UEFA Champions League Last 16: Key Storylines to Watch

Michael Cummings@MikeCummings37World Football Lead WriterDecember 20, 2012

UEFA Champions League Last 16: Key Storylines to Watch

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    Cristiano Ronaldo is returning to Old Trafford. Barcelona are trying to win it for Tito. Giant-killers are still alive and Cinderella is still dancing.

    Storylines abound as we head into the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League, Europe's most prestigious club competition. Which are the biggest? Which are most important? Which will have the most impact on the balance of power in Europe?

    Keep reading to find out.


    Click here for the full draw for the Round of 16, via UEFA.com.

A Superstar Returns to the Theatre of Dreams

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    Matchup: Real Madrid (Group D runners-up) vs. Manchester United (Group H winners)

    Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo is a bona fide superstar who enjoys worldwide fame. He won that fame initially at Manchester United, his club from 2003 until 2009.

    Ronaldo joined Real from United in 2009 for a world-record transfer fee of £80 million. He has not faced his former club since then.

    Earlier this year, Ronaldo called United manager Sir Alex Ferguson his "father in football" (via The Independent). Over six years, the two developed a close bond as Ronaldo developed into a world-class player.

    He'll return to Old Trafford with the cycle complete. He left a learner (well, sorta) and is now a master. So will Darth Vader slay Obi-Wan Kenobi?

    Regardless, these teams have a history of playing mouthwatering European Cup/Champions League ties in the knockout phase (via Daily Telegraph). This one should be another treat, with Real advancing from the "Group of Death" yet struggling domestically thanks to a suspect defense.

    United, meanwhile, are flying high in England. But can their own leaky defense stop Ronaldo and company?

Playing for Tito

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    Matchup: AC Milan (Group C runners-up) vs. Barcelona (Group G winners)

    Barcelona and AC Milan met in the quarterfinals last season. Barcelona advanced with relative comfort, and after a summer sell-off at AC Milan, the same result should follow this time around.

    The intrigue here stems from this week's disturbing news about first-year Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova. On Wednesday, the club announced Vilanova had experienced a relapse of a tumor on his parotid gland. He underwent surgery on Thursday and is expected to recover (via The Guardian).

    The recovery won't be instantaneous, however, and both Vilanova and Barcelona will face adversity as Vilanova goes through six weeks of chemotherapy. The 44-year-old could return to the touchline this season, but it's far from certain.

    What's certain is that Barca will gather inspiration from their stricken manager and work feverishly to win for him. Neutrals, meanwhile, will have a hard time rooting against them.

German Domination?

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    Matchups: Galatasaray (Group H runners-up) vs. Schalke 04 (Group B winners); Arsenal (Group B runners-up) vs. Bayern Munich (Group F winners); Shakhtar Donetsk (Group E runners-up) vs. Borussia Dortmund (Group D winners)

    All three German teams advanced from the knockout stage. All three should be favored to win their Round of 16 ties. But will they?

    Schalke face a tricky matchup with Turkish giants Galatasaray, whose home stadium is a tough assignment for any visitor. Despite finishing above Arsenal in Group B, Schalke have struggled lately in the Bundesliga (two points from six matches).

    Manager Huub Stevens was sacked over the weekend. That means Schalke are in transition.

    Bayern Munich, who started the Bundesliga season in record form, should have enough firepower to beat an inconsistent Arsenal. But the Gunners have shown glimpses of attacking strength this season as well.

    Regardless, Bayern—who were beaten finalists last season—will be heavy favorites and should advance comfortably.

    Borussia Dortmund successfully navigated Group D, the so-called "Group of Death," by outplaying Real Madrid, Ajax and Manchester City. As such, Jurgen Klopp's men have earned the status of early favorites for the title.

    Shakhtar Donetsk will be no pushover, though. The Ukrainians eliminated defending champions Chelsea and pushed Juventus to the limit for the top spot in Group E.

    All three German clubs will thus face difficult challenges, but all three are capable of advancing. If they do, we might start wondering whether this is the season of German domination in the Champions League.

Giant Slayers and Cinderellas

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    Matchups: Celtic (Group G runners-up) vs. Juventus (Group E winners); Porto (Group A runners-up) vs. Málaga (Group C winners)

    Celtic advanced to the knockout phase largely on the strength of a home win over European giants Barcelona in Group G. The green-and-white faithful turned Celtic Park into a cauldron of noise and colors that night, and they're sure to do the same when Juventus visit in the knockout phase.

    But will that be enough? Or has Neil Lennon already overachieved in guiding his team this far?

    Led by the ageless brilliance of midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, Juventus could be a dark-horse pick to win the whole competition. First, though, they'll have to get past Celtic.

    Elsewhere in Group C, Spanish first-timers Málaga stunned most of Europe by finishing above AC Milan and advancing to the knockout stage as group winners. Along the way, Isco and company played some exciting, attractive football.

    As a fairytale figure, Málaga can't match last season's Cinderellas from APOEL. But after going through highly publicized financial problems and emerging stronger than ever, Málaga do represent a team neutrals can get behind.

Big Money Marches On?

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    Matchup: Valencia (Group F runners-up) vs. Paris Saint-Germain (Group A winners)

    PSG have successfully negotiated a place at the table of Europe's elite with heavy spending in recent seasons. Now the retooled Parisians will make their first sustained assault on the Champions League.

    Another summer spending spree brought Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the French capital along with Argentine attacker Ezequiel Lavezzi. So far this season, PSG's best performances have tended to come in Europe.

    Valencia, on the other hand, are in disarray after falling into mid-table obscurity in Spain and sacking manager Mauricio Pellegrino earlier this month (via Reuters). Can Roberto Soldado's goals stabilize the ship in time?