EUROPEAN SOCCER

Old acquaintance thickens plot

Several reunions await after Champions League and Europa draws while Atlético and Milan will meet for first time

Former Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder Luis Figo plucks the Catalan club out of the tombola at the Uefa draw ceremony on Monday.
Former Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder Luis Figo plucks the Catalan club out of the tombola at the Uefa draw ceremony on Monday. FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The Champions League and Europa League draws conducted on Monday threw up some tantalizing ties in the first knockout rounds of both competitions, with old friends to be reunited and a couple of new rivalries to be instigated.

As often seems to be the case, Real Madrid arguably got the better of the Champions League tombola, drawing Schalke 04 in the last 16. The German side is full of youthful talent but lacks consistency and is out of the Bundesliga running and the German Cup already this season. However, in Julian Draxler Schalke has one of Europe's most coveted players and there is plenty of experience in the forward line at least, where former Real striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar plies his trade in league with Peru striker Jefferson Farfán. The Dutch international has been sidelined with a knee injury for two months but should be fit to face his old employer.

"We have always suffered a lot against German teams and so we have to approach the tie very respectfully and cautiously, prepare well and attend to all the details," said Real director Emilio Butragueño. "The return match is at the Bernabéu which in principle is an advantage but we know what can happen in this competition. One bad night in Europe and you are out."

Of all the unseeded teams, Arsenal and Manchester City were the ones every coach will have wanted to avoid: the draw pitted the Premier League leader against the its Bundesliga counterpart Bayern Munich, and Barcelona against a City side in rampant form. "It's very tough, but we are happy because we are here and we will fight for the trophy. It's a wonderful draw and these are two big teams so they are going to be great matches," said Txiki Begiristain, Manchester City's director of football, the same post he previously held at Barcelona.

Arsenal and Bayern played each other last year at the same stage of the tournament, the German club and eventual champion going through on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate scoreline.

We had to draw someone, and we drew a team that, among other things, has seven European Cups"

Atlético Madrid will play AC Milan in a competitive match for the first time in history in a draw that the rojiblancos will probably have enjoyed more than the Serie A side. Diego Simeone's side is in sparkling form and has been beaten only once all season, a somewhat anomalous away defeat at Espanyol in October. Milan, meanwhile, is not in good shape and its Champions League wins in 2003 and 2007 seem an awfully long time ago.

Massimiliano Allegri's side sits 25 points behind Juventus in the league with four wins from 15 Serie A matches, and reached the last 16 courtesy of a turgid 0-0 draw against Ajax in the San Siro.

"We had to draw someone, and we drew a team that, among other things, has seven European Cups, and we have none, so it's a good team. They won 2-0 last year against Barcelona, so it's not an easy team. But we also have our history in Spain and Europe and we will try to make history in this competition this season," said Atlético president Enrique Cerezo. It is an almost ideal draw for Atlético, on current form at least; a guaranteed jamboree at the turnstiles considering Milan's status as a European giant, but an eminently beatable opponent.

In the Europa League last-32 draw, Sevilla was paired with Slovenian side NK Maribor, Real Betis with Russian outfit Rubin Kazan and Valencia against another historically powerful club now going through lean times, Dynamo Kiev.

If Betis and Sevilla win through their respective ties, they will be rewarded with a Seville derby in the last 16. Valencia, which might have to win the competition to qualify for Europe next season if its Liga form remains as erratic as it has been, will play Lazio in the last 16 if it can negotiate its encounter with the Ukrainian side.

In another reunion, Tottenham Hotspur, which sacked Andre Villas-Boas after a 5-0 thrashing by Liverpool at the weekend, will also travel to Ukraine to play Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, which is managed by former Real Madrid and Spurs coach, Juande Ramos.

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