There are a lot of reasons to worry about an era of modern soccer where a handful of elite teams make title races as common as runaway champions. Within the context of Champions League, however, that means more contenders, the increased likelihood of strong groups (like the one the featured Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, and Napoli this fall), and some semifinal-quality match ups in the Round of 16.
Last year, Real Madrid drew Manchester United, a tie that saw Nani’s controversial second leg red card sway the outcome. This year, the Round of 16 draw has paired the two greatest threats to Bayern Munich’s crown, with Barcelona and Manchester City kicking off the knockout round on Tuesday at the Etihad.
It’s a testament to how far City’s come that each club can claim to be favorites, depending on to whom you listen. For Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini, however, any suggestion his club should feel remiss about drawing a team with the Blaugrana’s recent success misses the point. If City, a team that’s never made it to this round of the competition, wants to be considered amongst Europe’s best, they have to play the best.
“I don’t have any fear about playing Barcelona, because this team has got to continue to develop the mentality to play against important, important teams …
“It’s impossible to avoid Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich if you want to continue in the Champions League. So in one moment you must play against them. We play them in the last 16, so let’s see what we can do.”
What they’re capable will depend on health. Samir Nasri returned in the team’s 2-0 win over Chelsea, solving one of the squad’s injury concerns, but two other starters are doubts ahead of Tueday’s kickoff at the Etihad. Sergio Agüero, recovering from a hamstring problem, has an outside chance of playing on Tuesday, while Fernandinho, whose injury before the first Chelsea game precipitated City’s February struggles, may also feature, but only if he’s at full strength.
“If there is any risk, they will not play.” Pellegrini said. “They have to be 100% … It’s my opinion that [for] Agüero it is very difficult.”