The draw for the Champions League quarter-finals in Switzerland on Friday promises to throw up plenty of tantalising ties in the first stage of the competition where any two teams can face each other.
Restrictions on clubs from the same country facing off are lifted for the last eight, bringing the chance of either an all-German or all-Spanish clash.
Defending champions Barcelona are firm favourites for the title after a comfortable 5-1 aggregate victory over Arsenal in the last 16, although no side has ever retained the European crown since it moved to its current guise of the Champions League.
That suggests a title defence is harder than it may seem, and the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain are all expected to challenge Luis Enrique’s men for the trophy to be played for in Milan on May 28.
The most thrilling climax to a last 16 second leg was saved until last, as five-time champions Bayern produced a thrilling fight-back on Wednesday to knock out last season’s runners-up Juventus in extra-time.
Bayern legend and CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge on Thursday proclaimed his disappointment that two sides of the stature of the German and Italian champions could meet so early in the tournament.
“What I do not like at all is that it is all dependent on the draw,” he said.
“UEFA should consider whether or not it should bring in seeding or something like that. It’s no longer acceptable, I’m tired of fate.”
With murmurs of the traditionally bigger clubs breaking away to form a European Super League, Rummenigge’s ideas may be supported by some of the sides in the last eight hat.
But the likes of Wolfsburg and Benfica, who could still potentially go head-to-head in the quarters, are unlikely to want any such seeding process.
– First-timers –
Wolfsburg reached this stage in Europe’s premier competition for the first time by seeing off Belgian surprise packages Gent, who battled hard but to no avail in a 4-2 aggregate loss.
Benfica, although they are two-time winners, have not won any continental trophy since their second European Cup back in 1962.
Despite Rummenigge’s views, Bayern head coach Pep Guardiola has said that he does “not care” who the Bavarians are drawn against in the next round.
The Spaniard, who led Barcelona to two Champions League titles during his time in charge at the Camp Nou, will join Manchester City at the end of the season and could even be pitted against his future employers — who eased past Dynamo Kiev to progress further than ever before.
“I don’t care who we play next. If you want to reach the semi-finals then you have to be ready to beat any opponent,” said Guardiola, for whom Thomas Mueller’s 90th-minute equaliser protected a record of having never failed to reach the last eight as a coach.
While many eyes will be on the possibility of an El Clasico showdown, Atletico Madrid’s dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over PSV Eindhoven means that Spain have the most quarter-final representatives for the fifth successive season.
The last country to provide more than two sides at this stage was England in 2011, but Premier League outfits have struggled in recent years.
English champions Chelsea fell to their French counterparts PSG for the second season in a row, this time losing both matches 2-1.
The draw takes place at UEFA headquarters in Nyon at 1100GMT.