22nd March 2016
On March 18th, the UEFA officially announced the draw for the Champions League quarterfinal round. For the most part, the matchups for the next round of Europe's most prestigious soccer tournament look to have clear favorites. However, as we saw from the semifinals-where Bayern Munich of all teams had to win their second leg match in extra time-there is no such thing as a sure thing in this ultra-competitive tournament.
The lineup for the quarterfinals shows beyond a doubt that the La Liga is the strongest league in European football right now. The Spanish top-flight accounts for three of the eight quarterfinal spots, with FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid all earning spots. Two Bundesliga teams are also in the mix (Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg), while England, France, and Portugal grabbed one slot apiece (for Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain, and Benfica, respectively).
Perhaps the biggest surprise in this crop of teams is that there are no Italian clubs left in the competition. Juventus, last season's UCL runners-up, were the victims of Bayern Munich's second-leg, extra-time win in the round of 16 and will not progress further. Also out of contention are Gent, Roma, Chelsea, Arsenal, PSV Eindhoven, Zenit Saint Petersburg, and Dynamo Kyiv.
Analyzing the Match-ups
As mentioned previously, three of the four match-ups on the schedule for the Champions League quarterfinals have fairly natural frontrunners. Barcelona will be favored to outstrip Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid should have no problem getting past Wolfsburg, and Bayern Munich will likely steamroll Benfica. Let's start by analyzing these three supposedly "predictable" draws.
Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid
Of these three probable semifinal teams, Barcelona have the toughest match-up on the table. Barca and Atletico Madrid have been the top two teams in Spanish football this season and could well end up the champion and runner-up, respectively, in that league.
With that said, though, Barcelona have to be considered the favorites. Not only will Barca be defending their 2014/15 Champions League victory, but they've also beaten Atletico Madrid twice this season. On September 12th, in just the third week of competition, Barcelona beat the Mattress Makers 2-1 at Vicente CalderÃ³n Stadium. The hosts actually scored first, with Fernando Torres netting a goal at the 51-minute mark. But Neymar equalized the score just four minutes later, and a 77-minute goal from Lionel Messi put an end to the match with Barcelona earning the three points.
The two teams met again on January 30th, this time with Barca hosting. Once again, the Mattress Makers struck first, getting on the board just 10 minutes into the match thanks to a goal from Koke. But Messi and Luis Suarez both scored goals before the end of the first half, and the final score was the same as it had been in the fall: 2-1, with FC Barcelona taking three more points.
Those two matches marked the fifth and sixth consecutive times that Barcelona has beaten Atletico Madrid. The last time the Mattress Makers beat Barca head-to-head? April 2014, in a Champions League quarterfinal match.
Atletico Madrid would ultimately go on to reach the championship match that season-a reminder that no one should underestimate the second football club from Madrid. However, the 2013/14 campaign was also Atletico's league-winning season. Furthermore, the soccer team was coming into the quarterfinals with terrific momentum on their side, having crushed AC Milan on a 5-1 aggregate in the round of 16.
This season, the Mattress Makers are limping into the quarterfinals, having just narrowly gotten past PSV Eindhoven. Both round of 16 legs between the two teams ended with scores of 0-0, sending the second game to extra time-and, ultimately, to a winner-take-all penalty shootout. Atletico's players did manage to drain eight penalty shots in a row to win the shootout 8-7. However, the fact is that PSV Eindhoven have a markedly weaker soccer squad than FC Barcelona do.
Bottom line, facing the pressure of the Messi-Neymar-Suarez frontline, Atletico Madrid's run in the 2015/16 UEFA Champions League will likely come to an end this round.
Wolfsburg vs. Real Madrid
So far, Wolfsburg have acquitted themselves quite well in the 2015/16 UCL. They topped their group in the introductory rounds of the tournament, surpassing PSV Eindhoven and eliminating Manchester United. They also won both the home leg and the away leg in their round of 16 draw against Gent, beating the Belgian football club 4-2 in the final aggregate.
Regardless, Wolfsburg have little to no chance of getting past Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. First, consider that the Wolves have been underperforming in the Bundesliga this season. Following a runner-up finish last year, the club might not even make the top five in 2015/16-let alone grab another Champions League qualification.
Furthermore, the Vikings remain the team with the best record in this year's Champions League tournament. Real escaped the group stage with a record of five wins, one draw, and zero losses, only failing to snag a victory in a scoreless away match with Paris Saint Germain. In the round of 16, Real Madrid beat AS Roma 2-0 twice, for an aggregate of 4-0.
With all of those statistics combined, Real's record-seven wins, one draw, no losses-is better than anyone's. (In comparison, Barcelona have six wins and two draws.) Their scoring statistics-23 goals scored, and just three conceded-are also the best in the tournament at this juncture. (Bayern Munich have scored 25 goals but have conceded seven.) Add Cristiano Ronaldo's status as by far the competition's leading scoring-13 goals, five more than anyone else in the tournament-and Real Madrid are a football team on a warpath.
Bayern Munich vs. Benfica
Bayern Munich had the toughest round of 16 draw of any team, coming up against Juventus while Real Madrid and Barcelona enjoyed much more one-sided contests against Roma and Arsenal. In the away leg, Bayern took a 2-0 lead only to give it away in the second half. The match ended 2-2, giving Bayern an advantage on away goals, but not much else.
Juventus tested the strength of that advantage in the second leg, establishing a 2-0 lead before the first half hour of the match was even out. That twist was very nearly the end of the story for Bayern Munich, but a 73-minute goal from Lewandowski but them within a point. They struggled to come up with the second goal they needed to force extra time. Then, at 90+1, Thomas Muller managed a godsend of a goal to earn his squad a lifeline. Two goals in extra time earned Bayern a spot in the quarterfinals, but things could have very easily gone differently.
The next round should be markedly easier for the Bavarians. Benfica are a solid team, to be sure, but they've gotten this far in part thanks to luck. An easy group stage and one of the more favorable round of 16 draws (against Zenit Saint Petersburg) bring Benfica to the quarters. Bayern Munich haven't missed a Champions League semi-final since 2011, though; they aren't going to start in the final months of Pep Guardiola's coaching tenure.
Paris Saint Germain vs. Manchester City
If there's a tough quarterfinal match-up to predict, it's the draw that's pitted Paris Saint Germain against Manchester City. Given Manchester City's down turn in performance recently, PSG might have the favorable odds. The Sky Blues won 3-1 in the away leg against Dynamo Kyiv in the round of 16, but sleepwalked their way through the home leg and came out with a 0-0 draw. Of course, Man City still reach the quarters with an aggregate of 3-1, but the soccer club is going to have to find some momentum to beat Paris Saint Germain to the semis.
The Parisians also had a mixed bag of a round of 16 round. They beat Chelsea 4-2 in the aggregate but were tested by the reigning English champions, who managed to keep the score tied at 1-1 for large portions of both games. Manchester City are definitely a better team than Chelsea, having beaten the Blues 3-0 in a Premier League game last August and 5-1 in a February 21st FA Cup game. The question is, if PSG had to work hard to beat Chelsea, will they be able to overcome the stronger Manchester City?
Are you excited for the Champions League quarterfinals? The first legs are scheduled for April 5th and 6th, with Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Wolfsburg, and Paris Saint Germain playing at home first.
A Preview of the Champions League
22nd March 2016