The wait is over. The draw for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League has been made.
English clubs are visibly the most hard done by, with Chelsea and Arsenal facing tough tests against Italian sides Napoli and AC Milan, respectively. The La Liga giants have been handed out a comparatively easier fixture. While Barcelona face German giants Bayer Leverkusen, Mouriho's Galacticos face off against CSKA Moscow. Bayern Munich will fight it out against this season's giant-hunters, FC Basel, who are on a high after beating and ultimately throwing out the competition.
Inter Milan, who are currently in a bad run will have their hands full with French club Marseille. FC Lyon, who delivered a scintillating performance to secure their qualification into the knockout stages, were handed a plum fixture with APOEL Nicosia to deal with. The other fixture involves SL Benfica and Zenit St.Petersburg, which is expected to be a battle of equals.
It is till February 14th, 2012 when the clubs face off in their knock-out fixtures. Until then, let us take a look into the five players who can make all the difference in the knock-out stages.
Italian side Napoli's 24-year-old Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani is presently one of the hottest prospects in the world, with every top European club willing to add his name in their squad list.
The fiery youngster nicknamed, "El Matador," has continued his blistering form of last season into the new season, with 11 goals already scored in a mere 16 appearances. In Napoli's 2-1 defeat of Manchester City, Napoli scored the decisive goal, one that ultimately resulted in the cash-rich City's ouster from the competition.
When Chelsea clash with the high-flying Serie A club in February, all eyes will be on the highly rated youngster, as he is expected to torment the Blues' already-fragile defense. His performance will play a vital role in the outcome of the results of probably the knock-out stages most awaited fixture.
It will be interesting to see whether Villas-Boas is able to contain El Matador, which will be an important factor if Chelsea are to proceed to the next round.
Probably the player under most pressure in the world is Chelsea's 50-million misfiring Spanish striker Fernando Torres.
El Niño has seen himself fall from the glory days to a bench-warmer uncertain of a spot in the starting eleven. This week saw reports emerging of Chelsea preparing to offload their expensive flop, which seemed a pretty normal decision. Though Blues manager Andre Villas-Boas has rubbished such reports and declared him not for sale, the uncertainty over Torres's future still remains in doubt.
The ex-Liverpool man has only scored six times in his 35 appearances for the Blues during his one-year stay. His dismal form has already attracted angry voices demanding his sale, and if the Spaniard fails to impress, he might be sent packing off before the end of January.
With Anelka leaving for Shanghai Shenhua come January and the in-form Drogba going off to play in the African Nations Cup, the New Year might be the best and only chance for Torres to prove his worth. If he fails, he goes off to some second-tier club; and if successful, he can expect a long-term stay.
If the Spaniard hopefully guarantees himself a first-team spot, he will play an important part in Chelsea's fixtures against Napoli. With the face-off promising to be one with lots of attacking football, El Niño needs to be at his best if the Blues are to make it into the quarterfinals. Given Napoli's strength at home, the onus will be all the more on Torres to repeat his past heroics.
Undoubtedly, Arsenal's saviour this season.
After the worst start in almost a decade that saw Arsenal ranked 17th in the league once, the flying Dutchman took it upon himself to save the Gunners' season—and how well has he done his job. The Dutch forward has been in blistering form finding the net 19 times in his 21 appearances for the club this season. Such has been his performance that numerous suitors are already lining up bids to snatch up the 28-year-old in the January transfer window if possible.
Van Persie has played a vital role for the North London club in the Champions League, too, scoring four goals in his six appearances. In the knockout stages Arsenal have been handed a tough draw as they face Italian giants AC Milan. So when the Gunners face Ibrahimovic & Co. come February, the onus will rightly be on van Persie to help his team make the next stages.
If van Persie can avoid injuries, something that has nagged him all through his career, and continue his blistering form, it might not be that tough for Wenger's boys to make it to the quarterfinals.
Given the Gunners' performance sans van Persie, it can be said without doubt if Arsenal lose RVP to injury, their season is doomed both European as well as domestic.
This season's surprise newcomers Swiss club FC Basel has been on a roller coaster ride so far.
They did the impossible by defeating English Premier League powerhouse Manchester United to guarantee themselves a place in the knockout stages; and in the process, they exiled the Red Devils to the Europa League. The Red Devils were visibly not very happy with the results, but nevertheless, the Swiss did a fantastic job undoubtedly to register one of the biggest upsets in the history of Champions League.
Though their success is no doubt a result of team effort but the exploits of one Xherdan Shaqiri has been very eye-catching. The extremely talented winger has attracted interests from a lot of clubs courtesy his impressive skills with the ball. The Swiss international is undoubtedly one of the most vital reasons for Basel's huge success so far.
FC Basel have been given a tough fixture against Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich, and though they are not favourites to make it to the quarterfinals yet, it cannot be ruled out. If the young sensation Shaqiri can replicate his displays against Manchester United, the Swiss team might continue with their roller-coaster ride well into the quarterfinals.
The massive 6-foot-5 Swede has been in blistering form for the Rossoneri this season, having already netted 14 times from a mere 16 appearances.
The Barcelona misfit who was unceremoniously sold off after just a season, at half the price that Barca had paid to acquire him, has been on a roll since his arrival at the Serie A. His goal-scoring prowess helped Milan to maintain themselves in the race for the Serie A title, as well as confirming them a knockout stage spot in the Champions League.
When the seven-time European giants face off against a Arsenal team who are on top gear, it will be on Ibrahimovic to showcase his goal-scoring skills. His form will be a big factor and if Arsenal fail to control the Swedish giant it might be one of their worst exits from the Champions League in recent memory.
APOEL Nicosia, this little known club from Cyprus, created history when they became the first team from the small nation to make it to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League.
They deserve all the more credit because of the fact that they emerged as winners from a group that consisted of FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St.Petersburg—where they were seen as the weakest of all. APOEL has undoubtedly earned their passage to the last 16 stages courtesy some brilliant footballing displays.
At the heart of their brilliant performance has been the 30-year-old Cypriot international Costas Charalambides. The talented midfielder has played a vital role in creating numerous chances for his teammates. His accurate ball distribution combined with dangerous incisive passes into opposition defense has played an important role in the Cypriot clubs recent success.
APOEL face a tough test against French powerhouse FC Lyon in their last 16 stages and are expected to lose convincingly. But if the team maintains their group stage form combined with the veteran midfielders brilliant skills, another upset might be on the cards, along with another record.