Porto v Arsenal
Defeat in the 2006 final remains Arsenal’s best performance in the Champions League but, having improved the squad over the summer, and beaten Manchester City in the league and overcome them on penalties in the Community Shield, there is no reason, beyond perhaps a collective lack of European experience, why they should not be considered serious challengers on their return to the competition. The Premier League leaders could do with sorting out the goalkeeping situation and perhaps lack a really top-class finisher but those are quibbles, the sort of problems most sides in Europe would dream of having.
No group runner-up scored more goals than the 15 Porto managed. They kept only one clean sheet and failed to score only at home to Barcelona, and this squad should be able to ensure Porto do not suffer a defeat on the scale of the 5-0 thrashing (6-2 on aggregate) they took on their last meeting against Arsenal, at the same stage in 2010.
Verdict Comfortable Arsenal win
Napoli v Barcelona
For both sides there is a sense of struggling to live up to the highs of last season. This may be a meeting of the Spanish and Italian champions, but it doesn’t really feel like it. The easy assumption that Xavi was a chip off the Cruyffian coaching block never seemed entirely convincing. As the goals have dried up for Robert Lewandowski, they’ve started to look a very ordinary side and while they did beat Porto twice in the group to finish above them, they had an inferior goal difference.
After winning just the third Scudetto in their history last season, it was always going to be difficult for Napoli this campaign even if they have kept most of their stars, with Kim Min-jae and Hirving Lozano the only major departures. Luciano Spalletti quit as coach in the summer though and, with Rudi Garcia sacked, Walter Mazzarri took over in mid-November. Napoli are already 14 points behind the leaders Inter.
Verdict Narrow Barcelona win
Paris Saint-Germain v Real Sociedad
On the one hand, PSG did make it through the toughest of the groups and they are, of course, comfortably top in France. And they did this while, at least in principle, undergoing a transition that will focus more on the team unit and the development of local talent than on the stars whose egos have undermined them over the past decade. On the other hand, they were at best average in the group, were hammered at St James’ Park and qualified largely as a result of a highly contentious penalty.
La Real look the least intimidating of the seeded sides and lie just sixth in La Liga but they finished top of an awkward group, above Inter and Benfica. David Silva, who did so much to get them into the Champions League, has retired, but the defensive solidity remains; nobody conceded fewer than them in the group stage, and they kept clean sheets in all three of their away games.
Verdict Narrow PSG win
Inter v Atlético Madrid
For Diego Simeone, a return to the club he joined from Atlético in 1997 and represented for two seasons, winning a Uefa Cup. There’s always the sense with Atlético these days that they aren’t quite what they were at their peak, but they topped their group, scoring more goals than anybody other than Manchester City, and will go third in La Liga, above Barcelona, if they avoid defeat against Getafe on Tuesday. There are few surprises about Simeone’s side, with Antoine Griezmann and Álvaro Morata forming an effective partnership up front, Koke still chugging around midfield and Jan Oblak still commanding in goal.
Inter, last season’s defeated finalists finished only second in their group, behind Real Sociedad. Domestic form, though, has been good and Simone Inzaghi’s side top Serie A after just one league defeat so far this season. Edin Dzeko has finally moved on, with Marcus Thuram a far more mobile centre-forward, while Yann Sommer has taken over from André Onana in goal.
Verdict Narrow Atlético win
PSV Eindhoven v Borussia Dortmund
After a disappointing six months as manager in 2017, this represents a chance for Peter Bosz to make a point to Borussia Dortmund. His PSV were well beaten at the Emirates in the group, losing 4-0 to an Arsenal side who took full advantage of their openness but, after finishing as runners-up behind Feyenoord in the Eredivisie last season, they are 10 points clear domestically this campaign having won 16 out of 16 and with a goal difference of +50. They’ve found Europe rather harder, and won only two games in the group stage.
For Dortmund, the sale of Jude Bellingham was always going to mean a huge adjustment this season, with the arrival of Niclas Füllkrug meaning a significant change of approach. Their league form hasn’t been great, although they’re still fifth in the Bundesliga, and lost 4-0 at home to Bayern, but it’s been a different story in the Champions League. They beat Milan and Newcastle away and were comfortable winners against Newcastle at home.
Verdict Narrow Dortmund win
Lazio v Bayern Munich
Qualification from the group was never in doubt after a victory over Manchester United in the opening group game that was far more straightforward than the 4-3 scoreline suggested, but all is not well at Bayern, who lost 5-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt the weekend before last. Harry Kane has settled exceptionally quickly, and there are an array of rapid forwards to run beyond him, but defensive issues persist. Manuel Neuer is not the keeper he used to be, Dayot Upamecano always looks as though he has a mistake in him and there are doubts over the right-back Noussair Mazraoui.
Lazio, meanwhile, have had a disappointing start to the Serie A season and lie just 11th, but their European form has belied that. Maurizio Sarri’s side developed a very useful habit of finding goals just when they needed them, most notably from their goalkeeper Ivan Provedel, who headed a 95th-minute equaliser in the opening group game against Atlético.
Verdict Comfortable Bayern win
Copenhagen v Manchester City
The European champions haven’t been at their best this season, but that was true at this stage last year as well – although admittedly they had not gone on a run then quite as bad as one win in six games. City have a tendency to come good in the spring, when Pep Guardiola schedules his squad to reach their physical peak and, with Kevin De Bruyne and John Stones returning to fitness, they still look the best side in Europe. And even in this supposed rocky spell, they won six out of six in the group.
Copenhagen were the great surprise of the group stage. It’s not just that Jacob Neestrup’s side finished second to progress; it’s that they were a little unfortunate only to pick up eight points in doing so: the away defeat at Manchester United, the home defeat to Bayern and the away draw at Galatasaray all felt like points cheaply squandered.
Verdict Comfortable Manchester City win
Leipzig v Real Madrid
Madrid were one of just two sides to win six out of six in the group stage and, although they are being run close by Girona at the top of La Liga at the moment, they are favourites for another domestic title. They’re perhaps not quite as fluent as they might be, but the transition to a younger midfield has been handled well, while Bellingham has been so impressive as to awaken fears Madrid may (already) be too dependent upon him.
For Leipzig, who won one and lost one in the group against Madrid last season, this campaign had gone pretty much exactly as would have been expected: they lost both games to Manchester City (having at least given them a scare at the Etihad) but were comfortably too good for Young Boys or Red Star. Marco Rose’s side lie third in the Bundesliga, the loss of Christopher Nkunku compensated for by the signing of Benjamin Sesko.
Verdict Comfortable Real Madrid win
Sophie Anderson, a UK-based writer, is your guide to the latest trends, viral sensations, and internet phenomena. With a finger on the pulse of digital culture, she explores what’s trending across social media and pop culture, keeping readers in the know about the latest online sensations.