Champions League Quarter Finals (Predictions and Ramblings)
It’s the most wonderful tiiiiiime of the yeaaaaaaar.
But in all seriousness, I don’t know if we could have asked for better matches. Underdog V.S. Underdog! All Star Offense V.S. All Star Offense! Ronaldo V.S. (basically) the German National Team! It’s going to be great! So, let’s get into the nitty-gritty and see what each team needs to do to advance to the Semi-Finals.
Atletico Madrid vs. Leicester City
Some jokes have gone around that this tie is Leicester City vs Leicester City Sr. And, true, Atleti’s blazing counterattack and their overachieving does mirror LCFC, but these are drastically different teams. Atleti have become much more flexible, relying more and more on attack, for their detriment in league (where they sit in a distant 3rd) but for the better in the CL (where they have lost just once). Leicester, meanwhile, are completely unpredictable with a terrible league form, but a new coach that’s lead them to six wins and fresh resilience. But they’ll be dealing with a team that’s much more used to quick counters, as Diego Simeone basically wrote the book on them.
- Prey on Leicester’s Mistakes
Even in good games, LCFC have been sloppy at times and that should have the Madrid men drooling. Just rewatch that brilliant counterattack they had against Bayern Munich last year in the semi-final. It took just one misplayed ball from Jerome Boateng and Atleti were off to the races and the final. LCFC centerbacks Robert Hooth and Wes Morgan have been unimpressive for most of the year and Antoine Griezmann smelling weakness is like a shark to blood.
2. Switch Up Attacking Options
One underrated part of Los Rojiblancos’ game is how many good attackers they have. Griezmann jumps to the front of the mind, but Kévin Gameiro, Yannick Carrasco, Fernando Torres and Angel Correa are all dangerous and even more so when paired with Griezmann. The Frenchman didn’t get that third-placed Ballon D’or vote just for goals, he’s a team player and makes all attackers around him play better. A duo or trio of these guys will break down LCFC, it just might take some tinkering.
3. When the Time Comes, Be the Old Atletico
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Atletico’s demolition of Bayern Leverkusen was how different each leg was. Round one was a thrilling shoot out that Atletico dominated, winning 4–2. The second was a 0–0 draw with future world goal keeper of the year Jan Oblak turning up with the save(s) of the season. That second match looked much like the Madrid side of the last few years, happy to grind out results and frustrating their rivals. Don’t be surprised if they lock up shop in Madrid to make sure they have the away goal advantage.
- Don’t Bring the Game to Atletico
For most teams, the best thing you can do is dominate possession. This is exactly what the Madrid men want. It’s how they win games. In last year’s CL final Real Madrid figured this out and frustrated Los Rojiblancos by giving them the ball in safe positions so they couldn’t launch counters. The English side would be wise to watch tape of that game.
2. Riyad Mahrez will be the offensive fulcrum
Much like Dimitri Payet, Mahrez has been pointed out as a player who was on fire last year, but languished for most of this season. But, much like Payet, Mahrez is still capable of pulling of singular magic moments that no team can plan for. Jamie Vardy needs to be having a party, yes, but Mahrez at his string pulling best is more deadly.
3. Hope Hooth and Morgan strengthen
This round will be determined at the back for both teams. If Atletico’s back line is in top form, they can’t be penetrated. If LCFC’s backline plays like it has for most of the year, that deadly Spanish attack force will be licking its lips. Most damningly of all, Hooth and Morgan have looked slow and out of place at times, Morgan will miss the first leg with a back problem and sowing confusion and dread is what Simeone’s attackers feed off of.
Prediction: 3–1 Atletico Madrid
Borussia Dortmund vs. AS Monaco
Now this is the match I WANT to be the final. Despite some obvious flaws, Dortmund and Monaco have been the two funnest teams to watch in Europe this year. Monaco have scored a frankly absurd 135 goals this year (about three per game) and just watch Dortmund’s 8–4 fever dream of a match in the group stages to get a feel of how they play. I keep seeing the adjective “swashbuckling” to describe these two teams and I can’t think of a better way to put it.
- Hope Aubameyang is on Form
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might end up as Europe’s top scorer if he keeps up his current pace (around a goal a game), but, even in this season long purple patch, he hasn’t been consistent. The fixture against Benfica proved that, as Auba missed a few clear chances during the first leg only to score a hat trick the next game. Auba isn’t the classiest finisher, instead he’s got rockets for legs and an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. Monaco leaked six goals during their battle against Man City, and Auba, on form, will be delighted to face such a weak defense.
2. Outscore ‘em
This might seem counterintuitive, as this was Man City’s game-plan as they got knocked out of the tournament. But, simply put, Dortmund does’t lose high scoring games. 6–2, 8–4, 3–3, when Dortmund go high, they either trash their rivals or draw. Dortmund do lose when their opposites are more defensively canny and keep the score low. That thing I just said? Won’t happen here.
3. Keep Faith in Sokratis
Dortmund obviously have a Mats Hummel’s shaped hole in their backline since the former captain turned Judas and went to fierce rivals Bayern Munich. Mathias Ginter and former Barca man Marc Batra haven’t impressed, but Greece international Sokratis has. He’s quietly been one of the best defenders in the Bundesliga, despite some conduct issues. He’s even worn the captain’s armband a few times during the season. Dortmund will score, there’s no doubt about that. But the big Greek will need to hold down the fort against Monaco’s speedy attack.
- Hope Radamel Falcao is Fit
Yes I know they won against Man City without him, but the Monaco captain is still the club’s top scorer and, much like Auba, is the funnel in which Monaco’s attack is focused. He did miss a penalty in the first leg against Man City, but the sheer class he showed in the rest of that match cannot be dismissed. A weak Dortmund defense should give Falcao a field day.
2. Win Big at Home
Both of these teams have astonishing home records. No losses all year at the Westfalen Stadion for BVB and only one defeat for the Principality. It’s likely that neither team will win on the road, so running up the score on home turf might be the way forward. Monaco showed that, even with their tiny stadium (the smallest in the French top flight!), massive energy can come bursting out from their fans and it’s a tough place to visit. They’ll need to recapture their Man City form and hope that Dortmund fail like they did on their trip to Portugal.
3. Hope That Their Youth is Better Than Dortmund’s Youth
This really is the derby of the future. The names on both team sheets read like a constellation of future stars. Dortmund have the bigger names (Osmane Dembelle, Emre Mor, Christian Pulisic), but Monaco have more cohesion in their young ranks as most of them are academy products, unlike Dortmund’s canny youth scouting. We saw the youth take down a much more experienced Man City team without too many problems, excelling both on attack and defense. If the kids are alright, Monaco’s alright.
Prediction: 7–5 Dortmund
Sweet Strawberry-flavored Christ this is going to be fun.
Juventus vs. Barcelona
Well hello 2015 Champion’s League final, how are you? And even after two years, both teams are still firmly in the upper echelon of European strength. Barcelona’s (relative) inconsistency might be Juventus’ way forward as, even with the losses of Pirlo, Pogba and Viera, Juve might be stronger than their 2015 incarnation. But Barca, as they showed last round, are the best team in the world on their best day.
- Dominate the Midfield
If there’s one major weakness that Paris San Gemain exploited during their 4–0 demolition of Barcelona, it was Barca’s aging midfield. Andres Inesta is still a wizard, but he’s losing his powers, same goes for the usually consistent Sergio Busquets. Ivan Rakatic is as reliable as ever, but new boys Andre Gomes and Denis Suárez have yet to impress. Juve don’t have the speed and strength in their midfield like PSG did, but they do have the powerful Sami Khadera, the classy Claudio Marchisio and the deadly Miralem Pjanic. With Kwadwo Asamoah coming off the bench, Juve might have the chance to cut off Barca’s attack before it even starts.
2. Exploit the Full Backs
Barca haven’t really gotten over the loss of Dani Alves who left the Spanish giants for — Juventus. Awkward, but good for Juve. Jordi Alba’s defensive lapses have been shown this season and thanks to the injury of Alexi Vidal, Sergi Roberto will probably be filling in. He might have gotten the winning goal against PSG, but he was thrashed in the first leg by the French wingers and full backs. Juve is particularly strong in this area, especially if they use wingbacks. The experience of Alves and Stephan Lichtsteiner, combined with the raw power of Alex Sandro might be enough to control the flanks.
3. Use Every Part of the Attack
Juventus is largely known as a defensive side, for good reason, they’ve only given up two goals in all of the CL so far. But their attack is exceptionally sharp as well and is scarily flexible. Paulo Dybala is technically magnificent, with dribbles and tricks a plenty. Gonzalo Higuaín is the classic striker, showing up at opportune moments to rip the net to pieces and finally is the human battering ram Mario Mandžukić, who has excelled by forcing center backs to follow him while his partners in crime sneak into the goal. Juve basically has a lock-pick, a hammer and a bulldozer to bust down Barca’s shaky backline. They’ll have to use all of it to win.
- Neymar, Neymar, Neymar
Though his overall stats have been down, the Brazilian might be Barca’s most important player right now. He dragged the Spaniards from the jaws of defeat against PSG and, even when the rest of the team lags, he tears up the pitch. The match after the PSG miracle, Neymar checked out for a injury and Barca suffered a shock loss to Deportivo La Coruna. No Neymar=No party.
2. Find Young Leadership at the Back
Barca have had troubles when they stop attacking, but there have been some bright spots in the defense. Marc Andre Ter-Stegen (despite some early shakes) has put forth an excellent resume on why he’ll be the next #1 for Germany. His maturity during the 2nd leg with PSG was impressive and he (along with Neymar) was one of the few players that seemed awake during the first match. Samuel Umtiti has also slowly come into his own. The young Frenchman might be a good fit as Gerard Pique’s long term partner, but he’s had a vertical learning curve during the Champion’s League. If he can pull it off against Juve’s varied attack, he’ll be on his way to cementing his place.
3. Don’t Rely on Messi to Get You Out of Jams
Luis Enrique, in the past, has been criticized for just letting the sheer power of Messi, Neymar and Suarez to get him out of sticky situations. And Messi’s magical free kicks have certainly delivered Barca points this year, but during both legs of the PSG tie, Messi was shown to be ineffective at times, same with Suarez. Messi can make hysterical moments that can bring down any team in the world, but Juve’s imposing defense is one of the few in the that might be a match for the might of MSN. This will have to be a game won on multiple fronts for Enrique’s men.
Prediction: 3–3 Juventus on away goals
Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
And the other one that really could (should?) be the final. It’s a damn shame that one of these two will be sitting on the couch for the semis, but it’s gonna be glorious either way. Bayern has a tough time in the CL against Spanish teams, getting knocked out by Real, Barcelona and Atleti. But Carlo Ancelotti is one of the great cup managers, and is more flexible then Pep. Real are defending champions and although no team has won the competition back to back, they have won it twice in the last three years. If anyone can break the streak, its Zidane’s men.
- Be Physical in the Midfield
These are probably the two best mid-fields in Europe going head to head. The Modric-Kroos-Casemero combo just edges out Bayern, but not by much and they have vastly different talents. Thiago and Arturo Vidal have been brilliant in the CL, and were the key factors in their decimation of Arsenal. If Vidal can bully and attack, and Thiago can out Kroos Kroos, Real will have a hard time launching attacks and stopping Bayern’s powerful forwards.
2. Hope the Old Boys Are at Their Best
Bayern certainly have a ton of young talent with Renato Sanches and Joshua Kimmich, but there’s a lot of skillful age in the group as well. Most notably, this will be captain Philip Lamb’s last season, as well as living-legend midfielder Xabi Alonso’s. Wingers Frank Ribbery and Arjen Robben aren’t spring chickens either, but each one, by themselves, can still turn a game on its head. Bayern might have to sacrifice some of Lamb’s league time to get him out for these two legs, but, the man who Pep once called “the most intelligent man in football” cannot be left out or Bayern will fall.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of the Bench
Bayern might be the deepest side left in the CL. When you have Sanches, Kimmich, Kingsly Coman and Ribbery regularly warming the bench, you’ve got an insane lineup. They’re not like for like switches with their counterparts either, each brings a unique toolbox to the time. Kimmich’s incomparable flexibility, Sanches’ unending engines in his legs, and Ribbery’s knack for flair can all be game changers. If things aren’t going their way, one of these super-subs might be able to stump Real.
- Don’t Be Reliant on BBC
Though Real’s usual front three are the most feared attacking trio behind a certain MSN, Real have actually done better when all the pieces aren’t in place. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it shows flexibility on Real’s part. Alvaro Morata and Lucas Vasquez have been excellent all season and breaking up BBC allows those formidable attackers to show their other talents. Karim Benzema has proven a deft provider as well as a striker, and as Ronaldo gets older, he’s become more of a poacher in the box. Bayern have an exceptional backline, but with this fluid motion up front, they might be able to break the Germans down.
2. Get Casemero to do Casemero Things
Arguably the most important player on Real for the last year, the Brazilian has turned into a defensive stalwart in the midfield, allowing Kross to be silky and Modric to be incisive. He’s got an eye for an occasional wonder goal but, more importantly, he’ll be the one breaking up play from Vidal and Thiago to Robert Lewandowski. Both Rostov and Athleti showed in the group stages that Bayern can be stifled and Casemero will be the one to do the stifling.
3. Get the Dang Ball to Sergio Ramos
Sun shines, birds sing and Sergio Ramos scores clutch goals. Just ask Deportivo, Barcelona or, hell, Altheti in BOTH CL Finals where Ramos popped up with goals. He’s better than a majority of strikers in the box and setpieces will make the Germans sweat. If Real are down late in the dying embers of the game, they need to get it to Ramos. Things will happen.