Champions League knock-out round 2012-13 preview

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It's back - after a lengthy winter respite the Champions League is set to return with eight mouth-watering knock-out fixtures.

Tonight kicks off the last-16 round with Celtic hosting Italian champions Juventus, while Valencia welcome Paris St-Germain to the Mestalla.

Of course, all of this is simply the dressing, a mere appetiser before tomorrow night's 'perfect match'. For while this evening's matches offer plenty of interest, United's trip to the Bernabeu is the Champions League format at its very best.

Two of the world's best, two of the world's biggest, two genuine favourites for the competition, going toe-to-toe over a two-legged winner-takes-all knock-out tie.

Real Madrid seem to have put all their eggs in one basket - and that makes them doubly dangerous. Ropey La Liga form dictates the fact that the Champions League offers Jose Mourinho the only realistic opportunity for a walk-off home run - a trophy and out is classic Mourinho.

He's done it before, with Porto and Inter Milan, and there's reason to believe another Champions League triumph for the 'Special One' will see him scarper again. Of course, even if he doesn't win, he's equally likely to go - such is life as Real Madrid manager.

As for their opponents, Manchester United will be looking to quash the suspicions of many, namely that the Premier League is no longer the best league in the world, and that in fact, it's probably not even the second best.

Chelsea and Manchester City both flopped in the group stages, while Arsenal and Manchester United didn't have it all their own way either.

United's propensity to capitulate defensively was only overcome because Sir Alex Ferguson had shrewdly decided a 29-year-old injury-prone striker was probably worth £24m, if only because he's exceptionally good at scoring goals.

Robin Van Persie makes you forget that United lost to Galatasaray away and CFR Cluj at Old Trafford, while they narrowly squeaked past Braga and Galatasaray at home.

Arsenal's qualification was anything but smooth - Arsene Wenger's side lost to Olympiakos away, to Schalke at home, and had to come from behind in Montpellier. In contrast, Bayern Munich have blitzed the Bundesliga, and now sit 15 points clear of Manchester City-conquering Borussia Dortmund. One defeat in 21 league games is imposing form, and the Gunners face a mountainous test against the Bavarian giants.

As if to emphasis the point, while the English teams have struggled, Spanish, Italian and German teams have progressed largely unhindered. Real Madrid and Barcelona were comfortable, as were Malaga, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Valencia.

All three of the Bundesliga's participants progressed, as did the two Serie 'A' entrants, while four La Liga teams sailed through.

Of the contenders, Barcelona remain the team to beat. Last year's failure against Chelsea an aberration, rather than any indication of long-term decline.

If anything, they look much closer to the 2010-11 Champions League-winning Barcelona incarnation than the one that failed to break down 10-man Chelsea at the Camp Nou.

Tito Vilanova has re-energised a squad that looked tired from repeatedly being challenged to crack stubborn Chelsea-type defences, and they should have little trouble with an AC Milan team that has struggled domestically and continentally this campaign.

Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Malaga, and Schalke each eased into the knock-out round without a single defeat to their names, and this quartet, along with Shakhtar Donetsk, will prove stiff opponents.

Malaga face Porto in an engaging tie - and an excellent opportunity to watch two of European football's brightest prospects, Colombian international and Porto playmaker James Rodriguez, and Malaga star Isco.

The two attacking midfielders have been in sparkling form this season, and it is fortunate that one will definitely be progressing into the competition's latter rounds.

Dortmund v Shakhtar, two of European football's most fashionable clubs, is another fantastic tie. Dortmund, so excellent at the Bernabeu and the Etihad Stadium, have struggled to keep pace with Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, but their rapid counter-attacks, stern defence and Mario Gotze, Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski triumvirate gives them a fighting chance in the Ukrainian fortress of Donetsk.

Shakhtar, of course, will miss the creative genius of Willan, departed for Anzhi, but the likes of Luiz Adriano, Fernandinho and Darijo Srna will ensure they give Jurgen Klopp's side a tough examination. Still, expect Dortmund to progress.

Undoubtedly, the round's least glamourous tie pits Galatasaray against Schalke. 

A team chiselled from the pits of the industrial Ruhr Valley, struggling to maintain a top-10 place in the German top flight, against a side top of the Turkish Super Lig, but lacking in big-name talent. All that's changed now though, at least for the Istanbul-based outfit.

In this regard, Galatasaray prove a useful opposite to Shakhtar. The Turkish club have strengthened in the January transfer window, with a beady eye on their winnable Champions League last-16 tie.

The additions of Wesley Sneijder from Inter Milan and Didier Drogba from Shanghai Shenhua will have been met with groans of despair in Germany. 

What looked a relatively kind draw now looks a whole lot tougher.

Celtic against Juventus is the round's David v Goliath, but as Barcelona found out in the group stage, a visit to Celtic Park is never a straightforward affair.

Neil Lennon's side have all the ingredients necessary to make it an uncomfortable night for the defending Serie 'A' champions, a predatory goalscorer, Gary Hooper, a hard-working central midfield, and a goalkeeper who seems to save his best for the big occasion. 

It shaping up to be another great Champions League campaign, full of twists and turns, upsets and controversy. As for the GMF picks, we think the eight quarter-finalists will be Real Madrid, Barcelona, Porto, PSG, Bayern Munich, Galatasaray, Borussia Dortmund, and Juventus. Agree or disagree?

To whet your appetite, look back at the top 10 best Champions League goals from this season's competition so far in the video above, and have your say in the comment section - who do you think will progress to the last eight?

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