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Champions League Quarterfinal Winners and Losers

Cristiano Ronaldo, Mo Salah, dumb luck, own goals, and more from the week in European soccer

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Liverpool … might be good enough to win the whole thing? Barcelona and Bayern Munich strolled to uneventful victories in Spain. And Real Madrid did what they always do: Let Cristiano Ronaldo take over the game. Here are our winners and losers from the first legs of the Champions League quarterfinals.

Winner: Mohamed Salah

Salah could decide to sit out the rest of the season and rest for the World Cup, skipping out on winning the Champions League or solidifying a top-four spot in the Premier League … and he’d still own one of the best seasons in Liverpool history.

Players outside of Barcelona, Real Madrid, and PSG are not supposed to put up those kinds of numbers—not since the worldwide goals-per-game number leveled off at around 2.7, starting in the 1970s. Yet, the guy who cost less than Gylfi Sigurdsson has as many domestic goals and assists as Lionel Messi—and no one else in the world has more. In all competitions last season, Liverpool’s top three scorers combined for just one more goal than Salah’s scored in 2017-18. Oh, and the season isn’t over yet.

It feels absurd to say it, but Salah is—full stop—one of the best players in the world. He’s not a colossus like Ronaldo, reducing the game to rubble through sheer force and physical will. He’s not an axis-shifting dribbler like Eden Hazard or an angle-shattering passer like Kevin De Bruyne. No, it’s a preternatural sense of positioning that puts him in the same category as players with more obvious talents. He always knows where to be—whether it’s to receive the first pass to start a counter-attack (see: his goal against City), to gather up a loose ball (see: his goal against City), or to finally take a shot (see: his goal against City). He’s a good dribbler, a good passer, and a good finisher, but it’s his ability to get the ball into dangerous areas that knits it all together and pushes him to the highest level.

Now Liverpool just needs to make sure he’s healthy for the next leg (he came off with a groin injury in the second half on Wednesday), and win the Champions League before Real Madrid or PSG come calling for him this summer.

Loser: Pep Guardiola

“I got it wrong man. I got it totally wrong. It’s a monumental fuck-up. A total mess. The biggest fuck-up of my life as a coach.”

According to Martí Perenau’s book Pep Confidential, that was Pep Guardiola, right after his Bayern Munich team lost, 4-0, at home to Real Madrid in the semifinals of the 2014 Champions League. Bayern had lost the first leg 1-0 at the Bernabeu, and, figuring that the Spanish side would sit back and try to counter-attack in the second, Guardiola decided that he’d play a 3-4-3 formation since it would keep another defender at home while Bayern tried to pull back the deficit. Soon after coming to that conclusion, Guardiola told one of his assistants, “Don’t let me change my mind. This is the only way to go.” He, of course, changed his mind, opted for an ultra-attacking 4-2-4 formation that he hadn’t used since the previous July. He wound up suffering the worst defeat of his professional career.

“I spend the whole season refusing to use a 4-2-4,” Guardiola said. “The whole season. And I decide to do it tonight, the most important night of the year. A complete fuck-up.”

While Guardiola is the best and most innovative manager of his generation, sometimes he can take the creativity a step too far. Against Liverpool, he opted for a lopsided 4-2-3-1 that included three center backs and just one fullback. It featured De Bruyne in a holding midfield role and Ilkay Gundogan as an attacking midfielder—even though they’d been playing the opposite roles all year. And it didn’t include Raheem Sterling, who has 21 goals and seven assists this season. In the second half, Guardiola copped to his mistake, swapped Gundogan and De Bruyne into their preferred positions, and then replaced Gundogan with Sterling in the 57th minute. But by then it was too late.

Winner: Magic

Watch this again and try not to immediately renounce your faith for Zoroastrianism:

At 33 years old, Cristiano Ronaldo conquered gravity and got one over on the best goalkeeper of his generation at the same time. We’d be naive to expect anything less at this point. Ronaldo’s now scored more Champions League quarterfinal goals than all but six clubs, and just in case any Juventus fans were hoping to hang onto some shred of archival superiority: The bicycle kick pushed him ahead of the Bianconeri on the all-time list.

Before being overwhelmed by history, Juventus outshot Madrid, 10-5, and had no trouble pushing the ball into the opposition’s box while simultaneously shutting off access to their own. In other words, they were doing the things that typically win you a soccer game. The only difference: Ronaldo’s third-minute flick found the back of the net, and somehow Keylor Navas swatted away Gonzalo Higuaín’s point-blank volley 20 minutes later.

On another day, maybe the bounces go Juve’s way and we’re having a different conversation. Except, we’ve been having the same conversation for two and a half years now. The approach doesn’t typically hold up over a 38-game season—see: Barcelona’s 13-point lead in La Liga—but since Zinedine Zidane took over in early 2016, Real Madrid have found success in Europe by distilling the sport down to its essence. Every soccer game contains thousands of individual actions, but Madrid doesn’t care about disassembling a defense with patient build-up play or even limiting that number of shots that get pelted toward their own goal. In the Champions League, all that matters is scoring more goals than they let in.

In their book The Numbers Game, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally came to the conclusion that soccer is a 50-50 game. That is, 50 percent of every result is determined by luck, and 50 percent comes down to skill. Everyone else worries about the second part; somehow, Madrid have mastered the first.

Winner: Own Goal

While we were out here worrying about whether or not Ousmane Dembélé would ever replace Neymar’s production or if Philippe Coutinho and Messi could really play together, Barcelona made their signing of the season and no one said a word about it.

He doesn’t just contribute in Europe, either:

Yes, that’s luck, but it also probably has something to do with the tough situations that Barcelona forces opposing defenders into. Take the second goal against Roma. Kostas Manolas could’ve not slide-tackled the ball into his own net, but if he didn’t, Samuel Umtiti would’ve had a tap-in. If Own Goal can maintain his form, Barca’s gonna be tough to beat.

Loser: Paulo Dybala

Real Madrid have some kind of spell over Phenoms Who Have Been Linked With a Move to Barcelona. First Marco Verratti got sent off for badgering a referee in the second leg of PSG’s round of 16 loss. Then Dybala tried to fuse his cleat with Dani Carvajal’s sternum:

Dybala was fouled four times in the first 60 minutes of the match, and while Madrid’s Messi treatment has never worked on Messi himself, it frustrated his fellow Argentine into oblivion. Prior to the red card, the 24-year-old attacker was Juventus’s best player, drawing two dangerous free kicks at the top of the Madrid box in addition to serving up Higuaín’s golden opportunity. It’s a shame we won’t get to see him in the second leg, but the implications were bigger than his pending absence. At the time of Dybala’s ejection, Madrid were only up 2-0 and Juventus were still creating enough chances to pull one back. Plus, after a 2-1 home loss to Madrid last year, Bayern Munich won the second leg in Spain by the same score and pushed the tie to extra time. Instead of putting themselves in the same position, Juventus went a man down and then another goal down six minutes later. Although it seemed like the tie was settled when Ronaldo flipped the world upside down, it wasn’t officially out of reach until Dybala saw red.

Winner: Jupp Heynckes

Or: “Loser: Anyone Who Watched This Game Instead of Juve-Madrid.”

Since Heynckes took over for Carlo Ancelotti in the fall, Bayern Munich have won 20 of their 24 Bundesliga games and all seven of their Champions League matches. For Heynckes, the European winning streak extends back to 2013, when he won every trophy he could win as manager of the same team he’s managing now:

Heynckes could win just as many titles this season with the Bundesliga League Cup–Champions League Treble still in play, but we still haven’t really seen Bayern get tested since he took over. Sevilla, despite their triumph at Old Trafford and their deserved place in the quarterfinals, aren’t close to being one of the eight best teams in Europe. They managed to advance out of the group stages despite allowing as many goals as they scored, and in La Liga this year, they’re sporting a minus-seven goal differential. Bayern went down a goal to Sevilla, but they dominated possession, played most of the game in Sevilla’s defensive third, and created the better chances. This game didn’t tell us much about Bayern, but it wasn’t ever going to.

Loser: Next Week

On Tuesday, we got a goal that we’ll be seeing on highlight reels for as long as people are still willing to pay for the bloated cable packages that fund the sports networks that create the highlight reels (or have Twitter). And on Wednesday, we got a game that a certain group of supporters will never forget.

What an atmosphere!! Come on you Reds!!

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As for the second legs? It’s bleak. According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Manchester City have a 7 percent chance of overturning their 3-0 deficit, while Juventus, Sevilla, and Roma each have a 2 percent shot at advancing to the next round. This surely won’t help Liverpool fans sleep easy for the next five nights, but as for everyone else: Don’t cancel that dentist appointment on Wednesday afternoon.