And then there were 16.
Italy’s Atalanta, playing in the competition for the first time in its history, and Spain’s Atletico Madrid were the final two teams to clinch their places in the last 16 of this season’s Champions League as the group stage concluded Wednesday.
It’s the first time that the last 16 has been made of teams from just five countries — England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France — which reflects the financial might of those leagues.
The draw for the next round will be made at UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland on Monday December 16 with the competition restarting in February.
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Group winners Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Juventus, Barcelona, Red Bull Leipzig and Valencia will be in Pot One, with the eight group runners-up — Napoli, Tottenham Hotspur, Atalanta, Atletico, Borussia Dortmund, Lyon and Chelsea — in Pot Two.
In the last 16 round teams can’t be drawn against clubs from the same country or if they had faced each other in the group stage.
Pep Guardiola’s City is the oddsmakers favorite to win the 2019/2020 tournament, though the club’s manager has played down his side’s chances. City has never won the Champions League before.
“The people say about the Champions League, that target,” Guardiola told reporters in October. “We still are not ready. We create a lot, don’t concede, but can improve. We’ve scored a lot over the last two seasons and I don’t have doubts about that, but we have to keep going, work on that.”
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Liverpool is the second favorite. Jurgen Klopp’s side has reached the last two finals, losing to Real Madrid in 2018 and then beating Spurs 2-0 in 2019.
Liverpool topped Group E, but only just, securing a tense 2-0 win over Red Bull Salzburg on Tuesday to finish above Napoli.
Group winners have the added advantage of playing the second leg at home and no team will relish drawing Liverpool, given the Champions League holder’s record at Anfield.
Liverpool last lost a European game at home in 2014 when a Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Real Madrid won a Champions League group stage game 3-0 at Anfield.
The power of Anfield’s atmosphere was perhaps best showcased last season when Klopp’s side beat Barcelona 4-0 in the semifinals to reach the final 4-3 on aggregate.
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The win over Salzburg showcased Liverpool’s strengths — the assured nature of goalkeeper Alisson Becker, the defensive nous of Virgil van Dijk, the emergence of midfielder Naby Keita and the attacking triumvirate of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino
This season, Liverpool has lost just once in all competitions and Klopp has frequently referred to his team as “mentality monsters.”
PSG in the mix
Arguably the most impressive team of the group stages has been Paris Saint-Germain.
The Parisian club has never won the European Cup and has developed a reputation of choking in the knockout rounds
Three seasons ago, the French side led Barcelona 4-0 after the first leg in Paris but contrived to throw away the tie in one of the all-time great Champions League chokes, losing 6-1 at the Camp Nou.
Last season’s last-16 exit to Manchester United was even worse.
Having beaten United 2-0 at Old Trafford, PSG somehow managed to lose the return 3-1, giving away a stoppage-time penalty following a controversial VAR decision that was converted by Marcus Rashford.
“It’s a disgrace,” Neymar, who was forced to miss the game through injury, wrote on Instagram immediately after that match.
“Four guys who know nothing about football watch a slow-motion replay in front of the television.
“What can [Kimpembe] do with his hand while his back is turned? Go f**k yourselves!”
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PSG topped Group A ahead of Real Madrid, conceding just two goals. Thomas Tuchel’s team trounced Galatasaray on Wednesday, with Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Mauro Icardi and Edison Cavani all getting on the scoresheet in a 5-0 win. Throw in Angel di Maria and Tuchel has plenty of attacking artillery to deploy.
Much will depend on the mercurial Neymar and what mood and physical condition he will be in come February. Wednesday was only the 10th time he had played for PSG in Ligue 1 or the Champions League this season with his campaign interrupted by a hamstring injury.
He’s also tested Tuchel’s patience. In November, Neymar attended the Davis Cup in Madrid at the invitation of former Barca teammate Gerard Pique, who is a driving force behind the tennis tournament.
“As a coach, am I happy with this trip?” Tuchel told reporters. “No, not at all, it’s clear. Is this the time to get mad? No, no, it’s not the moment.”
And what of 13-time winners Real? The Madrid club has dominated the competition during this decade — winning the European Cup three times in succession and four times in five years — but since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus the Spanish team has looked a more fragile beast.
These days it’s attacking threat is provided by a couple of Brazilian teenagers — Rodrygo, 18, and Vinicius Jr, 19 — but defensively Zinedine Zidane’s side has its frailties.
Juventus — which last won the Champions League in 1996 and has subsequently lost five times when it reached the final since — will pin its hopes on Ronaldo’s attacking prowess.
On Wednesday he scored his 128th Champions League goal in the 2-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen, even finding time to hug a pitch invader who ran on the pitch after the Juve star scored. His European Cup record is remarkable, having won the tournament once with Manchester United and four times with Real Madrid.
Barca will always have Lionel Messi, but like Real, the Catalan team has been exposed defensively on a number of occasions this season.
The first legs of the last 16 ties will be played on February 18, 19, 25 and 26 of February, with the second legs scheduled for March 10, 11, 17 and 18.
Last season, Liverpool bagged nearly $130 million for winning the Champions League, while the 32 teams who were involved in the Group Stages onwards will share over $2 billion dependent on how far they have progressed in the competition.