, 2014
Questions are being asked, on a significant scale, about the Luis Enrique regime at Barcelona. Their most recent league outing, against Getafe, laid bare the deficiencies in the Barca setup with grumblings of discontent now heard around Camp Nou. Defeats to Celta Vigo and Real Madrid earlier in the league campaign didn't help matters and there is palpable fear around Catalunya that Barca does not have the team to dominate la Liga and the Champions League.
In that context, Manchester City is probably the worst team that Barca could have been drawn against in the last 16. Manuel Pellegrini's men are picking up the momentum needed to cart them towards the top of the Premier League and the latter stages of the Champions League. They came of age in this competition late in the group stage with that magical win against Bayern Munich, and held their nerve in an accomplished display at Roma to seal their place in the last 16.
Moreover, they achieved the win in Rome without Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero while David Silva was fit enough only for the bench. With its full complement, City is now a match for anybody and the signs are that Aguero will be fit and ready for these matches come spring.
Real Madrid then visits Camp Nou immediately after the second leg with anything other than progress in the Champions League likely to generate huge pressure on Luis Enrique ahead of the second Liga clasico of the season. If Barcelona is eliminated by City and then vanquished by its great rival, then the Lucho era might be over before it begins. It's all or nothing for Luis Enrique and Barcelona in those crucial weeks in February and March.
It was a bad draw for France's Ligue 1. Paris Saint-Germain is the standardbearer these days but, under Laurent Blanc, has not demonstrated the capabilities to overcome Europe's elite in a Champions League knockout round. Its impressive win in Paris against Barcelona was offset by a disaster at Camp Nou. Its punishment for failing to dislodge Barca from the top of the group is another knockout tie against Chelsea.
PSG frittered away its advantage last season against the same opposition and, given that the London side has improved significantly, the signs are not good for the French club. They will have to step up their levels from what we have already seen this season, in the league and in Europe, to have any chance.
Monaco was the French representative that managed to top its pool but got little mercy in the draw having been matched against Arsenal. Although the Gunners are perennially eliminated at this stage, their previous defeats have come against better teams than Monaco. Leonardo Jardim's men were fortunate to top an ordinary group and scored just four times en-route to the last 16.
They have been paired with a genuine continental force; one which has the know-how to ease past a Monaco team at this stage for the first time in a decade.
Juventus needed a better draw than this. Its group stage campaign was so pedestrian, so lacking in anything approaching the standard required to be a winner in this competition, that it had to draw Porto or Monaco to have had any reasonable chance to go to the quarterfinals.
As it transpired, Juve got Borussia Dortmund. While Jurgen Klopp's men may well be languishing at the lower end of the Bundesliga, they have been more than able to hold their own in Europe. Indeed, it has been where their best form has been demonstrated this season.
Champions League qualification still remains a possibility in the league campaign but Klopp no doubt has ultimate success on his mind in Europe. By the time the knockouts roll around, Dortmund will boast a full squad with Ilkay Gundogan, Mats Hummels and Marco Reus scheduled to all feature in the same team together. It has been too long since Klopp could count on that.
Juventus, due to the ineptitude of the other Italian teams such as Roma and Napoli, will be keeping plenty of the Champions League market television pool for itself. But while it can put distance between itself and its domestic competitors on the balance sheet, it has not demonstrated its ability to close the gap to the best teams on the continent.