City relish Messi confrontation

Spanish giants Barcelona have the toughest possible draw in the Champions League, being paired with in-form Manchester City in the plum tie of the last 16.

City, making their first appearance in the knockout stages of the competition, will face the La Liga leaders at home in the first leg at the Etihad Stadium in February before traveling to the Nou Camp for the return leg in March.

Barca’s Lionel Messi will be under intense scrutiny by the tight City defense when they meet.

City are in a buoyant mood with players like Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero giving teams nightmares. Although Aguero is injured with a calf injury for a month, City have built up a momentum that makes them new favorites for the Premier League title and good odds for Champions League honors.

Champions Bayern Munich were also given a hard draw as they got Arsenal for the second year in a row at this stage.

For the English pair, who both finished second in their groups, it was yet again a harsh lesson in the importance of winning the group.

Manchester United and Chelsea, both group winners, were given far more favorable draws against Olympiakos and Galatasaray respectively.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said before the draw that he was hoping to get Galatasaray to come up against former Blues legend Didier Drogba. Chelsea’s form still needs to pick up but at least Ramires is finding the net after an indifferent start.

Arsenal and City had the toughest possible groups facing one each of last season’s finalists.

City came within a single goal of pipping Bayern to top spot in their group when a 3-2 win in Munich was one goal short of what they needed to overhaul the Bavarians.

Manchester City coach Manuel Pellegrini said that Barca would be the more upset of the pair over the draw.

“I think Barcelona will be very concerned that they have drawn us,” he said. “They are not the team of two years ago.”

But Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino insisted neither side would be delighted with the draw.

“City will not have wanted to play against Barcelona either,” he said. “They are scoring goals with ease so we are not going to discover them now. We want to play well in the tie and obviously win it.”

Arsenal were within a couple of minutes of winning their group despite losing 2-0 at Napoli on the final match day but Borussia Dortmund’s late winner in Marseille allowed them to snatch top spot there.

Last season Arsenal drew Bayern in the last 16 and seemed to be as good as out when they lost the first leg 3-1 at the Emirates.

But they came within a whisker of making the quarterfinals when taking the second leg 2-0 at the Allianz Arena, going out only on away goals.

Arsenal have rarely had much luck in the knockout stage draws in recent years, having been paired with AC Milan in 2012 and Barcelona in 2011.

In 2010, having beaten Porto in the last 16, they drew Barcelona in the quarterfinals.

Yet Bayern captain Philipp Lahm was quite glum over the draw.

“It was the hardest draw amongst the second-placed teams,” he said. “Arsenal are certainly not a team you’d hope to face.”

French giants Paris Saint-Germain pulled Bayer Leverkusen while AC Milan will face Atletico Madrid.

PSG coach Laurent Blanc seemed quite satisfied, saying: “It could have been more difficult but all the matches are difficult. When you see the first match that was drawn, City-Barca, there are only huge teams.”

Leverkusen sports director Rudi Voeller admitted they will be up against it against PSG.

“It’s not just about stopping Zlatan Ibrahimovic,” he said. “They have other great players like Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi.”

Last year’s semifinalists Real will play Schalke 04 and completing the draw Dortmund are up against Zenit St. Petersburg.

Champions Bayern Munich were also given a hard draw as they got Arsenal for the second year in a row at this stage.