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Classy Champions League lineup awaits last-16 draw

December 15, 2013

NYON, Switzerland (AP) — A high-class Champions League lineup of 16 teams and the world’s best players feature in Monday’s draw for the first knockout round.

Seven past European champions, including all six finalists from the past three years, await the pairings to be made at UEFA headquarters, which will kick off arguably the highest quality football seen in 2014.

An especially strong pot of eight seeded teams includes all three FIFA Ballon d’Or award candidates: defending champion Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery; Barcelona’s Lionel Messi; plus nine-time champion Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Other seeded group winners are: Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid.

Only Manchester City of the non-seeded teams is new to the knockout rounds and could have reason to regret not pushing for a fourth goal in its 3-2 win at Bayern last week that would lifted the English team top of the group. Coach Manuel Pellegrini misunderstood the tiebreaker rules and thought a three-goal winning margin was needed.

The other unseeded teams are: Bayer Leverkusen, Galatasaray, Olympiakos, Schalke, Arsenal, Zenit St. Petersburg and AC Milan.

Seven-time European champion Milan is Italy’s only remaining team, reflecting a relative slump by Serie A teams in recent UEFA competitions. England and Germany still has all four of its entrants, and Spain three of its quartet.

Turkey is among eight countries represented and Galatasaray’s potential pairing with Chelsea would send veteran forward Didier Drogba back to the club he left after scoring the winning penalty in a shootout victory over Bayern in the 2012 final at Munich.

“I would love that. Bring the king back to Stamford Bridge,” Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho said.

Perhaps the most anticipated pairing — a Ronaldo vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic rematch of their memorable duel in Portugal’s World Cup playoff victory against Sweden last month — is not possible until at least the quarterfinals in April.

Madrid and PSG, as seeds, cannot be paired in a draw that also separates teams from the same country and teams which already met in the group stage.

Zenit St. Petersburg has come the furthest in the competition, since starting last July in the third qualifying round needing to beat two opponents to reach the group stage. Zenit advanced with just six points in its group, the worst record of the remaining teams.

Arsenal, Milan and Schalke started in the playoff round in August, and the other 12 teams had direct access to the groups, including six current national champions.

Along with the glory and global exposure, teams are also playing for prize money that has become more important to help comply with UEFA’s “Financial Fair Play” rules designed to curb excessive spending.

Each team has already earned up to 14 million euros from UEFA’s group-stage payments, and gets an additional 3.5 million euros for playing in the last-16 round. Clubs earn even more when UEFA distributes shares of television rights revenue.

First-leg matches will be played Feb. 18-19 and 25-26, and return matches are scheduled for March 11-12 and 18-19.

The final on May 24 will not have a home team in the Stadium of Light, Lisbon. Benfica finished third in its group, behind PSG and Olympiakos, and transfers across to the Europa League last-32 draw that is also made Monday.

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