2017-2018 UEFA Champions League Quarterfinals, First Leg
The knockout phase of the 2017-2018 UEFA Champions League is down to eight teams, with the quarterfinals getting underway Tuesday, April 3. Even casual sports fans have likely heard the phrase “Champions League,” but the Football Across Europe blog is here to break it down a bit further for the non-football (soccer) fan. The first thing to note is that the Champions League is not a league at all, per se, but a tournament. It is comprised of professional club teams from UEFA member nations (UEFA is the governing body of the European confederation of international soccer). Qualification is based on performance in the previous season’s domestic leagues in each respective nations.
After domestic league play wraps up across in Europe in late spring into early summer, the early stages of the ensuing Champions League competition begin within weeks that same summer, with teams from the lowest-ranked UEFA member nations forced to play through a myriad of qualification rounds.
By late summer into early fall, the qualification rounds are over and the surviving smaller clubs are joined by teams from the powerhouse nations to form a 32-team group stage, a familiar format to anyone who’s watched a FIFA World Cup. The 8 group winners and 8 runners up advance to the knockout phase – or Round of 16 – where the play in a home and home two-legged format against whatever opponent they’re drawn against.
Winners are re-drawn and play in this format all the way through the semifinals, whereupon the winners meet in a one-match final, considered by most to be the highest prize in world club football and the most-watched annual sporting event in the world. It is also financially rewarding, with the prize for a Final victory in excess of €15 million, or over $18 million. Overall, with all rounds’ prize money combined, winning clubs can take home in excess of €50 million ($61m).
Real Madrid from Spain are the two-time defending Champions League winners and also have the most wins overall in the competition with twelve. A.C. Milan of Italy have won it seven times, with Germany’s Bayern Munich, Spain’s Barcelona, and England’s Liverpool all boasting five trophies. The last four have all been won by either Real Madrid or Barcelona and the last English club to win it was Chelsea in 2012, their only win.
We will be breaking down every match through the duration of the tournament, and we’ll continue with the two matches played today (previously played match previews below):
Liverpool vs. Manchester City
Where They’re From: Liverpool hail from the city of Liverpool in the northwest of England. Though the 21st century has not been as fruitful as the previous, they are one of English football’s true giants. Only Manchester United have won more domestic championships (20) than Liverpool’s 18, though the Reds last won the league in 1989-90, before the current Premier League was formed. They remain the most decorated English club in European play. They play their home matches at Anfield and currently sit third in the Premier League. Manchester City are often dubbed the “little brothers” behind Manchester United within the northern English town, but there’s nothing little about these European giants. One of the world’s richest clubs, City can clinch the English Premier League title this weekend as legendary manager Pep Guardiola has transformed Manchester City into one of the most dangerous attacking teams that the sport has seen in several years. Even in the ultra-competitive EPL, The Citizens have the look like they could remain on top for quite some time.
How They Got Here: Liverpool finished fourth in the Premier League last season. They had to survive a play-off round to earn passage to the group stage. They defeated German side Hoffenheim 6-3 on aggregate to advance before being drawn in and winning a group with Sevilla, Spartak Moscow, and Slovenian side Maribor. As for Manchester City, they earned an automatic qualification by finishing third in the Premier League last season. Guardiola’s men cruised through the group stage with only one hiccup, having no trouble winning a group that included Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli, and Feyenoord.
What to Watch For: There are some managers who look at the two-legged Champions League format and decide that their best course of action is to play conservatively. This will not be that match. Man City and hosts Liverpool are the top two scoring teams in England with 163 goals between them. Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah has 37 goals in all competitions and 29 in Premier League play, which is equal to or greater than the entire goal output of seven Premier League teams.
Manchester City, though, care far more about another vital statistic: they are 27-3-1 in league play and, with a win this weekend in the Manchester derby, will win the Premier League with five match weeks left to play. By any measure, it has been a truly historic season for the Citizens, and they would love nothing more than to hoist multiple trophies this season.
Liverpool will be encouraged by a few factors in the first leg. First, to put it simply, they have Mohamed Salah, who is having a debut season for the ages on Merseyside. Second, they will be at home, under the Anfield lights, with the infamous Kop no doubt in full throat. Lastly, that only loss on City’s record this season? It happened at Anfield back in January.
All of this will arm Jürgen Klopp’s men with confidence, but confidence alone will not be enough. Since that loss in January, City have not lost in the Premier League and failed to capture all three points just once, at Burnley’s notoriously tough Turf Moor. For all of Liverpool’s strengths – their aggressive press, their awesome goal-scoring firepower – City have scored 13 more goals in the league.
Former Liverpool man Raheem Sterling has scored 16 goals. Sergio Agüero has scored 21. Gabriel Jesus had added nine. Kevin De Bruyne has scored seven and added 15 assists. And while much has been made of City’s questionable defense over the last few seasons, they have given up the fewest goals (21) in the Premier League as well.
For City, they will no doubt look to keep to the recipe that’s been working. Possess the ball, control the game, score often, and never let Liverpool get a foothold. For the Reds, Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané, and co. will need to be suffocating with their press and capitalize on any and every opportunity in front of the net. A composed and defiant performance from the Virgil van Dijk-led back line will also be needed.
One last interesting wrinkle? No manager has bested the legendary Pep Guardiola more than Klopp, winning six of the twelve meetings they’ve had in Germany and England and drawing another.
Barcelona vs. Roma
Where They’re From: FC Barcelona are the obvious pride of Catalonia in Spain, and their football club represents their iconic culture and status. Other than bitter rivals Real Madrid, La Blaugrana have enjoyed the most success in the sport over recent history with Lionel Messi leading the charge. Barca are coming off a rare season that didn’t include a La Liga or Champions League trophy, but they are well in contention for both in 2017-18. As for AS Roma, they’ve remained one of the more popular teams from Italy’s Serie A despite entering their 10th straight season without a trophy. A true Italian giant from yesteryear eyes a return to the biggest stage in football, but they’ll have to go through one of the game’s greatest-ever players to get there.
How They Got Here: Roma narrowly missed on an elusive Serie A title last season, but earned easy qualification into the UCL group stage and reigned supreme in a tough group containing Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. A tough-nosed affair over two legs with Shakhtar Donetsk in the knockout stage saw Roma get through 2-2 on away goals. Barcelona faced Chelsea in the last round, and after a 1-1 opening draw at Stamford Bridge, Messi led the charge for a 3-0 second leg that pushed Barca on through to the quarterfinal.
What to Watch For: The footballing world seems to stop turning every time Messi takes the pitch, and it will be no different throughout this quarterfinal. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner could inch closer to a record-breaking sixth honor with another magical display against the Italian side, and all eyes will certainly be watching after counterpart Cristiano Ronaldo dazzled just one day prior with a magnificent bicycle-kick goal. While football is the ultimate team game, the Champions League is a stage for individual heroics and Messi will certainly be pegged to provide some Wednesday.
Despite the greatness of Barcelona’s No. 10, La Blaugrana field a ferocious attacking side with the likes of Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele complementing the Argentine. New big-money signing Philippe Coutinho is cup-tied after playing UCL matches with former club Liverpool, but Barca will otherwise be at full force against the Romans.
While Roma are traditionally known as a defensive stalwart, they don’t lack the attacking force necessary to win big European matches. Midfielders Radja Nainggolan and Daniele De Rossi will look to supply chances for striker Edin Dzeko and budding star forward Stephan El Shaarawy and hope to put a typically stout Barcelona back line on their heels, an accomplishment much easier said than done.
Juventus vs. Real Madrid
Where They’re From: Located in Turn, Juventus are the poster children of Italian football that’s synonymous with silverware and glory. They have claimed six consecutive championships in Serie A, the top-flight division in Italy, and eye redemption after falling to Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League Final. Juve currently sit four points up in Serie A this season, but their primary focus is likely on European glory heading down the stretch. Real Madrid aren’t enjoying the same success in their La Liga campaign, currently 13 points adrift of Barcelona, but their hopes of a third-straight Champions League trophy are as alive as ever. A nightmarish domestic campaign would be distant memory if Los Blancos raise another European trophy this spring, a feat that would assure them a spot as one of this generation’s greatest clubs.
How They Got Here: Madrid, of course, secured a spot in this year’s UCL after winning the tournament a year ago and coupling it with a La Liga title. After finishing second in the group stage, Zinedine Zidane’s men made easy work of Neymar and a Paris Saint-Germain side that once threatened to be a top contender, winning 5-2 on aggregate. The sailing wasn’t quite as smooth for Juventus, who clawed back in resilient fashion to advance past Tottenham Hotspur 4-3 on aggregate. Two goals in three minutes from Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala saw past a Spurs side that ripped 23 shots at Wembley Stadium but could not strike past Gianluigi Buffon when it mattered most.
What to Watch For: Juventus-Real Madrid is an affair worthy of a UCL final repeat, and one that fans are spoiled to be able to watch in the quarterfinal. At the crux of the matchup is the classic clash of an elite defense and a potent offense, with Juventus’ back line and legendary keeper Buffon facing the strike force of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale that has struck fear in European clubs time and time again. The flair of Madrid reigned supreme in their last battle, when Ronaldo bagged a brace to lead Real to a 4-1 victory in Cardiff that secured a record-extending 12th European Cup trophy. Ronaldo hasn’t been at his brilliant best domestically in 2017-18, but still leads the Champions League with 12 goals this season and 117 all-time.
Juve have some demons to exorcise from last year’s final, but they also have some recent success against mighty Madrid to pull from. The Old Lady was the last club to eliminate Los Blancos in the Champions League, surpassing them in a 3-2 aggregate semifinal in 2014-15.
As for the Juventus attack, it’s nothing to scoff at with Higuain’s permanent goal-scoring acumen leading the charge. However, attacking midfielder Dybala may be man to dissect Madrid’s opportunistic defense and spread things out. The young Argentine is coming off a brace in last weekend’s 3-1 victory over AC Milan, and the long-time Real Madrid transfer target may have something to prove individually as he potentially sizes up a big-money move in the near future.
Sevilla vs. Bayern Munich
Where They’re From: Sevilla FC call the Andalusian capital of Seville in southern Spain home. While perhaps not the giants of Real Madrid or Barcelona, they are older than both of them, having played the first officially recognized professional football match in Spain. They also boast an impressive history, with a league title, five Spanish cups, and a long recent tradition of success in the Champions League’s little brother, the Europa League, which they won three straight times from 2014-2016. They play home matches in Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium. Bayern Munich are Germany’s most successful club team in history both domestically and in Europe. They play in the Bavarian capital in the south of Germany with home matches played in the Allianz Arena. They have won the Bundesliga five years running and are could officially clinch their sixth this weekend.
How They Got Here: Sevilla finished in fourth in La Liga last season, which meant they had to get through a playoff round to secure a place in the group stage. They played and beat Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir and secured a spot in Group E with Liverpool, Spartak Moscow, and Maribor. They finished in second with nine points from a possible 18.Bayern Munich have been the class of Germany for most of the decade and are en route to their sixth straight league title and 28th overall. As such, they qualified directly for the group stage and were drawn into Group B with PSG, Celtic, and Belgian side Anderlecht. Despite finishing level with PSG with an impressive 15 of a possible 18 points, they lost 3-0 to the French side and wouldn’t have touched their staggering +21 goal differential anyway and settled for second.
What to Watch For: It’s easy to see this match as a classic UCL David vs. Goliath contest, but this could be an interesting one. Bayern is coming off a 6-0 dismantling of domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund this past weekend and would guarantee their sixth consecutive Bundesliga title if they win against Augsburg this weekend. A midweek jaunt to Spain to play a confident Sevilla club will require extreme focus. Much of that Sevilla confidence stems from the fact that they have already dispatched legendary clubs in this competition. Manchester United followed the José Mourinho plan perfectly, taking a 0-0 aggregate back to Old Trafford for the second leg of the last round, but it was Sevilla who triumphed, dumping the vastly more expensive team out of the tournament.
Sevilla will be without midfielder Ever Banega via suspension, a player who has played in every UCL match to this point.
Bayern will attempt to exploit that with their potent attack. Swirling Robert Lewandowski transfer rumors did not seem to slow the Bavarian giants or their star attacker this past weekend, as his hat trick accounted for half the goals scored in their 6-0 drubbing of Dortmund. James Rodríguez, Thomas Müller, and Franck Ribéry all also found net, and it is the potency of names like these that Sevilla will have to overcome if it is to advance improbably into the semis.