Real Madrid should beat Manchester United and PSG can be expected to win in Valencia but Celtic will frustrate Juventus and Borussia Dortmund can avoid defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk
The Champions League returns this week with the first four of the eight last-16 ties. Real Madrid taking on Manchester United may be the most high-profile encounter but elsewhere big-spending Paris Saint-Germain will look to gain an advantage on Valencia while Borussia Dortmund travel to Shakhtar Donetsk and Celtic hope to cause another upset, this time against Juventus.
Here is how the teams shape up before the first legs:
Juventus may be top of Serie A and did not lose a league game between May 2011 and November 2012 but they do not appear quite as imperturbable as last year. Recently they completely lost the plot after not being awarded a late penalty against Genoa with the coach, Antonio Conte, the players Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Mirko Vucinic and the director, Giuseppe Marotta, all banned for "intimidating and insulting" the referee and one other official. Chiellini, who was not even playing but ran from the stands to confront the referee, has since apologised, as has Conte.
On Saturday night, meanwhile, Juventus beat Fiorentina 2-0 in a game that could not have been more straightforward. The two goals came in the first half, through Vucinic and Alessandro Matri (who scored despite losing his boot just before shooting), and none of Conte's key players was injured, despite some hefty challenges from the Violas.
Conte did lose the midfielder Paolo De Ceglie to injury but has been boosted by the return of Kwadwo Asamoah from Africa Cup of Nations duty with Ghana. Asamoah is likely to replace De Ceglie on the left of midfield in the manager's preferred 3-5-2 formation. José Martín Cáceres can also play in that position with the former Manchester United attacking midfielder, Paul Pogba, also showing promise whenever given a chance.
The only potential weakness for Celtic to exploit appears to be Juve's defence where the mainstay (and hardman) Chiellini has been missing through injury. The Italy defender is suspended for the first leg on Tuesday but there is little comfort to be had for Neil Lennon and his players in Juve's midfield or forward line.
The midfield is marshalled by Andrea Pirlo and the ever-improving Arturo Vidal with Claudio Marchisio offering protection and drive and Stephan Lichtsteiner in the form of his life on the right. Up front, Matri has five goals in his last five games while Vucinic is an all-round player with no apparent weaknesses. He is strong, he is skilful, he is good in the air – and he is in form. In addition there are Sebastian Giovinco, Fabio Quagliarella and the newly arrived Nicolas Anelka waiting to contribute. This game will be tremendously difficult for Celtic but then so was Barcelona.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward Ezequiel Lavezzi last week demanded that his team-mates show Valencia "respect" when the two teams line up at the Mestalla on Tuesday but, considering the Spanish team recently lost 5-0 at home to Real Madrid and that their best player turned up hungover (or still drunk depending on whom you believe) two days before the game against Barça, it is easy to see why PSG are the favourites.
Ever Banega it was who reported for training late and in an unfit state but such is the shortage of alternatives available to the Valencia coach, Ernesto Valverde, that the Argentinian started the game against Barcelona – and played well in a 1-1 draw against the champions at the start of this month. And it is performances such as the one against the Catalans that will give Valencia confidence that they can hurt PSG. Against Barça Valencia were well organised, worked hard and put an awful lot of pressure on the visitors.
Against PSG the spine of Valencia's team must perform. The goalkeeper Diego Alves, centre-back Ricardo Costa, Argentinian central midfielder Tino Costa, Banega and, up front, Roberto Soldado, will be key to the Spanish side's hope. And the last, who has a remarkable record of 16 goals in 21 Champions League games for Valencia, will be licking his lips at the prospect of facing Alex in the PSG defence. There always seems to be a mistake lurking when the Brazilian centre-back is on the pitch, as Chelsea fans can testify. The problem for PSG is that Thiago Silva has been injured, so Alex is likely to be partnered by Sylvain Armand on Tuesday.
The Qatari owners of Carlo Ancelotti's PSG, however, are unlikely to accept a defeat in the last 16 in the Champions League, especially to an inconsistent Valencia side. PSG were good before Christmas with attacking talent such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lavezzi, Javier Pastore and Jérémy Ménez in the team and now they have added the €45m signing of Lucas Moura from São Paulo. David Beckham, another January arrival, has not played yet and is unlikely to feature against Valencia.
Jürgen Klopp knew exactly how to sum up Dortmund's 4-1 defeat at home to Hamburg on Saturday: "Heute war ein Scheiß-Tag". Today was a shit day. And who can blame him? It was not a great day for Dortmund. In fact, it had not been a great week. The midfielder Kevin Großkreutz was sent to hospital after a bad bout of bronchitis, Marcel Schmelzer was injured and Mario Götze, Roman Weidenfeller and Moritz Leitner were hit by a virus. Marco Reus and Lukasz Piszczek were struggling with knocks. Oh, and Robert Lewandowski was sent off in that 4-1 shocker.
But, with Bayern Munich 15 points ahead of Dortmund in the title race, Klopp's attention has already switched to the Champions League. And this season, having won the Bundesliga two years running, Dortmund are finally establishing themselves as a European force. In the group stage they were far better than Manchester City in the two games against the English champions and dominated Real Madrid for large parts of their two encounters with the Spanish club.
Klopp favours a 4-2-3-1 formation with Jakub Blaszczykowski, Mario Götze and Marco Reus supporting Lewandowski up front. Blaszczykowski has been given a more advanced role this season while the 23-year-old Reus rocked Real with his speed and eye for goal.
Shakhtar, meanwhile, showed in their Group E matches against Chelsea they have the firepower to trouble any team but have sold the brilliant Brazilian Willian to Anzhi Makhachkala for a reported €35m. They have not played a competitive game since losing to Juventus on 5 December but the Armenia international, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, said: "We are looking to get the maximum out of 2013 and that means trying to win every game, including Champions League games."
What an utterly bizarre season it has been for Real Madrid. There have been reports of dressing-room unrest, Cristiano Ronaldo has said that he has felt "sad" at the club, José Mourinho told one Marca journalist there were "three rotten apples" in the squad and the seemingly undroppable Iker Casillas has been dropped (and then injured).
And still, here they are, facing United on the back of a convincing 4-1 home defeat of Sevilla with Ronaldo, carrying a few knocks, scoring an impressive hat-trick. They are 16 points behind Barcelona in the table and can concentrate fully on trying to win the club's 10th Champions League title.
There is no question that Real – so far – have been worse than last season, when they lost to Bayern in the semi-finals. This season there have been lame league defeats against Getafe, Sevilla, Real Betis, Málaga and Granada and they struggled desperately at times both home and away against Dortmund in the Champions League group stage.
There is some good news for Real, though, before Wednesday's game. Diego López was signed from Sevilla in January for €4m to fill the gap left by Casillas' injury while the physically imposing Pepe returned from injury in Saturday's win against Sevilla. Pepe's understudy Raphaël Varane has been superb when given a chance and then there is a certain Ronaldo who has scored an astonishing 36 goals for Real this season. You can talk all day about whether Real would be better with both Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín playing up front, or whether Luka Modric can unlock United's defence but in the end this tie is likely to be decided by the performances of one man: Ronaldo.