Christmas came five days early for soccer fans: Manchester United vs. Real Madrid. Barcelona vs. AC Milan. Arsenal vs. Bayern. And Shakhtar vs. Borussia Dortmund. Yes, Shakhtar vs. Dortmund.
The Champions League draw for the Round of 16 was held Thursday in Switzerland, and fans could not have asked for greater gifts than those juicy storylines.
Of course, the most intriguing matchup is Premier League leader Man U vs. Real Madrid, which is lagging behind Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in La Liga this season. The managers are both huge names — Sir Alex Ferguson vs. Jose Mourinho.
The subplot everyone will be watching is Wayne Rooney vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, who returns to face his old club for the first time. The first leg is at Real Madrid on Feb. 13, and the second leg is at Old Trafford on March 5.
Ronaldo said Friday that he will not celebrate if he scores against United. It will be the first time these mega-clubs face each other since the classic quarterfinal in 2002-03, in which Brazilian Ronaldo scored a hat trick for Real Madrid at Old Trafford, but United won 4-3.
Cristiano Ronaldo played six years for Manchester United and admittedly became a star because of manager Ferguson. He left in 2009 for a record $160 million, but Ronaldo is still beloved by United fans.
“I won’t celebrate if I score against United,” Ronaldo told AS. “I still speak with Ferguson. I miss him a lot, and I miss Manchester United. I felt very good there; it was like a family. I had six great years there and am still friends with my teammates.
“It is thanks to Manchester United that I am here playing for Real Madrid. Without them, I wouldn’t be the player I am today.”
Ferguson is also looking forward to facing his former pupil.
“It will be fantastic to have him back,” he said. “When he comes on to the pitch at Old Trafford he will get a great reception, quite rightly. After that, they can boo him as much as they like.
“You have to remember, he came here at 17 and developed himself into a great footballer. We are proud of the part we played in his career. To get six years out of a boy when he comes to us at 17, we have done very well.”
Ferguson insists he wasn’t mad when the Portuguese star bolted.
“He always had a hankering to go to Real Madrid at some point in his career, and we helped him on that way,” he said. “It wasn’t disloyalty. I got another year out of him when he wanted go the previous year. He honored that and did fantastic for us and then went with our blessing. My way of looking at it was that we were lucky to have him for six years. The United fans would share that.”
Another great storyline is Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich.
The German club lost the final last season to Chelsea and vowed to make it back. It spent big bucks in the offseason to bolster its attack. And this matchup also features a player-going-back-to-old-club story, as Arsenal’s Lukas Podolski, a German international, faces his former club.
“They played in the final in 2010 and last year. It is a big club, but we have the chance to win against Bayern Munich,” Podolski told Arsenal Player. “They have [Mario] Gomez up front, they have [Franck] Ribery, [Bastian] Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Manuel Neuer.
“But there are two matches, one at home [and] one away, so both teams have the chance to win.”
Then there’s the matchup of Spanish giant Barcelona vs. Italian giant AC Milan, which has won the trophy seven times.
Barcelona, led by Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, is dominating La Liga. Milan is struggling this season in Serie A and probably doesn’t have what it takes to stop Barca. Nonetheless, two big-name clubs with big-time tradition and passionate fans.
Shakhtar and Borussia Dortmund are not as glamorous as the previously mentioned teams, but this matchup could be one of the most exciting.
Both teams shined in the group stage. Shakhtar has won four consecutive titles in the Ukrainian league. Dortmund stands third in the Bundesliga and has the talent to take on anyone.
Other matchups include: Valencia vs. Paris St. Germain, Celtic vs. Juventus, Galatasaray vs. Schalke 04 and Porto vs. Malaga
The first legs are Feb. 12-20 and the second legs are March 5-13.