With some of the most successful European teams out of the competition—and four English challengers still alive—this year’s Champions League enters its quarterfinal round with some compelling story lines. Though we’ll be missing the likes of Neymar, Griezmann, and Lewandowski in the final eight, there’s still plenty of entertainment to come—even if it’s tempered by the presence of VAR. Here’s a short rundown of what you can expect from each quarterfinal matchup:
Ajax vs. Juventus
Ajax may no longer be the European powerhouse they once were, but if their performance against even a mediocre Real Madrid team showed anything, it’s that their perfect mix of transfer targets and experienced pros is capable of brilliance. In a knockout tournament, Ajax’s all-action, high-possession, pressing 4-3-3 is nothing to trifle with. Add the fact Dusan Tadic has transformed into some combination of Zinedine Zidane and Dennis Bergkamp, Frenkie de Jong might be a reincarnation of Johan Cruyff, and talented youngsters like David Neres and Hakim Ziyech are bound to top goal and assist charts for years to come, and it’s no wonder that everyone’s favorite underdog put a struggling Real Madrid to the sword.
Unfortunately, drawing Juventus might put all of that feel-good magic in the bin. Juve have been consistently and successfully led by one of the most inventive coaches in the world, Massimiliano Allegri. Under the Italian’s guidance, Juventus have taken their domination of Serie A to the Champions League, appearing in two of the past four finals. Though they’ve yet to lift the trophy in the modern era, their addition of Cristiano Ronaldo is about as close as they could come to assuring success in a competition chock full of luck and randomness. To make matters worse for Ajax, Allegri’s tactical fluidity centers on stopping opponents from exploiting any weaknesses. For example, against Atlético Madrid in Tuesday’s round-of-16 second leg, despite entering the game 2-0 down, Juve directed possession to Ronaldo, Mario Mandzukic, and Federico Bernardeschi to circumvent Atléti’s press and prevent one of the best counterattacking teams in the world from ever having opportunities to do so.
This is, however, the Champions League. Ajax have set out on a mission to make sure this generation is remembered, and, in soccer, nothing is ever guaranteed. Juventus may have drawn a favorable opponent, but it doesn’t mean their passage to the next round will be easy.
Tottenham vs. Manchester City
If there’s anything Mauricio Pochettino has succeeded in doing during his five seasons as the manager of Tottenham, it’s establishing a degree of tactical flexibility. (Pep Guardiola is already wary.) For Poch’s men, the ability to switch between an efficient possession team and the pressing side they were at the very start of his appointment has resulted in repeated top-four Premier League finishes. However, Poch’s Spurs have yet to win any trophies. Scattered defensive performances have left Spurs fans frustrated, as has the inconsistency the team often exhibits in games against quality opposition. It may again be that very dynamic that dooms them in this tie against Manchester City.
Still, Tottenham recently have been relatively successful against some of Europe’s best teams by employing a more defensive strategy. In counterattacking situations, Son Heung-min’s speed and deadly finishing and Dele Alli’s intelligent, measured hold-up play are essential. And to be fair, Pochettino doesn’t have a blank checkbook. He made Spurs a competitor in a world of super spenders by massaging an oft-injured, makeshift team into a competent unit. It might seem idealistic to try to beat Manchester City at their own possession-dominant game, but Pochettino has seen varied success with the tactic. In Pochettino’s first Premier League meeting with Guardiola, Spurs’ physical lineup bullied Manchester City off the ball and made it impossible for Guardiola’s side to get into any sort of rhythm. Since then, though, Pochettino’s defensive game plans against Guardiola, where Spurs wait for City to make a mistake, have resulted in only failure, like the 4-1 drubbing at the end of last season.
City’s biggest opponents are themselves. They have the most efficient attack and defense in Europe’s top five leagues, and they’re just a couple of hairs shy of the record-breaking output they had last season. But their susceptibility to counterattacks remains a weakness. However, midfielder Ilkay Gundogan has proved—both in the league and against Schalke in the previous round—that he offers an effective alternative to Fernandinho as both a thoughtful distributor of the ball and a player capable of delivering the late, attacking runs Guardiola loves him for. City have all the tools to beat Tottenham in a battle for the ball, although a more defensive or press-heavy approach from Spurs could pose problems. If Tottenham venture too far forward, though, we might just see Ederson do his best Kevin De Bruyne impression and pick them apart from the back like he did last time:
If Spurs are to advance past a team that’s spent more money than they could ever dream of, they’re going to need a specific game plan, perhaps something akin to Liverpool’s midfield pressing traps that decimated City in the Champions League last season. Pochettino might be capable of engineering an upset, just as he did in 2009 when his tiny Espanyol side stood against the tsunami of Guardiola’s Barcelona and came out winners. But it’s hard to see his Spurs getting past one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Premier League teams ever assembled.
Barcelona vs. Manchester United
When Barcelona won the treble in 2015, it was easy to chalk it up to the inestimable power of their legendary forward line. Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suárez were a trio that achieved what few thought was even possible. At the heart of their triumph, however, was then-manager Luis Enrique’s modernization. Part of the reason Barcelona hired Enrique in the first place was because the possession-based style that had brought them so much success under Guardiola had started to go stale. While some of that decline was due to Guardiola’s successors, the footballing world had also changed. Pressing had become more prevalent, and teams around Europe were employing their own variations of the style Barcelona helped popularize. Enrique implemented tactics that made Barcelona as comfortable off the ball as they were on it, allowing them to harness the full potential of the galactic squad they’d assembled.
Current manager Ernesto Valverde has brought a new sense of modernity to Barcelona. Though they’re an almost entirely different team than the pass-heavy highlight-reel Barca of yore, Valverde’s fluid 4-4-2 provides a solid defensive shape: They can press from off the ball, while maintaining potent attacking potential by shifting to a 4-3-3 while on the ball. Meanwhile, United interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may have massively improved United’s results, but there’s evidence to suggest the Red Devils’ recent successes can be boiled down to the team’s exceptionally talented finishers—and the fact that Solskjaer finally unleashed Paul Pogba.
Man Utd under Solskjaer— Orbinho (@Orbinho) March 10, 2019
Expected Goals 29.8
Goals Conceded 13
Expected Goals Against 21.3
Games played 17
Penalties won 7
Though it’s easy to predict that Barcelona will dominate the ball while United try to counter, Valverde’s conservative philosophy and Solskjaer’s lack thereof could add some variety to the narrative. The moment Barcelona have manipulated United into thinking they can penetrate a relatively unstable Barca defense is precisely when they’ll spring out of their formation, press United off the ball, and use any of their world-beating talents to best the brick wall named David de Gea. Above it all, the greatest living player of all time is having one of his best-ever seasons, and an impassioned speech he delivered at the beginning of the season suggests he’s on a personal mission to bring the Champions League title back to the Camp Nou after a four-year absence. Many have stood in the way of Messi, and many, many, many players have had their pants pulled down while the ball was chipped over their fallen mortal husks. Just ask Jérôme Boateng.
Liverpool vs. Porto
In what’s probably the most lopsided draw of the quarterfinals, Porto face off against last year’s runners-up, Liverpool. The Reds won’t walk into the semifinals, though. Porto’s conservative 4-4-2, similar to the kind adopted by Premier League sides like Burnley and Leicester, specializes in the kind of defensive pressing that has sometimes troubled Jürgen Klopp’s side. With dangerous wide players like Yacine Brahimi and Alex Telles threatening to expose right back Trent Alexander-Arnold, it won’t all be smooth sailing for Liverpool. Sérgio Conceição’s team have also managed to harness the potential of midfielder Óliver Torres, a player once singled out for praise by Atlético manager Diego Simeone. Though Porto central defender Éder Militão and forward Moussa Marega might appear to be no match for Virgil Van Dijk, their physicality will be a threat on set pieces.
Klopp’s Liverpool, however, have become much better at protecting their Burnley-colored Achilles’ heel. By doubling down on the tactics that have seen them work their way up the table, Liverpool invite teams into their swirling vortex of transitional terror and force the opposition into a back-and-forth contest that two European finals and a title race with Manchester City shows they’re best at winning. Mohamed Salah may be in a mini-slump, but he’s still cosmically good, and Sadio Mané has joined him among the stars. Van Dijk’s knack for scoring goals is a bonus, but even if he doesn’t pop up on the score sheet, his command of the back line as well as the direct balls he offers to Roberto Firmino and friends provide another path to success if Porto prove to be especially stubborn.
Liverpool are built for competitions like this. Though the tie with Bayern came down to Wednesday’s 3-1 win in the second leg, they also dominated the chances in the first game. In short: Liverpool are even better than they were last year, which makes Porto’s slim chances for an upset even slimmer.