The Champions League quarter-final draw has delivered just about everything a football fan could have asked for.
The last eight of Europe’s top competition will feature two mouthwatering ties between big hitters, a fascinating clash of two dedicated, intelligent overachievers and the meeting of perhaps the two most exciting young teams on the continent.
But who has the edge? Here’s a first look at the matchups to be played in April for a place in the semi-finals.
Juventus have quietly progressed to the quarter-finals with one of the two unbeaten records remaining in the competition (the other belongs to Real Madrid). They have conceded just two goals so far and have been particularly good away, winning four out of four against Porto, Lyon, Sevilla and Dinamo Zagreb.
None of those teams were contenders to win the Champions League but none were pushovers, either. It’s relevant, anyway, because they face the challenge of visiting Camp Nou for the second leg in this tie which, as Paris Saint-Germain found out, is an extremely tough proposition.
A 4-0 lead was not enough for the French champions but if Juve can establish any kind of advantage in Turin, they should be better equipped to handle the onslaught that will be coming their way in Catalunya. It’s debatable whether this Juve team, without Paul Pogba, Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata, is better overall than the side that reached the final in 2015 but it has retained its defensive identity and arguably now has more goalscoring punch between Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain.
This is also a battle of one definitely outgoing manager and another who will probably move on at season’s end and despite almost incessant success, they both still have something to prove. Luis Enrique has already won this competition and demonstrated the tactical credentials some had doubted in the second leg against PSG, but he will only really shut his critics up by lifting the trophy again. There is less doubt about Massimiliano Allegri’s aptitude, but he is yet to push the Bianconeri over the line in Europe.
If you can’t resist watching Juventus against Barcelona, record this one and avoid the score. It should be a tremendous battle between two young, free-spirited attacking teams and a clash of two players who could, along with Antoine Griezmann, make France the most exciting national team in the world for years to come.
We’re talking about Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, of course, neither of whom have hit age 20 – Mbappe won’t until December 2018 – but are nevertheless increasingly relied upon by their clubs as a main source of goals and creativity respectively. Mbappe’s explosiveness and predatory instinct in the penalty area are remarkable and Dembele might already be the best dribbler in world football.
While both teams have immense goalscoring potential, however, what might give Dortmund the edge is their sturdier record at the back. Monaco blew up in the first leg against Manchester City but Pep Guardiola’s men never really seemed to believe they could keep them at bay for long periods and duly lost the return fixture; Dortmund, on the other hand, tend to win high-scoring games and are rarely badly beaten.
Thomas Tuchel’s team has only suffered defeat by more than a goal twice this season – against Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga in October and Bayern Munich in the season-opening Supercup (both 2-0). They almost always come out on the right side of open, attacking games, as evidenced by the 8-4 win over Legia Warsaw and the pair of 2-2 draws against Real Madrid. At some point over the course of this tie, Monaco are going to have to show an ability to contain top-quality opposition in order to progress.
These two clubs are alike in many ways; both defied the odds to win league titles and though Leicester City’s triumph was a greater shock, given the relative size of the clubs, it might be argued that Atletico Madrid’s toppling of the two biggest clubs in the world was equally impressive.
They have been successful on principles of hard work, tactical organisation and effective set pieces combined with the sprinkling of star dust currently provided by Griezmann and Riyad Mahrez. They also both benefit from raucous home crowds and, while respecting each other’s achievements, will probably feel that the draw could have been worse.
Leicester, after all, have seen off Sevilla, currently five points better off than Atletico in La Liga. They did enough to stay in the tie in Spain despite it being evident that Claudio Ranieri may be nearing the exit door and, revitalised since Craig Shakespeare took charge, played the home leg almost entirely on their own terms, recording an impressive 2-0 victory.
It’s hard to know what to make of Atletico’s defeat of Bayer Leverkusen; the 4-2 win away from home was very unlike them but Diego Simeone made no apologies for simply shutting up shop at the Calderon, with the 0-0 draw enough to see them through. The group stage, in which Atleti won five of six while conceding only two goals, might be a more accurate demonstration of what they are about in Europe. Like Allegri, Simeone is searching for the ultimate glory before considering moving on in the summer
No one is more decorated in this competition than Carlo Ancelotti; he won the European Cup twice as a player and has lifted the same trophy three times as a manager, with the most recent of those victories coming as coach of Real Madrid. At his side, of course, was Zinedine Zidane.
Now Zidane, who won the Champions League once as a player and already has his first medal as a manager under his belt, is attempting to catch him. He is also attempting to match another Ancelotti feat by winning the trophy in back-to-back years, which was last done nearly 30 years ago by the AC Milan teams Ancelotti starred in midfield for under Arrigo Sacchi.
As always, the expectations at both clubs are win or bust. The challenge for Ancelotti will be achieving the right mix of veterans and young players in a team that feels like it is in transition, with Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm retiring at season’s end and Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben both now 33. Thiago, Manuel Neuer, Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller, among others, are all in their primes and Renato Sanches and Joshua Kimmich add youth, so it could be a potent combination if managed astutely.
For Madrid, the time is undoubtedly now and Zidane is aiming to make this a golden era rather than just one last flourish for the Cristiano Ronaldo-led team. They look much less reliant on their star for goals nowadays, which is good news because though he has remained prolific in La Liga, he has just two goals in Europe this season. That Madrid have come this far relatively unscathed with his best still to come is not a good sign for their rivals.
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