For once, the UEFA Champions League draw seemed to deliver a balanced quarter-final that still has the potential for fireworks.
After all, the top two remaining teams from the group stage who went unbeaten (Liverpool and Bayern Munich) ended up with what most would call the easiest draw for the upcoming round. Still, they could both be caught staring at each other in a tantalizing semi-final that is sure to entertain.
Meanwhile, last year’s two runners-up Manchester City and Chelsea face tougher clashes with giants Madrid, who could both relish their chances of overtaking their English foes after overcoming tough clashes in round of 16.
So how do the remaining eight clubs compare? We’ve ranked the quarter-final table, with an eye on which teams have the clearest path to lifting the trophy in Paris on May 28:
Although it is difficult to determine which team has the clearer advantage since the Champions League quarter-finals, what is certain is that one part of the group has a more direct path than the other. Liverpool and Bayern look destined for a titanic semi-final after drawing against Benfica and Villarreal, respectively. That’s not to say the two underdogs can’t pull off something spectacular, it’s just that they’ve drawn the wrong teams to try and do it against.
Liverpool have won 16 of the last 17 games in all competitions (the only loss came in the round of 16 second leg against Inter Milan), kept 10 clean sheets in their last 13 games and are pushing Man City for the Premier League title . Between the two quarter-finals, a trip to City on Sunday, but a strong showing in Portugal on Tuesday would go a long way to easing the pressure. And given Liverpool’s recent form and depth, that should be the expectation.
The only reason Bayern are in second place and not first is that Villarreal appear to be a slightly tougher draw than Benfica, with whom Bayern share their group. Bayern are coming off back-to-back four-goal performances in the Bundesliga and have their sights set on a 10th successive league title, given their nine-point lead at the top of the table with eight games to go.
Following their shock 3-0 win over Juventus in the round of 16, Villarreal have put the continent on notice, and Bayern will not be one to take their opponents lightly. It would be easy to get caught in anticipation of a potential showdown with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the semi-finals, but this Bayern side are overly experienced and balanced, especially in their high-octane attack. Led by a Robert Lewandowski hat-trick, the German giants thrashed RB Salzburg in the round of 16 second leg, 7-1, as part of their run of 22 goals in the last seven games.
The next part of the bracket is where things get very interesting. Man City appear to be the most complete team in the competition on paper, but Pep Guardiola tends to crumble that paper in big games. When asked on Monday if he tends to think too much about big games, Guardiola gave a wry answer: “We play with 12 tomorrow.” And if there’s one manager and team you don’t want to think too much about, it’s Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.
Still, Man City have only lost two games since the end of October (a 29-game stretch), and there’s a reason for that. City cruised to a 5-0 first leg victory in the Round of 16 against Sporting after surviving a tough group with PSG. And after losing the final to Chelsea last season, there is a greater sense of hunger in this side as they seek their maiden Champions League title. The course is difficult with Atlético potentially followed by a semi-final against Real Madrid or Chelsea. And if he overtakes them, then Liverpool and Bayern could wait in the final. On top of that there is a fight at the top of the Premier League with Liverpool. But if there’s one team that can rise to such a challenge, it’s this Man City side, as long as they’re not too tinkered with.
Chelsea are still the reigning European champions and should be feared as such, but they appear to have the more difficult path to lifting Ol’ Big Ears on May 28. The first is their quarter-final against a Real Madrid team that turned the tide on PSG in the last half hour of the game. If Chelsea eliminate Real for the second consecutive year, the winner of Man City-Atlético, both eliminated by Chelsea last season, awaits in the semi-finals. And, as we know, Liverpool and Bayern are favorites to reach the final.
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But let’s start with the game against Real. Last season in the semi-finals, Chelsea used the second leg at home to their advantage with a 2-0 (aggregate victory 3-1). This time around, Chelsea host Real first at home after beating French champions Lille in the round of 16. Curiously, Sergio Ramos is the only absentee of the 22 players who started when the clubs last met almost a year ago. A 4-1 league defeat at the weekend against Brentford should worry the Blues. But under Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea have been flawless in the Champions League with 10 clean sheets in 15 matches. Seek defense to win again.
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5. Real Madrid
Real Madrid, and in particular Karim Benzema, made the biggest splash in the Round of 16 when they came back from a 2-0 aggregate deficit in the final 30 minutes of a draw against PSG. Benzema’s 17-minute hat-trick showed that no lead is safe from Real Madrid’s experience and tenacity, also proving that no team wants to face Real Madrid in the face of elimination of the Champions League.
However, Real Madrid have never beaten Chelsea in European competition, which includes last season’s two semi-finals. While Real appear to have a solid lead at the top of the La Liga table, their recent 4-0 loss to Barcelona raises a lot of concerns about their defensive setup. And in a tie that should be very close (and very entertaining), a locking defense is usually what makes the difference.
6. Atletico Madrid
The good thing for Simeone is that he’s comfortable, even thrilled, that his biggest/strongest/fastest opponent is the one with everything to lose. Somehow, Atlético always seem to play with house money, and that always seems to suit them. And having led Atlético to their second La Liga title, Simeone will surely pull out all the stops to defeat the giants of the European scene in search of the club’s first Champions League title.
However, winning the title may be one of the greatest feats in Champions League history. After a draw in the round of 16 with Manchester United, Atlético must now head to Manchester’s most formidable side at Guardiola’s City, where they certainly cannot envisage meeting Chelsea / Real in the semi-finals, then potentially Liverpool or Bayern Munich. But is it out of the question? Never, not with El Cholo at the helm.
There’s a lot to celebrate about the Yellow Submarine over the past year, starting with their stunning penalty shootout win in the Europa League final last season. Without this victory over Manchester United, Villarreal would never have found themselves in the Champions League this season, let alone in the quarter-finals after upsetting Juventus. His trip to Turin last month was more than just an upset, it was an amazing show of strength.
Wednesday’s home game against Bayern will be manager Unai Emery’s first career Champions League quarter-final, and the club’s first since 2009. The only thing Villarreal have going for them is a loud crowd from the start, and an early goal would go a long way on multiple fronts. Can it be done? Maybe, but probably not. Don’t try to say that to that resilient side.
Unfortunately for Benfica, the Portuguese club was the club everyone wanted to draw in the quarter-finals. Benfica overtook Ajax in an entertaining round of 16 game and survived a group with Bayern (despite being destroyed twice by the German giants). And while they would have preferred Villarreal or perhaps even Atlético, Benfica will have to face one of the most in-form teams in the world.
Historically speaking, Liverpool are a relatively familiar opponent for Benfica, with the two having met eight times in European competition. Liverpool have lost each of their last three games against Benfica, although 12 years have passed since the last case. Benfica must hope Liverpool prepare for Sunday’s Premier League showdown against Man City if they are to stun the 2019 winners in the first leg. And even then, Liverpool have a return game at Anfield to look forward to as a failsafe.
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