Manchester City and Real Madrid will both be in action when the UEFA Champions League knockout stages begin this Tuesday, and it is the last two winners of European football’s greatest prize who appear the strongest contenders to go all the way this season.
Pep Guardiola has been busy playing down City’s chances of repeating their remarkable treble triumph of last year, when they retained the English Premier League title and won the FA Cup before claiming their first ever Champions League crown.
“We have 99.99 per cent possibility that we are not going to win the treble because it has never, ever, ever been done,” Guardiola said this week when asked about the prospect of retaining all three trophies.
Yet City seem to be finding their very best form again just at the right time, and they head to Denmark for Tuesday’s last 16, first leg against FC Copenhagen on a run of 10 straight wins in all competitions.
Copenhagen are into the knockout phase of Europe’s elite club competition for just the second time, and first since 2011.
They held City at home in last season’s group stage and beat Manchester United 4-3 earlier this season at their Parken Stadium, so Tuesday’s game will perhaps not be straightforward for the reigning champions.
But Guardiola’s team will surely be far too strong over two legs, and Madrid should also have too much for RB Leipzig, who they face in Germany first.
Led by Jude Bellingham and Vinicius Junior, Carlo Ancelotti’s side are in superb form in La Liga despite being hampered by a cascade of injuries in defence.
The draw for the last 16, made in December, was somewhat underwhelming, even if the meeting between last season’s runners-up Inter Milan and Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid has the makings of a cracker.
It will also be fascinating to see how Barcelona fare against Napoli as the Catalans head into their final months under Xavi Hernandez before their legendary former player departs as coach at the end of the campaign.
Given Napoli’s own difficulties in following up their stunning run to the Serie A title last season, Barcelona will be hopeful of advancing to a first Champions League quarter-final since 2020.
That year they beat Napoli in the last 16 before a stunning 8-2 hammering by Bayern Munich in Lisbon.
Bayern themselves travel to face Lazio reeling from a 3-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen which leaves their decade-long grip on the Bundesliga title looking more fragile than ever.
Harry Kane and his teammates will hope that the return to continental competition brings out the best in them, especially with the increasing prospect that the England star’s first season in Germany might end without a major trophy.
PSG’s last chance with Mbappe?
A classic quarter-final line-up could be in store if all the heavyweights avoid shock defeats in the last 16.
Arsenal should be too strong for Porto, while PSV Eindhoven and Borussia Dortmund meet in a battle of two outsiders.
Then there is Paris Saint-Germain, the club who have made a habit of failing spectacularly in Europe in recent years despite the lavish spending of their Qatari owners.
PSG have been eliminated in the first knockout round in five of the last seven seasons, and it seems certain that this will be their last chance to win the Champions League with Kylian Mbappe in their ranks.
The France captain’s future appears likely to lie elsewhere –- most probably with Real Madrid — as his contract expires after this campaign.
Yet PSG’s form this season under Luis Enrique -– the man who led Barcelona to Champions League glory in 2015 –- has been so unconvincing that the prospect of them going all the way in Europe appears slim.
Understandably wary supporters of the French club may even be dreading facing Real Sociedad, who they face in Paris in the first leg on Wednesday.
The Basque side come into the tie in poor form and with considerable injury problems, but the pressure will all be on PSG.
“If you want to get to the final you have to play against the best teams,” said Real Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil as he reflected on the draw.
“That is their objective, to get to the final. Imagine what a bombshell it would be if we eliminated them.”