A glamorous ceremony to be held today in Nyon, Switzerland, will unveil the much-anticipated pairings for the knockout phase of the Champions League, as the 16 remaining teams continue their quest to reach the May 25 final at Wembley.
A fresh champion will lift one of the most recognizable trophies in the game after holders Chelsea suffered the humiliation of becoming the first defending champions to exit following the group phase.
Perennial favorites Barcelona go into the hat for next February’s matches as the team everyone wants to avoid, although fellow pool winners Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund, Malaga, Juventus, Schalke 04 and Bayern Munich are all guaranteed to avoid the four-time champions as seeded teams.
Real Madrid, who won the last of their nine European Cups in 2002, are the pick of the second-placed group teams, although along with Valencia, they cannot play against their Catalan archrivals because teams from the same country cannot face each other until the quarter-finals.
Celtic, who became the first British team to win the trophy in 1967 when they beat Inter, are the only other side from the runners-up that include FC Porto, Galatasaray, Shakhtar Donetsk, AC Milan and Arsenal, who are certain to avoid Tito Vilanova’s team.
Paris Saint-Germain, who make their first appearance in the knockout stages since 1995, had the best record in the group round as two-time champion Carlo Ancelotti guided the mega-rich capital outfit to five wins and one defeat — 1-0 against Porto.
Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, who guided Porto and Inter to unexpected crowns in 2004 and 2010 respectively, prophesized that 1997 champions Dortmund can go all the way under Juergen Klopp, after pipping his team to top spot and finishing undefeated.
Bayern Munich are off to a blistering start in the Bundesliga where they are runaway leaders and are back on track to win their first Champions League since beating Valencia in 2001.
Their opponents will come from a group that include Real Madrid, Celtic, Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk or Arsenal.
Manchester United, who won the first of their three European Cups in 1968 when Bobby Charlton and George Best were on target in the 4-1 win over Benfica at Wembley, are another team to avoid.
Although they went out in the group phase last season, manager Alex Ferguson has again tweaked the Old Trafford juggernaut with the inspired signing of Robin van Persie, who has already combined with Wayne Rooney for 19 domestic goals, including his league-leading 12.
The same cannot be said of Arsenal, who came closest to becoming continental champions in 2006, when they lost 2-1 against Barcelona, but the poor league form of Arsene Wenger’s men this month will count for nothing in a two-legged knockout round, two months down the road.
Juventus took four points off Chelsea, including a 3-0 home thrashing, and a 49-game unbeaten run in Serie A speaks for itself as the Serie A champions bid for their third title after wins in 1985 and 1996.
Schalke were the biggest surprise as group winners, but a run of just two points from 18 in Bundesliga action cost Dutchman Huub Stevens his job and the managing duties now lie with former VfB Stuttgart handler Jens Keller.
Another group winner to look out for is Malaga, who are in the competition for the first time in club history thanks to inspired leadership from Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini.