The group stages of this season’s Champions League have thrown up some great matches and some unbelievable individual feats, and in the wake of last week’s tantalising last 16 draw, the competition looks set to get even better.
Already, Cristiano Ronaldo has become the first man to score nine goals in the group stages of the competition in either its current format or its previous guise as the European Cup, while Barcelona’s Neymar made history as the first player to net a hat-trick in both the Champions League and its South American counterpart, the Copa de Libertadores.
However, while Ronaldo made history with his nine-goal haul, there could be a dark horse in the contest for the competitions most lethal finisher. Surprisingly, Bayer Leverkusen defender Omer Toprak has the joint best Champions League conversion rate with both of his shots finding the net.
It's not often that those two get mentioned in the same breath.
With a draw that pitted Manchester City and Arsenal—the Premier League’s most in-form representatives—against two of the top sides in the business in Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the next stage of the competition looks set to be even better. Here are some of the top games.
Manchester City vs. Barcelona
It’s easy to forget that, whilst City will be left cursing their luck, this was one of the worst possible draws that Barcelona could have got. Having topped their group, Barcelona could have been hosting the likes of Galatasaray, or an Olympiakos side that have only won five of their 62 European away games. Instead they face a City side that are the competition’s second highest scorers with 18 goals, two behind Real Madrid.
Six of those came from Sergio Aguero and, should he return from injury in time, the Argentine could be City’s key man. Behind only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo in group stage goals, Aguero averaged a goal every 63.66 minutes.
This game is sure to have goals in it, with two of the competition’s top five scoring teams going head-to-head. Ominously for City, of the teams to progress to the knock-out stages only Galatasaray conceded more goals than Manchester City in the group stages. That's not a great statistic to be taking into a second leg at the Nou Camp—a ground at which Barcelona averaged over four goals a game in their group stage fixtures.
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich
A rerun of last season, Arsenal and Bayern Munich meet in the last 16 for the second year running. Last season, Bayern dealt out a footballing lesson in the first leg, with a 3-1 win at the Emirates, before being humbled 2-0 in the second leg. Bayern went through on away goals and would have been wary enough of a reunion as it was, let alone against an Arsenal side that have stepped up a level this season.
Arsenal qualified from Group F behind Borussia Dortmund, but ahead of Napoli, and are leading the Premier league. Despite this, they took the fewest shots of any of the 32 teams in the Champions League group stages (52). Preferring to pass their way toward a good opening, the Gunners have only taken 17 shots from outside the penalty area.
When they do take a shot, Mesut Ozil is key and is likely to be the man they look for to impress against his compatriots. Of the 42 chances that Arsenal have created, 16 have been provided by Ozil. This is four times more than any other Arsenal player and makes up a staggering 38 percent of the team’s chances.
They face a Bayern side that have outpassed every side bar Barcelona this season having transitioned well to life under Pep Guardiola. Typical of their play has been midfielder Toni Kroos. Not only does the German have an impressive pass accuracy of 95 percent, but he has made more passes in the final third of the pitch than any other player in the competition apart from Barcelona’s Xavi. Kroos has made 181 final third passes and has created 10 chances.
It’s not been a great season for Italian sides in the competition. Napoli exited the competition despite amassing 12 points, while Juventus exited the competition due to a late Wesley Sneijder goal in Istanbul (incidentally, to a Galatasaray side that qualified with only seven points and a goal difference of minus six.)
AC Milan are the last Italian side standing and come up against one of Europe’s surprise packages of the season, Atletico Madrid.
Atletico currently sit joint top of La Liga alongside Barcelona and stormed through their group with 16 points from a possible 18. A matchup with Milan represents a coming together of Champions League old and new of recent years. While Milan are fixtures of the competition, Atletico are in the last 16 for only the second time in the past 15 years.
A feature of their play has been their pressing of opponents. Atletico have made more tackles in the opposition half of the pitch than any other side in the competition so far, 27, including seven in their last fixture against Porto.
Milan will have been pleased with the draw, having avoided the competition’s big guns, but will be well aware of the challenge posed by Atletico. If they are to progress then Mario Balottelli could be their key man. The Italian has scored six league goals in 11 Serie A fixtures and two in six Champions League games. He is also the competition’s most fouled player, having been illegally stopped 23 times so far.