UCL draw delivers big games like Bayern vs. Arsenal and lots of pressure
Take a deep breath and remind yourself: We have nine weeks, one transfer window and a whole load of holidays to run between now and the moment the Champions League anthem rings out and these teams actually stride on the pitch for the Round of 16.
The landscape could be a whole lot different, for better and for worse. That said, neutral viewers got served up the two blockbuster clashes they -- and broadcasters, sponsors or anyone who likes to see a potential winner out early -- wanted.
Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona pits two juggernauts in a high-stakes collision. Unai Emery may be a knockout competition specialist but PSG are adding up to less than the sum of their parts right now. Success in the Champions League (and knocking out Barcelona) may be his best shot at a lifeline. Equally though, Luis Enrique may have a lot more credit stored up, but his deeper squad and domestic rotation has drawn criticism. With Barcelona already six points off the pace in La Liga, an early exit might prompt some at the Camp Nou to reconsider the way forward.
The pressure extends to Bayern and Arsenal, too, albeit in different ways. For Arsenal, it's five straight seasons of Round of 16 exits and there's obviously a cruel irony that after finally winning their group, they get stuck with the Bavarians. The Gunners' European record hasn't impacted Arsene Wenger's job security and that likely won't change here, but he knows the clock is ticking and he won't have too many more shots at the big one.
Over at Bayern, Carlo Ancelotti knows his job is probably safe -- the Bavarians tend not to be trigger-happy -- but having overcome a slow domestic start, he knows a misstep here won't help his transition out of the Pep Guardiola Era, particularly given his reputation as a Champions League specialist.
Speaking of Guardiola, on paper Monaco is a wonderful draw for his Manchester City side after conceding four goals in their last league game. More than most, though, he ought to be aware that Leo Jardim's uber-tactical counterattacking style is precisely what has outdone City in recent weeks. He needs to find countermeasures.
Rational observers know better than to ascribe too much importance to a knockout competition like this one but then owners, fans and media are often not overly rational. And there is little question that Champions League success can provide a lifeline; it would be somewhat ironic for Guardiola given his three years in Munich when he dominated domestically but missed out in Europe.
In many ways, that will be the theme for Roger Schmidt and Diego Simeone when Bayer Leverkusen face Atletico Madrid. Both (particularly Simeone) have a strong enough legacy at their respective clubs that failure here won't bring the sack. But it's the converse that applies: with hiccuping starts domestically, a run in the "big cup" could turn a mediocre campaign into a success.
Nuno Espirito Santo at Porto also had a star-crossed start to the season. He too will be judged more on domestic matters (his team are currently four points behind leaders Benfica) but tripping up Juventus would give him some serious sporting capital. It would also be hugely disappointing for Max Allegri in his third season in charge. Indeed, given the enormous investment on veterans in the summer and the club's belief that they need to take advantage of this window of opportunity, a false step at this stage could be costly come the end of the season.
So are there also managers who can relax a little bit, knowing the pressure is off?
Sure. Claudio Ranieri for one. Leicester City have made history getting this far, just as they did winning the Premier League last year. His reckoning, if it comes, will be on the home front. Given the circumstances (lack of serious summer spending, his first season in Europe), his opponent Jorge Sampaoli could chill a little bit knowing the benchmark for Sevilla this season is La Liga, where they're doing well. (That said, anyone who has seen him prowling the touchline knows all too well the man doesn't really relax, ever.)
Benfica coach Rui Vitoria, too, is in as solid position. He won the league and reached the CL quarterfinal last season, he's top this season and facing a Borussia Dortmund side that blow hot and cold under Thomas Tuchel. Dortmund's youth and frenetic style of play make them one of the more unpredictable sides (for better and for worse) in Europe and Tuchel, in his all-important second season at the Westfalen, knows he needs to find some consistency. There is little question that the screws are wound tighter on him than on his counterpart.
Finally, there's Napoli and Real Madrid and here, Napoli and coach Maurizio Sarri has little to lose. They won their group and the draw was cruel to them; all they can do is pit their wits against the defending champions and hope the Bernabeu alumni (Jose Callejon and Raul Albiol) extract a modicum of revenge. Heck, you wonder if Sarri will call upon his predecessor, Rafa Benitez, for some intel and whether Rafa will want to share some pointers given that this time last year, he was on the hot seat at Real.
Speaking of which, Zinedine Zidane is obviously under pressure like every Madrid boss before him. But given their lead in La Liga, the 35-game unbeaten run, the fact that he won it last year and that he's Florentino Perez's hand-picked choice, you figure it's not quite ratcheted up to 11 as it might have been with some of those who came before him.
Managers come and go based on what happens in Europe. It shouldn't be that way, not to this degree at least, but it often is. That's why the stakes are so high for so many. But as we said at the top: Two months can be an eternity. And it can all look so different come early February.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.