So far, the Champions League has been as entertaining as it has ever been. The round of 16 brought viewers 3 unprecedented comebacks, the most goals at that stage in competition history, and countless narratives.
Entering the quarterfinals, it's clear that Europe continues to lack a truly dominant team. While there are currently 3 treble seeking super teams still in the competition (Bayern, Barca, Juve), neither they nor holders Real Madrid are favorites in their respective ties. This void, in particular, makes these quarterfinals so much harder to predict
Atletico Madrid v Leicester City
The most straightforward tie. After 3 seasons of drawing Barcelona and Madrid, Atletico finally got an easy, or at least manageable, quarterfinal draw. Their dominance over two legs in Europe (only Real Madrid have beaten them in the past 3 editions of the UCL, and only once in a two-legged tie) means that they are expected to go through.
Atletico Madrid is essentially an upgrade on Leicester City. Not just an upgrade, but the ultimate form of what Leicester strive to be. Remember, it was Atletico which first won a league title against all odds. Atletico, not Leicester, created a counter-attacking template. Atletico's victory was not far off Leicester's either, the budget disparity in La Liga means Atleti had no business winning the league.
Unlike Leicester's win, Atletico's was neither the product of unsustainable conversion rates nor the collapse of title rivals. Both Barca and Madrid were far superior in 2013-14 than any of the Premier League sides last year. Moreover, Atletico have managed to sustain their success over the past few seasons, with 2 Champions League finals and a title challenge that ended on the penultimate match-day.
Leicester, simply put, are facing a far superior, experienced and capable version of themselves. While it may not be one way traffic, especially considering that Atletico will need to play with the ball and not to their strengths, its hard to see the Premier League winners beating last year's runner-up.
Griezmann v. Huth and Morgan
While they've faced and struggled against Aguero, Zlatan, Costa and Kane, Huth and Morgan haven't faced as elusive and effective a forward as Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman is one of the best players in the world, and as his goal in the Madrid derby showed just why. Wilfried Ndidi will need to be at his very best to protect the center-backs, and even then expect Griezmann to have a field day.
Prediction: Atletico go through with dominant performance at home and a stubborn defensive performance away.
Borussia Dortmund v Monaco
Billed as a clash that is 'great for the Champions League' and in terms of pure entertainment, it probably is.
Monaco are the best attacking team in Europe, and have found a way to consistently convert their chances at unsustainable rates. Against an elite side, the worry would be that their 'luck' could come to an end, but they should have no such fears against Borussia Dortmund.
Dortmund boast a host of young players who could be the best in Europe in the years to come, along with a progressive manager in Thomas Tuchel. What they lack, however, is a capable defense, which is why they are currently 4th in the Bundesliga.
The Germans have raised their game in Europe this season, and they should do so again in this tie. Their attacking play is wonderful to watch, with brilliant combinations. But even against their games against Real Madrid, their performances involved giving up easy goals. Against a free-scoring Monaco, who also top Ligue 1, Dortmund's attack may not save them.
Falcao, Mbappe v Dortmund Defense
If Dortmund are to get through, they'll have to shackle Monaco's strikers better than Manchester City did.
Prediction: Monaco to go through despite impressive performances from Borussia Dortmund.
Juventus v Barcelona
One of the marquee matchups of the round. On the face of it, this looks to be a cagey tie. Barcelona have the competition's best attack, while Juventus boast the best defense. Juventus could sit back and try their luck on the counter, while Barcelona would dominate with the ball.
Maybe last season this would've been the case, but now its anything but. Not only does Allegri have experience pressing dominant sides to great effect (he nearly eliminated Guardiola's Bayern last year), but Barcelona themselves can no longer play themselves out of pressure in the same way. Ever since Guardiola tried it with Manchester City last October, numerous sides have pressed Barcelona to great effect. Expect Juventus to be another one.
Perhaps Juventus' only weakness is that they haven't had to press a side of Barcelona's level all season, and lost a midfielder well suited to pressing in Paul Pogba. Nevertheless, Max Allegri rarely gets his tactics wrong in big games, and his depth of options on the bench should show over both legs, particularly if things don't go to plan at first.
Dani Alves and Alex Sandro v Barcelona's wing-backs/full-backs
The absence of Dani Alves could hurt Barcelona in more ways than one. Last season, the same tie may have seen Allegri field Patrice Evra to deal with the attacking Alves. This season, Barcelona's alternative Sergi Roberto presents comparatively little threat. Not only do Barcelona lack a quality right back, but they also will struggle against Alves himself on the right, especially if they lineup in a 3-4-3 diamond without Jordi Alba.
Prediction: Juventus go through on the back of strong performances in both legs.
Bayern v Madrid
In terms of sheer star power, this matchup eclipses all the others. Both sides contain a host of experienced stars who have won it all or are in their prime. Bayern Munich should win the treble, and it would be a fitting end to the careers of Xabi Alonso and Phillip Lahm. Real Madrid have made the semi-finals for 6 consecutive seasons, and have all the marks of a cup side in terms of resilience and style of play.
Bayern Munich have been the better side this season, especially in recent weeks as they peak, like most Ancelotti sides, in April. Their loss to Hoffenheim should be nothing more than a blip, and they should be able to raise their game at the Allianz Arena. If anything could derail Bayern's push for a treble, it's injuries. Lewandowski and Neuer are questionable for the important first leg, and Mats Hummels is already out.
For Real Madrid, the problems run deeper than injuries. The side has struggled to defend all season, and continues to win games on the back of sheer star power rather than any coherent play. In that sense, the performance against Atletico was a positive sign, as they played well despite their draw.
Pepe's injury presents a big blow for Zinedine Zidane's side. The Portuguese international has been the best defender at Real Madrid for at least the last year, and Real Madrid's record with him is markedly better than without. This, more than anything else, hints at a Bayern victory.
Arjen Robben v Marcelo
Normally Lewandowski would also make this list, but his questionability for the game leaves us with this. Marcelo's attacking play is nothing new, and as always it means the defense is left exposed. At 33, Robben is still incredibly effective on the right wing, and whether he is able to exploit Marcelo's positioning could determine the outcome of the tie.
This tie is harder to predict than most. Both sides are incredibly experienced, its hard to bet against either of them reaching the semi-finals. A lot depends on Madrid's defense in Munich, as they should score in both legs.
Bayern go through if they win by 2 at home. If Lewandowski misses the first leg, the tie goes to Real Madrid.
Published by Siddharth Ramsundar