The Champions League draw for the first knockout round promised much and it most certainly did not disappoint, with some tasty looking matches and a number of intriguing sub-plots.
Holders Bayern Munich meet Premier League leaders Arsenal, who they beat at the same stage last season in one of the marquee ties, while last season's beaten finalists Borussia Dortmund were handed a trip to Russia to take on Zenit St. Petersburg.
Manchester City's first flirtations with the knockout rounds will see them take on Barcelona, meaning Yaya Toure goes toe-to-toe with the side who he helped lift the trophy in 2009.
Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid meet Schalke 04 in the Raul Gonzalez derby, while the fourth German side, Bayer Leverkusen, are rewarded for getting through the group stage with a tie against French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
Arguably the best team in Spain this season, Atletico Madrid, will take on AC Milan in what may become known as the Muntari derby following his comments on Diego Simeone's side (more on those later), while David Moyes will lead his Manchester United into Greece to take on Greek champions Olympiacos—whose No. 1 goalkeeper is former United stopper Roy Carroll.
Finally, Didier Drogba will make an emotional return to the side for whom his last kick of the ball ensured that they won a first European Cup in 2012, as Galatasaray take on Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.
All in, some brilliant matches are promised and some wonderful storylines will be followed.
Here's the Bleacher Report guide to all eight matches, with a look at who we reckon will claim the spots in the quarter-finals.
If you'd offered Manuel Pellegrini five wins from six group matches when the draw was made in August, he'd have likely snapped your hand off and expected to top the group.
Unfortunately for City, despite gathering 15 points they finished second to holders Bayern Munich and were only a second seed, guaranteeing them a difficult draw.
However, while they may see the Catalans as tricky opponents, the feeling is very much mutual:
Here's the front of El Mundo Deportivo in Spain today - Barcelona definitely didn't want to draw Manchester City... pic.twitter.com/Jv5B9W7YZf— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) December 16, 2013
And some would say rightfully so as Pellegrini has pieced together a side that can trouble the very best.
The midfield is well stocked with the tenacity of Fernandinho and the power of Yaya Toure, ably supported by the pace and verticality of Jesus Navas on the right, while Samir Nasri and David Silva's lateral movement and clever passes offer a wonderful counter-balance.
A major plus has been the form of strike duo Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo, who have taken the Premier League by storm and have ripped teams to shreds at the Etihad Stadium; but after the early-season loss to Bayern at home, can they afford to start both?
The defence, despite the presence of the impressive Pablo Zabaleta, continues flattering to deceive, with or without Vincent Kompany, while Joe Hart's error-strewn start to the campaign has seen Costel Pantilimon offered more games than expected. Those deficiencies will remain a worry, especially when they'll be expected to go without possession for long periods.
Gerardo Martino has enjoyed a smooth enough time as Barcelona boss in his debut campaign, leading them to 14 wins in La Liga from 16 matches and comfortably qualifying through a Champions League group including AC Milan and a technically strong Ajax.
The four-time European champions have largely had to make do without their main man Lionel Messi this season, the Argentine star struggling with injury, but there have most recently been signs that Neymar is coming to the boil, with his hat-trick against Celtic and double against Villarreal. Messi returns to action in the New Year.
The tiki-taka stylings of Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas remain from years gone by, but Martino has also sought to add an extra directness to his side; look out for cross field passes from both Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano sprayed out to the wide forwards or advancing full-backs.
The defence, so ruthlessly exposed by Bayern in last season's semi-final (a sixth in succession) remains similarly flawed but has only conceded 10 goals in La Liga and a further five times in the Champions League.
There still remains a major emphasis on Sergio Busquets as the midfield anchor, and he'll have to be at his best against Toure's powerful surges.
Winner: Barcelona (Just)
The Gunners' defeat in Naples on Matchday 6, coupled with Borussia Dortmund's late win in Marseille meant that Arsene Wenger's side finished second in their group behind Jurgen Klopp's men—and they've paid for it by drawing Europe's best side.
Arsenal lead the Premier League after a good start to the season, having appeared emboldened by the £42 million signing of Mesut Ozil.
Aaron Ramsey has come into his own this season, scoring key goals and working box-to-box with greater presence and tenacity than ever before. Olivier Giroud has been a clever focal point, while the defensive pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny has improved. Indeed, the entire side has stepped it up a notch defensively, the return of Mathieu Flamini having played a big part in that process.
Nonetheless, familiar weaknesses remain. A vulnerability to direct passes through the heart of the side was exploited in the defeats to Napoli and Dortmund, while the entire defensive system completely shut down in the recent 6-3 defeat at Manchester City.
With Jack Wilshere's swearing at the crowd and an argument between Mertesacker and Ozil at the final whistle, cracks have started appearing after a winless week.
Their 2-0 win in Munich last season will no doubt be a boost moving forward, but the fact that they lost that tie following a 3-1 home defeat will serve as a reminder of the quality they face.
Bayern will see themselves as favourites. But not happy playing Arsenal now. Way of play, last season's result, Wenger and Özil #Afc— Jan Aage Fjortoft (@JanAageFjortoft) December 16, 2013
Unbeaten in the Bundesliga and with only two defeats all season, Pep Guardiola's side have looked awesome. Each season since the Champions League's inception have we asked if a champion can retain their crown, and finally there may be a side who can do exactly that.
Having appeared in three of the last four finals, they are a side who know exactly how to make progress in the knockout stages and to do what is required.
Jupp Heynckes instilled them last season with a mental fortitude to dominate sides after the pain of a final loss to Chelsea in 2012, and Guardiola has added a greater focus on possession this term—in their six Champions League matches so far they're averaging 68 percent.
Arjen Robben has thrived so far this season, netting 13 goals and providing 10 assists in 21 matches in all competitions, while Franck Ribery has 10 goals and nine assists in his 21 games.
Toni Kroos, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Mueller have all been consistently excellent also, while Bastian Schweinsteiger is still to return in the New Year after his injury struggles.
Nonetheless, the 3-2 defeat by Manchester City showed that they can still switch off and give the game away (having been cruising 2-0), while Jerome Boateng is still prone to simple errors.
If Bayern aren't at their best, Arsenal have the quality to take advantage. However, they aren't favourites to retain their crown without reason and Guardiola will have his side fully focused for the entire 180 minutes this time round.
Winner: Bayern Munich
Sami Hyypia's side have impressed in the Bundesliga this season, displacing Borussia Dortmund as Bayern's nearest challengers and winning at the Westfalenstadion recently.
However, they remain prone to the odd poor defeat, as shown with their 1-0 loss at home to Frankfurt last weekend and in particular their 5-0 hammering by Manchester United during the group stage.
Nevertheless, the 4-0 win over Shakhtar and the 1-0 win against Real Sociedad to secure their place in the knockout stages have shown the German side's quality and their bizarreness.
Stefan Kiessling is the perfect striker for their vertical style, looking to counter at pace and looking to exploit opponents who may have overcommitted going forwards. Heung-Min Son, Gonzalo Castro and Sidney Sam are key performers, as well as all-action midfielder Lars Bender.
Yet, there is a certain one-pacedness about the defence, particularly the central pairing of Emir Spahic and Omer Toprak, while Bernd Leno, the young goalkeeper, drops a howler every now and again. Edinson Cavani's off-the-ball running could cause major problems as he cuts infield from wide areas.
Already they sit on 43 points from 18 games, with a goal difference of +31.
The expectation this term was always that they would win the French title (and though they are only two points clear of Monaco and four ahead of Lille it remains by far the most likely outcome) and the acid test was always going to be in the Champions League. For the large part, it's a case of so far so good.
They took 13 points from their opening five games, scoring 15 goals in the process, to assure their place in the knockout rounds, before losing to Benfica on Matchday 6.
Bayer Leverkusen vs PSG. PSG have scored 6 goals from corners in the Champions League, the most in the competition this season.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 16, 2013
Once again Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been vital, with eight European goals to his name already while Edinson Cavani has adapted well to a role playing from the right flank.
In midfield Marco Verratti continues to improve, alongside the underrated Thiago Motta, who offers an assuredness in possession and an added layer of protection to a solid defence featuring Brazil captain Thiago Silva and the extremely promising Marquinhos.
It is of course Ibrahimovic, his flair, vision and technical ability that really drags them up an extra level. He and Cavani are a guarantee of goals and they should be too powerful.
Thunderous away wins against Anderlecht and Olympiacos suggest this could be wrapped up pre-Paris.
Winner: Paris Saint-Germain
Surprisingly, the worst of the three Italian teams who started in this season's Champions League remain.
While Juventus and Napoli have fallen by the wayside, Max Allegri's AC Milan are still here.
In Serie A, the Rossoneri have been nothing short of miserable so far, winning just four of their opening 16 matches and lying 24 points off pace-setters Juve.
However, despite failing to really impress in the Champions League either, Milan have made their way to the knockout stages, largely because of two wins against Celtic and the fact that Ajax simply couldn't find a way to beat them, despite dominating both games.
Much of their attacking threat revolves around Mario Balotelli, who has been a little more petulant these last few months than he was in the immediate aftermath of his return to the city of Milan last season. Kaka has appeared revitalised since returning from Real Madrid.
Defensively they look anything but solid, despite three clean sheets in the group phase.
Diego Simeone's side have claimed a major trophy in each of the last two years and have been mooted as an excellent outside bet to do so again this season. And it's easy to see why.
Defensively excellent, hard working and with no shortage of talent, Atleti are a far cry from the dishevelled state that Simeone walked into, and they've kept pace with Spanish league leaders Barcelona, thus far matching them point for point.
Two wins against bitter rivals in the Santiago Bernabeu this year, one in the Copa Del Rey final, showed their fearlessness and they've taken that into Europe's premier club competition.
Diego Costa leads the line with his physicality, while David Villa's intelligence has added another layer to their attacking play.
The hard-working wide midfielders, Koke and Arda Turan, are both capable of inspirational moments. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is Europe's premier young stopper, while Brazilian defender Miranda can lay serious claim to being Europe's best defender so far this season.
In all, they have masses of quality, which made the disparaging words of Milan's Sulley Muntari appear rather ludicrously ill-judged.
“Atletico Madrid are the weakest team on paper," said the Ghanaian, as reported by Goal.com.
Spanish newspaper AS probably came up with the best response:
Milan's Muntari is keen to get Atlético in the Champions League draw. Maybe his cable package doesn't include football.— AS English (@English_AS) December 15, 2013
Diego Simeone's pre-game talk is pretty much done for him already.
Winner: Atletico Madrid
The Greek side enjoyed a comfortable win over Anderlecht on Matchday 6 to secure their route to the knockout phase and have been rewarded with a tie against English champions Manchester United.
A home thrashing by PSG in their opening group game didn't augur well, but the Greek champions and current league leaders (with 14 wins from 15 games and a +41 goal difference) really turned it around to see off Benfica in qualifying behind PSG.
Thanks largely to the prolific striker Kostas Mitroglou, who has been ably supported by the experienced Argentine creators Javier Saviola and Alejandro Dominguez, they've got plenty of goals in them.
Additionally, the defence, marshalled by 22-year-old Kostas Manolas and Greek international Giannis Maniatis, his improved on all fronts since that PSG defeat.
The winger Vladimir Weiss is a former Manchester City youngster, and his pace and trickery could cause Patrice Evra problems assuming coach Michel selects him.
Nevertheless, Olympiacos haven't reached the knockout phase since 2009-10, and that inexperience could count against them.
What looked a potentially difficult group was navigated with relative ease, United taking 14 points from their six matches, scoring 12 goals and conceding just three in the process.
Nonetheless, the overriding quality of those performances and their domestic form has proven that there remain some rather crucial problems that still need addressing.
In defence Rafael continues to develop into an excellent tigerish full-back, but age continues to catch up with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand—arguably Phil Jones and Jonny Evans have been the best defensive duo so far this term.
Without Michael Carrick the midfield misses someone who can dictate the tempo and recycle possession, but it also lacks a quality vertical passer who can get the ball swiftly into advanced positions. Marouane Fellaini has struggled to show his best while question marks continue to follow the likes of Tom Cleverley and Anderson.
Up front Wayne Rooney appears somewhere near his best, though with Robin van Persie struggling with injuries, Danny Welbeck struggling for consistency and Shinji Kagawa still just struggling, he cannot do it on his own.
However, Moyes now has two months to improve his side's cohesion and a transfer window where he'll almost certainly have money to spend to add fresh quality.
United have form against Greek sides in recent years and in the end, should do just enough.
7 - Manchester United have won seven and drawn one of their eight Champions League games vs Greek sides. Cruise.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 16, 2013
Winner: Manchester United
The Turkish giants have qualified for the knockout stage at the expense of Juventus and a goal difference of minus six, but Roberto Mancini has helped to shore up a defence so painfully ripped apart by Real Madrid on match day one.
Of course, all eyes will be on Didier Drogba as he makes an emotional return to Stamford Bridge and while the Ivory Coast international may now be 35, he has always been the man for the big occasion—Chelsea will hope that it doesn't work against them the way it has for them in the past.
42 - Only seven players have scored more CL goals than Didier Drogba (42), with 34 of them coming for Chelsea. Return.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 16, 2013
The worry for Gala is that last season's top scorer Burak Yilmaz is in the midst of a dry patch, having failed to score in Europe this term (though he has netted five times in his last seven Turkish league matches).
Much of the attacking impetus will be placed on Wesley Sneijder's shoulders and if Jose Mourinho sticks to a 4-2-3-1 formation without designated holder Jon Obi Mikel, then he could find space in which to orchestrate proceedings.
Gala are no mugs, but without the inspirational Fatih Terim on the touchline (who took them to last year's quarter-final and league title) can they rise themselves to trouble the English side?
Four wins and two defeats (both by the now departed Basel) was the story of Chelsea's group stage and those sluggish defeats against the Swiss side have pretty much typified the Blues season.
For much of the time, they're doing some good things, but an inability to be clinical in the final third and to kill off teams is coming back to haunt them on a far more regular basis than Jose Mourinho would like.
Their strength lies in the attacking midfielders that Mourinho has at his disposal and while Eden Hazard would appear to be Mourinho's first choice (having been rotated less than both Juan Mata and Oscar) and has been spoken of as being the Blues' major world-class talent, is he doing enough (eight goals, six assists in 21 appearances) to impact matches or is he still lacking consistency?
The spine of the side remains strong and virtually all of the first-team squad (except the summer signings (except Samuel Eto'o)) know what it takes to win a European crown.
However, the worry over the striking options continue. None of Demba Ba, Fernando Torres and Eto'o have suggested that they deserve to be the undisputed choice and are leaving Mourinho with an ever-changing conundrum.
In the end Chelsea should have the experience to get the job done and to put their name into the quarter-finals. But it could prove to be very tight, especially if Drogba decides he'd quite fancy putting one over his former side.
Zenit St. Petersburg
Zenit St. Petersburg have made a record of their own in qualifying for the knockout stages.
Luciano Spalletti's Russians have become the first side to qualify with just six points and a -4 goal difference, making them officially the worst qualifiers in history.
In recent seasons, the 2008 UEFA Cup winners haven't done too bad in Europe and they'll calculate arriving in the knockout stages as success. However, given the money they've spent on talent—Danny, Hulk and Axel Witsel to name but three and all of whom remain—perhaps they should have been doing better.
However, they are top of the Russian league as it heads into the winter break, so they do remain pretty decent. But you just can't mask that 4-1 loss in Vienna.
Last season's beaten finalists, they brought joy to an entire continent with their effervescent style and dynamic attacking play.
Jurgen Klopp has harnessed an excellent team built around the finishing prowess of Robert Lewandowski and the class of Marco Reus to create openings.
However, they've been badly hit by injuries this season, which has blunted their Bundesliga challenge—they're already 12 points behind Bayern Munich—and it's taken Die Borussen real character to advance as group winners ahead of both Arsenal and Napoli.
The hope will be that key personnel such as Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gundogan are fully firing when the knockout rounds arrive, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will get stronger as the season progresses. Unfortunately, Serbian defender Neven Subotic misses the rest of the campaign.
In a freezing cold Russia, the first leg will be a test simply due to the conditions. Back on home soil in the second leg, expect Dortmund's high-pressing and attacking verve to render them far too strong.
Zenit vs Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund have made 33 interceptions in the opposition’s half in the Champions League, no team has made more.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 16, 2013
Winner: Borussia Dortmund
Jens Keller's side are an unusual mix of occasional brilliance and sometimes mediocrity, who have suffered a patchy start to their Bundesliga campaign and only just made the knockout round.
On the domestic front Schalke currently sit in sixth, having scored the same amount of goals as second place Leverkusen (32) but conceded the same number as 15th place Eintracht Frankfurt (28).
In Europe, they needed a home win in Game Week 6 against Basel (helped by some controversial refereeing decisions) to earn them their last 16 place but they do have a first XI (when all are fit) brimming with attacking talent.
Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfan is direct and troublesome for full-backs to deal with, Kevin Prince-Boateng has a tendency to produce something excellent on a big occasion, Julian Draxler is a prodigious talent while the return from injury of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will add a cutting edge.
However, that 3-0 home defeat by Chelsea, when they were cut to ribbons on the counter-attack sticks in the mind, as does the recent 3-1 loss to Hoffenheim. Against the pace, creativity and clinical finishing of Messrs. Ronaldo and Bale, a similar showing could see them hit for five or six.
Third in La Liga and five points behind both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, last season there would have been uproar at the Bernabeu.
However, the Ancelotti appeasement program appears to be working and the end game remains the same as it has in the last 12 years: La Decima.
And more than at any point in the last three years, perhaps there is now a greater sense that this is indeed Los Blancos' year.
Cristiano Ronaldo is undoubtedly the star man, having taken his game to a new, improbable high in the opening months of the season and having broken more records with his exploits in the Champions League.
Also, world record signing Gareth Bale has begun to show the talent that took the Premier League by storm last season, and his burgeoning relationship with Ronaldo has the potential to be lethal, even against Europe's best.
Luka Modric has emerged as an outstanding alternative to the injured Sami Khedira in his second season in Madrid, while Xabi Alonso's return from injury has offered greater stability and assurance.
The goalkeeping situation remains somewhat awkward to those on the outside looking in, while Ancelotti will have key defensive decisions to make in the New Year in selecting between Raphael Varane/Pepe and Dani Carvajal/Alvaro Arbeloa for the bigger fixtures.
However, they have more than enough to dispose of Schalke without needing to go past third gear, despite their terrible record in Germany.
1 – Real Madrid have won once in 21 visits to Germany in the Champions League, against Leverkusen in 2000 (six draws). Struggled.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) December 16, 2013
Winner: Real Madrid
For more European football talk find me on Twitter: @AA_Richards