The UEFA Champions League Round of 16 is now over, and what a ride it’s been. We’ve seen a historic comeback, a massive thrashing, and a little of everything in between over the last six weeks, and now it comes down to the nitty-gritty. No prohibitions on potential intraleague matchups, no nothing. Just eight balls in a bowl and fate deciding how difficult the path to the final will be.
For Juventus, opportunity knocks. It’s been a long time since the Champions League looked this wide open. All of the traditional titans have warts. The time to end the long 21-year wait for the trophy with the big ears could well be now.
After disposing of Porto with minimum effort, a step up in class awaits. But this Juventus team is ready, and can match up with any team left in the draw.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt for fortune to help out a bit. The Champions League is as much about being lucky as it is being good. Two years ago when the bianconeri made their run to the final the draw, luck was extremely kind to them in the knockout rounds. The Round of 16 draw was similarly kind. Juve won’t be daunted by a giant, but certainly wouldn’t spurn an easier matchup by any means.
So what are the most favorable matchups for the Old Lady of Italian football? Which teams might Massimiliano Allegri prefer to see in later rounds? Here, we rank Juve’s seven prospective opponents, from least desirable to most desirable.
7. BAYERN MUNICH
It’s still difficult to think about the last seconds of normal time during the second leg of last year’s round of 16 tie with Bayern Munich. Juventus came so agonizingly close to knocking out one of the favorites at the first hurdle. If only Patrice Evra had chosen to blast the ball out of the defensive third instead of trying to dribble, maybe there wouldn’t have been time for Thomas Muller to send the game to extra time. The chance for revenge would certainly be sweet.
But Bayern are still Bayern. Given their penchant for stockpiling players, their roster is ridiculously deep and insanely talented. They’re also led by one of the most successful Champions League coaches of any era, Carlo Ancelotti.
The Bavarians have had some issues this year with consistency. They’ve looked sluggish and sometimes needed late-game heroics to get points off teams that they would normally have put away by halftime. And while their lead in the Bundesliga is currently 10 points, it’s a relatively recent development. There’s no one area of the team that can be considered a weakness, but a general malaise sometimes comes over them that takes them a while to shake.
This Bayern isn’t the buzzsaw that beat Juventus in the 2011-12 quarterfinals on their way to the title, but there is an argument to be made that they aren’t playing as well as a team as they were under Pep Guardiola a season ago, although they do seem to be rounding into form over the last month. They’re not unbeatable — the 10-2 aggregate spanking they handed Arsenal in the Round of 16 was more a product of Arsenal being that bad than Bayern being that good — but they’re certainly not the faces you’d like to see this far out in the tournament.
6. ATLETICO MADRID
Most people probably expected Barcelona to be in this slot after their epic comeback from a 4-0 first leg loss to beat Paris Saint-Germain in the final seconds of the second leg. We’ll get into why they’re not here in a moment. Instead, let’s talk about why Atleti are here.
Simply put, Atletico’s style is a nightmare matchup. Their backline, led by Diego Godin, is solid, and their manic energy, imparted to them by coach Diego Simeone, is tough to match for 180 minutes. They also boast an all-world goalscorer in Antoine Griezmann, a dynamic young midfielder in Saul Niguez, and an underrated goalkeeper in Jan Oblak, who may have turned in the highlight of the round on Wednesday with this triple save.
It’s more difficult with Atleti than almost any other team in the draw to pinpoint a weakness. Juve would have to match them in intensity for the entirety of both legs, an extremely difficult task. It’s doable, but certainly not something one would be searching for.
Here they are!
The blaugrana managed a bit of Champions League history in dumping Paris Saint-Germain from the tournament, and the Camp Nou is always one of the most intimidating places to play in football, but this team has been wobbling all year.
It’s never really looked like the team has been 100 percent behind Luis Enrique this season, and now the coach is on his way out. Lionel Messi is still the game’s greatest player, but he’s also had some of the worst games of his career this year. The midfield has looked disjointed, and Andres Iniesta is starting to show his age.
Don’t get me wrong, Barca are a dangerous team in all circumstances, especially when Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are on the field. But it’s worth wondering if their emotional capitol was spent last week against PSG. This past weekend they slumped to a 2-1 loss to Deportivo La Coruna, who entered the game butting up against the relegation zone.
It’s possible that they’ve burned themselves out — but equally possible that a week or two off will see them bounce back with renewed vigor. They may be a revenge-minded Leonardo Bonucci’s preferred opponent, but getting redress for the 2015 final could also wait a while if need be.
4. REAL MADRID
The defending champions are this low down the list for one big reason — their defense.
At least by the standards of a club like Real, the back line has been a sieve this season. Napoli nearly had the measure of them in the second leg of the Round of 16 — who knows what would have happened had Dries Mertens hit the net instead of the post at the end of the first half?
Zinedine Zidane had his Galacticos going at a record clip early this season, extending their record Spanish winning streak to 40 games, but some unneeded tactical tinkering has really had an adverse effect on the team. And then that defense...
This is the first team in the bunch that Juve could end up favored over in a quarterfinal tie. They’ve bottled them up before, and the only real difference between this Real and the one the bianconeri dumped in the semifinals two years ago is the manager. All the main pieces in the lineup are pretty much the same apart from Keylor Navas, who has been struggling lately in goal.
If Juve can be clinical in front of goal they could easily build a lead against this Real team and force them to chase the tie. And if there’s any team that will remember to mark Sergio Ramos on set pieces it’s Juve...right?
This is a very different Monaco team than the one that Juve eliminated in the quarterfinals two years ago.
That Monaco entered the quarterfinals having scored only seven goals over eight games the entire tournament — three of them in one night against Arsenal in the Round of 16. Their biggest goalscoring threat? Dimitar Berbatov.
This team is very different. A rejuvenated Radamel Falcao leads the line, and 18-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappe — who has been described as the next Thierry Henry — is absolutely on fire, having scored nine times since the beginning of February.
This attack is absolutely stacked. What they don’t have is the defense they had two years ago. They’re not terrible, but they’re not elite, either. The most recognizable name on the backline is Kamil Glik, who arrived at Monaco this summer after spending five years at Torino — and who in the 2012-13 season became the only man to be sent off in both legs of the Derby della Mole in one season.
Monaco can be explosive, but if they get drawn against Juve they will be dealing with a defense several steps above the Manchester City unit they just ripped apart to the tune of eight goals over two legs.
If they can turn the tie into a shootout, they would be very dangerous. Juve would have to avoid that at all costs, but has more than enough quality to dispatch the principality side if they keep the score sane.
2. BORUSSIA DORTMUND
Borussia Dortmund are one of the most maddeningly inconsistent teams in Europe right now. They’re as likely to post a 4-0 win like they did last week in the second leg of the Round of 16 against Benfica as they are to fall to rock-bottom Darmstadt 2-1, as they did on Feb. 11.
There are a lot of things that make this team good. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored 22 times in the Bundesliga and seven more in the Champions League. American starlet Christian Pulisic is making himself more and more indispensable in the attacking midfield role. When they’re clicking and clinical, they can put you in the rear view mirror in a hurry.
Tactically, coach Thomas Tuchel is highly unpredictable, which is a blessing and a curse. It can be hard for a coach to come up with a game plan to match him, but the constant changes have made it hard for the team to forge an identity. He also rotates the squad at an incredibly high rate — only five players have played more than 20 games in the Bundesliga and only two played in all eight of the team’s Champions League games — and that includes goalkeepers.
Such constant upheaval makes it little wonder that the team can fall flat on occasion. It doesn’t help that they have yet to adequately replace center back Mats Hummels, who left for Bayern Munich over the summer. They’ve also lost Mario Goetze for the year due to a metabolic issue, and neither Marco Reus nor Andre Schurrle have had typical seasons up front.
Juve eased past BVB two years ago in the Round of 16. Had Giorgio Chiellini not slipped and fallen in front of Reus in the first leg, they likely would have shut the Germans out over two legs. This team is better than that one on paper, but they don’t often add up to the sum of their parts.
1. LEICESTER CITY
Yes, Gianluigi Buffon wants to avoid the Foxes, at least if you take his post-match press conference on Tuesday at face value. But there’s no question that, on paper, the reigning English champions (still feels weird saying that) are the best matchup of the draw.
When Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are on form, they can be potent weapons. The problem is they have rarely been on form this year, much less at the same time. The team play and sacrifice that propelled Leicester to their unlikely run a year ago was gone for much of the season, and it cost Claudio Ranieri his job. Interim manager Craig Shakespeare has gotten some of that back — that or Ranieri’s firing simply jolted the players out of their post-title haze — and won three on the bounce, but they’re about to face an entirely different animal.
The hat has been kind to Leicester so far, giving them the easiest group in the tournament and then pitting them against Sevilla in the Round of 16. The Andalusians are talented but lack maturity, and couldn’t finish out a tie they really should have won. They won penalties in each leg, but were kept out by Kasper Schmeichel, whose performance throughout the entire tie was one of the biggest reasons Leicester was able to advance.
The Foxes are playing with house money right now, but any slip-ups in the Premier League could mean avoiding relegation begins to take priority over Europe, and on paper Juventus are simply better. This would easily be the friendliest draw the bianconeri could achieve.