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Get ready for the big Champions League knockout blow for English clubs

While Arsenal and Chelsea fans would like to think otherwise, this season's Champions League tournament could soon turn into the worst season for English clubs in Europe since the ban on participation was lifted.

There's still an apparent possibility that Manchester United could earn a reprieve, but as things stand we could be just one knockout round away from a Champions League without any English clubs.

England's two remaining teams have both been handed difficult ties against Italian sides in the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League.

Arsenal will face AC Milan, whereas Chelsea will square off against Napoli who finished above Manchester City in Group A.

Both teams will be away for the first leg which will take place on February 14/15 or 21/22, with the return legs to be played on March 6/7 or 13/14.

All-London final?

With Arsenal and Chelsea some way off the pace domestically, the Champions League may well be the best chance of major success this season, and with each team on opposing sides of the draw, an unprecedented all-London final is possible.

Arsenal will hope to be buoyed by the considerable talent of Jack Wilshere whose return is scheduled for February.

Having won Group F with a game to spare, Wenger's men would have hoped for an easier draw than seven-time winners AC Milan, but history is on the Gunners side.

Arsenal have never been defeated in the knock-out stages of the Champions League by an Italian team.

Thoroughly impressive recent victories against Roma, Milan, Juventus and most notably the 5-1 demolition of Inter Milan will be fresh in the mind for Wenger's men.

As for Chelsea, Andre Villas-Boas will be relishing the prospect of taking on Napoli, having cultivated a decent

Decent reputation

reputation in Italy following his work with Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan.

The tie sees two of only three sides to have beaten Manchester City this season facing off, though more intriguingly, pits two distinctly European 4-3-3 formations against each other.

The clinical attacking triumvirate of Marek Hamsik, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi will pose Chelsea's defence many a problem, though inversely, Villas-Boas will have confidence in Daniel Sturridge, Juan Mata and Didier Drogba who have performed well recently.

Remarkably, Manchester United could be reinstated to the competition at the expense of FC Basle, if the Swiss Football Association fails to comply with a FIFA order to impose a transfer embargo on FC Sion.

If the January 13 deadline is not met, Switzerland will be automatically suspended, opening the door for Ferguson's men to take Basel's place against third favourites Bayern Munich.

Travesty of justice

All bias aside, this would be a travesty of justice - United were deservedly knocked out having under-performed throughout.

To rid a team like Basle of their earned right to face Europe's best - not to mention the lucrative benefits of victory - for merely being domestically associated with another, irrelevant, allegedly-offending club makes a mockery of the values of UEFA.

Elsewhere, defending champions Barcelona will be up against Bayer Leverkusen, with league rivals Real Madrid facing a trip to Russia to take on CSKA Moscow.

Naturally, Guardiola's men are favourites to retain the trophy but Real will also have their sights firmly on glory having been the only team to qualify with a 100 per cent record.

Barcelona's World Club Championship success was marred by the news that David Villa will be out for at least five months after fracturing his shin.

Villa is no Messi

Though undoubtedly a huge blow, Villa's absence is unlikely to impact on Barcelona's chances of success too much.

Put simply, Villa is no Messi and unless the magical Argentinian was to be similarly stricken, the Catalan giants can fully expect to be there or thereabouts.

Yet another Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick inspired Real's 6-2 away victory at Sevilla to wrestle back top spot in La Liga from Barcelona, and in many ways, this intense Spanish rivalry, with Mourinho as chief antagonist, could well make for a fascinating competition this year.

With Inter Milan being 10 points off the top in Serie A, their last 16 tie with Marseille takes on extra significance.

After being humiliated 7-3 last year by eventual semi-finalists Schalke just a year after winning the Treble, a decent run in the Champions League is just what the doctor ordered for Claudio Ranieri's men.

Surprise packages

The two surprise packages of the group stage - Lyon and Apoel Nicosia - have been drawn together in an interesting tie.

Many critics have suggested the presence of these teams, considering the absence of the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Valencia, has devalued the tournament.

For me, this is nonsense - the historical appeal of the Champions League has been to allow the best teams from each European nation to compete against each other regardless of reputation, size, or wealth.

Any football fan that would not be happy to see Apoel win the Champions League needs their head examined.

In the final tie of the round, Zenit St Petersburg take on Benfica.

With Russia having the same number of representatives as Spain, England, Germany and France, it is fair to say that the serious efforts to lift the standard of Russian football in time for the 2018 World Cup are paying off sooner than expected.

By Chris Smith

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