Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Your Champions League Quarterfinals Primer

Antoine Griezmann and Atletico will look to replicate their 14’ UCL triumph over Barcelona.
 By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial) and Alejandro Vargas (@callmejandro)

We have finally reached the meat and potatoes portion of the Champions League, where true contenders reveal themselves. This round sees familiar heavyweights crossing paths, while relative newcomers look to pull off titanic upsets. Without further ado let's take a look at the matchups. 

Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid / 1st leg April 5th 2:45 PM/ 2nd leg April 13th 2:45 PM


These sides' only previous European tie came at the same stage of the 2013/14 competition, when Atlético became the only team to prevent Barça from reaching the semi-finals in the past eight seasons, and one of only three clubs to have eliminated them in a Champions League quarterfinal, along with Paris Saint-Germain in 1994/95 and Juventus in 2002/03. Barcelona have absolutely dominated this matchup of late, with Atletico’s Diego Simeone now a putrid W1, D5, L9 against his club's Catalan rivals.

Players to watch

Justin: In terms of style, you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger contrast between two other sides. With 19 clean sheets in 29 La Liga matches this season, Atletico have the stingiest defense in Europe’s Top-5 leagues. Goals, however, have been hard to come by for Simeone’s men, evidenced further by Atlético’s defeat of PSV on penalties in the round of 16. 

This was the first tie to finish goalless over two legs in the Champions League era and the second year in succession Diego Simeone's side had to win their last-16 contest on penalties. As the only goal scorer in double figures for the Los Rojiblancos, Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid) will again be tasked to provide the offense. With Jackson Martinez running on a rice field somewhere in China and Fernando Torres closer to figurehead then elite footballer, all eyes will be on the Frenchmen to be the difference.

Alejandro: Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid) makes any day he steps onto the field a hard day’s work for opposing defenders. Coming off a loss to Real Madrid in El Clasico, Barcelona will undoubtedly be looking to patch up their back line that was uncharacteristically porous at times. Look for Gerard Pique (Barcelona) to hang back more than he usually likes. 

Still, this will not prevent him from asserting his towering presence in the Atletico box during free kicks and corners. On the other side of the pitch, Luis Suarez (Barcelona) will be looking to build on his statistic of 7 goals netted in Champions League play this season, with Messi and Neymar (Barcelona) wreaking havoc in the wings, he should find several chances to do so.

Deciding factor

Justin: Barcelona's Spanish record 39-match unbeaten run in all competitions since October 3rd -- including 32 wins -- was ended when they were beaten 2-1 at home by Real Madrid on Saturday. When defeat doesn’t come for months at a time, its arrival can be a bitter pill to swallow, often times leading to unforeseen issues that tend to linger. 

With just two days to re-group both mentally and physically,  Barca must come out of Tuesday’s match with a positive result. Going back to the Calderon facing a deficit would be psychological warfare Diego Simeone would be salivating to possess. With 107 club goals between them in all competitions this season, the MSN (Messi,Suarez, Neymar) need to be much sharper than what they showed in El Clásico. 

Could fatigue finally be settling in? Could be, and if it does, we could see UCL history repeat itself.

Alejandro: The deciding factor in this matchup is whether Barcelona allows themselves to be exposed as they were on Saturday against Real Madrid. Manager Luis Enrique (Barcelona) has stated that his team will not change its style of play. As long as they can dominate possession and slip passes in the seams that stretch the defense, Atletico will have a difficult time at the Camp Nou.


Justin: Dios Mio, what a tough call this one is. Sports are the undisputed king of making fans prisoners of the moment, and after taking this weekend's games in, one would be inclined to lean towards Atleti. Look for Simeone to mirror the gameplan of Zidane’s Madrid this past weekend, bogging down in the defensive half and forcing the ball to the middle, while counter attacking when opportunities present themselves. 

Still, Barcelona’s fire power is undeniable and holding them down over two legs is one of the toughest tasks in world football. I’ll take Barca, barely, 2-1 on aggregate.

Alejandro: Atletico has failed to capture a single point across all competitions against Barcelona thus far this season. Unless MSN can be stopped I don’t expect that trend to change during this tie. 

Barcelona wins it 3-0.

Benfica vs. Bayern Munich / 1st leg April 5th 2:45 PM/ 2nd leg April 13th 2:45 PM


These teams have met in three previous ties – and not only have Bayern won them all, they have gone on to on reach at least the final of the competition on every occasion. Bayern have featured in the Champions League semifinals in each of the last four seasons, sporting a quarterfinal record of W17, L9. This is Benfica’s first quarterfinal since a 3-1 aggregate defeat to Chelsea in 2011/12, with their overall European Cup quarterfinal record standing at W8, L8.

Players to watch

Justin: Benfica have won 19 of their last 20 games in all competitions, and nobody is more directly responsible than Jonas. The Brazilian hitman has managed 18 goals in 16 appearances in all competitions this calendar year, pushing his season tally to 32. In this competition, Benfica have conceded 13 goals at Bayern, good for a whopping 4.3 average per game. 

With goalkeeper Julio Cesar (thigh), defensive duo Lisandro Lopez (thigh) and Luisao (arm), as well as Nuno Santos (knee) out injured, the weight of the world will be on Jonas to lift his side to one of the most improbable of upsets.  

Alejandro: Personal feelings usually have no place in effective journalism. Having said that...19-year old Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich) has thrived since his arrival in Munich from Italian champions Juventus, where he did little to entertain the attention that he has garnered during his short time at Bayern. 

Fellow Frenchman Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich) has praised Coman’s ability, despite his young age, and with such praise coming from an accomplished and respected teammate, Coman will surely want to display that it is well deserved.

Deciding factor

Justin: The Bavarians were an injury-time equalizer away from watching this one from home. Thomas Muller’s strike in the 91st minute completed a furious rally from down two goals, resulting in an eventual 4-2 win over Juventus. Lost in the shuffle was the horrid defending by most of Pep Guardiola’s men for most of the game. 

Alvaro Morata was made to look like Leo Messi, dribbling 70 yards through the heart of the defense, leaving more defenders with broken ankles than Allen Iverson. If Bayern want to progress, the backline must tighten up, and should receive a boost with the return of Spanish center back Javi Martinez.

Alejandro: The attacking force that Bayern Munich brings is daunting to say the least. As my esteemed colleague Justin points out, Lewandowski and Muller (Bayern Munich) are sure to keep Benfica on their toes at all times, and they will be supplemented by a supporting cast including Arturo Vidal and Franck Ribery, who will look to apply pressure at all times. 

Keep an eye on Ederson (Benfica), who will be stepping in for Julio Cesar, and has the unenviable task of keeping the ball out of the Portuguese net.  


Justin: History is completely against Benfica in this one, and there's honestly no reason to think that is about to change. Bayern are stronger every category, possessing one of Europe’s most lethal strike forces in Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller. Benfica has a little bit of Rudy in them, but it in the end talent will triumph over spirit. Bayern wins, 3-2.

Alejandro: As impressive as Benfica have been this season, this is certain to be an uphill task the entire way. I’m calling a blowout, Bayern Munich wins 4-0 and should have no problem coasting into the semifinals.

Real Madrid vs. Wolfsburg / 1st leg April 6th 2:45 PM/ 2nd leg April 12th 2:45 PM


In their second Champions League campaign following their 2009/10 debut, Wolfsburg are experiencing a pair of firsts; reaching the knockout stages, while also playing Real Madrid. The Germans have won all four of their home games this competition, but have only one win to show in their last four against Spanish opposition. 

Meanwhile, Madrid are in the quarterfinals for the sixth season in a row, winners of their last five and nine of the last ten. Their quarterfinal record is W26, L6, and remain only one of two sides still undefeated in this year's competition (Barcelona).

Players to watch

Justin: Marcelo (Real Madrid) may not get a lot fan fare because of his lack of goal scoring and goofy appearance, but not many players can influence a match more than the Brazilian left-back. Saturday’s win over Barcelona had Marcelo’s fingerprints all over it. His runs to the center of the park were crucial in opening up the flanks for Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to operate, eventually leading to the game winner in the 85th minute. 

His creativity and ability to create space will be imperative to killing off any hopes Wolfsburg may have.

Alejandro: Keep an eye on Wolfsburg striker Max Kruse, who has been under fire for violating team conduct rules. If Kruse keeps on partying, he may find himself the subject of a “Michael Jordan face” meme very soon. As I said in the previous primer, any time Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) is on the field, he is the man to watch. After his winning goal in the 86th minute against Barcelona, he will be soaring with confidence, and that spells trouble for Wolfsburg.

Deciding factor

Justin: Complacency. Call me cocky, but I just don’t see any way Wolfsburg can win this tie. For Christ’s sake, they almost lost to f**king Gent. Real Madrid are sure to be the prohibitive favorites, but this is still the Champions League, and any drop in focus and intensity can be lethal. 

Julian Draxler and Andre Schurrle (Wolfsburg) have the talent to take advantage of any sloppy defense, so it is imperative that Madrid’s center backs stay back to defend against the counter (yeah, I’m looking at you Sergio).  

Alejandro: Real Madrid has struggled in the past with sides that have been overloaded with talent. It appears that the class representing the club today has found a rhythm and chemistry that operates as a well-oiled machine. That spirit and camaraderie should continue to translate into success on the field.


Justin: Saturday's win against Barcelona -- at the Camp Nou, nonetheless -- has given Los Blancos a new lease on life this season. With an identity and an actual lineup finally established, Real may have just put it together at the perfect time. Madrid wins, 5-1 on aggregate.

Alejandro: Real Madrid has picked a good point in the season to come together. Coming off a last round sweep of the Giallorossi and more recently the win against Barcelona in El Clasico, Los Merengues will look to continue their winning ways and should have no problem against this Wolfsburg side making its Quarterfinal debut. Madrid wins 6-2 aggregate.

Manchester City vs. PSG / 1st leg April 6th 2:45 PM/ 2nd leg April 12th 2:45 PM


PSG are in their 4th consecutive quarterfinal, while Man City make their very first appearance at this stage. Paris have won their last four UCL matches, but come in with a quarterfinals record of only W1, L3. 

Despite this, they come in having won their domestic title with an unprecedented eight games to spare, giving them the luxury of resting bodies and completely focusing on this tie. Man City, meanwhile, come in like a wounded animal. They have won only three of their last ten matches in all competitions, and were held without a goal in three before their 4-0 win at Bournemouth on Saturday.

Players to watch

Justin: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG) was seen by some as a descending 34-year old coming into this season. Despite scoring 30 goals in all competitions last term, it was his lowest output since the 2010-11 season. The Swede has registered two hat-tricks in his last three games, pushing his season total to 30 goals in the league alone (tied with Jonas and Higuain for most in Europe) and another 8 in all other competitions. 

Seen as a disappointment in his career when it comes to the Champions League, Ibra will be burning at the chance to add, essentially, the only trophy he’s missing from his cabinet.

Alejandro: Justin correctly points to Ibra (PSG) as a major player to watch, most importantly for his God-like goal scoring prowess, but also for his, at times, questionable decision making. 

Ibra has been known to be reckless and open himself up to discipline. If he can keep a cool head and his eyes on the goal, he will be Manchester City’s biggest concern.

Deciding factor

Justin: Defense, defense, defense. 

It’s the only shot Man City have to pull the upset, but lately, their backline has had more holes in it than Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day. There were positives over the weekend, with Willy Caballero completing his first-ever Premier League clean sheet in front of a defense that didn't include injured captain Vincent Kompany. 

Facing Lewis Grabban and Max Gradel at the tail end of their season hardly match up to the firepower of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani in their Champions League mission, but City must take their positives wherever they can find them. With half the squad likely on its way out once Pep Guardiola arrives in the summer, City’s old guard will have to put up one last stand in order to make semifinal history.

Alejandro: The deciding factor ultimately comes down to the injuries suffered by Man City. Most notably, Joe Hart. who is fighting to be healthy enough to start. 

If he fails to make it, seasoned La Liga veteran Willy Caballero will have the burden on his shoulders. The 6’1” keeper has appeared about as much as Tom Brady’s backup with five starts to his name since his arrival in 2014. With little defense to speak of, Caballero will have to be superhuman to keep City alive.


Justin: Timing is everything, and unfortunately, it couldn’t be any worse for Man City. After such a promising start to their campaign, this season has nosedived courtesy of injuries and form. Now they must face an extremely hot Paris side with no Raheem Sterling, and the prospect of no Joe Hart and Yaya Toure as well. PSG wins, 4-2 on aggregate.

Alejandro: In the interest of sport, against common sense and facts, I disagree with my good friend and I pick the Sky Blues to win this as the underdog. 3-2 aggregate, but don’t be shocked if this turns into an absolute route for Paris.

** Each match can be seen on FS1 and FS2.

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