The UEFA Champions League Round of 16 is over. Sevilla managed to eliminate Manchester United, a salve to their disappointing capitulation to Leicester City at that stage a year ago, but there weren’t many other surprises in the first round of the knockout phase.
Juventus managed to scrape their way into their fourth quarterfinal in the last six years. They were outplayed by Tottenham Hotspur for 160 minutes, but those 20 minutes they had to themselves were decisive, and after they arrive in the last eight riding the momentum of their come-from-behind win at Wembley Stadium and their sweep into first place in Serie A. Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, and Douglas Costa are all hot, forming an attack that no one wants to see coming at them, while their always-stout defense is an imposing obstacle for any team.
There are no more restrictions on who can play who. Whoever gets pulled out of the hat is up next. Juventus have the quality to beat any of the other seven teams in that hat, but some matchups are obviously more preferable than others.
What’s the best case scenario for Friday’s draw?
What teams would you rather punt to later in the competition?
BWRAO takes a look at Juve’s seven possible opponents and ranks them from least desirable draw to most desirable.
No one wants to play Barca right now. Since losing the Supercopa de Espana to Real Madrid in August, they have lost one match since.
You read that right. One match.
The Blaugrana are unbeaten in La Liga this season and have an eight point lead over Atletico Madrid. Their one loss came in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal against local rival Espanyol — and they turned that 1-0 loss around in the second leg to go through 2-1 on aggregate.
This Barcelona side isn’t the team of old. Ernesto Valverde is not a tiki-taka acolyte. The Catalans won’t hold 75 percent of possession and have done a lot more counterattacking this season. What makes that different from Luis Enrique’s team from last year — apart from the fact that they’re winning — is that these teams will pass through teams as they counter, whereas Enrique’s teams started becoming reliant on long balls.
If it’s at all possible, these counterattacks have actually made Lionel Messi even more dangerous. He’s scored 24 times in La Liga this year and six more in the Champions League, including three over the two legs of their Round of 16 tie against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea.
If Barca does have a weakness it’s that, at least in Champions League play, they might be too reliant on Messi’s greatness — only four other players have scored in Europe, and he’s the only one to have scored more than once. Barca were the beneficiaries of a whopping three own goals in the group stage which helped augment their record. Even in La Liga Messi and fellow forward Luis Suarez have scored 44 of their 72 goals. The third man on the list is a midfielder, Paulinho, with eight.
If Juve and Barca end up destined for a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal, they’ll have to group defend and force someone other than Messi to step up and beat them. They’ve had time this year to gather some intelligence on how Valverde’s men operate — they played in a friendly over the summer and were matched up in the group stage. Those two meetings ended in a 3-0 home win for Barca and a goalless draw at Allianz Stadium, and the latter saw Valverde rotate his lineup, essentially punting the game to rest key players.
It’s worth keeping an eye on Sergio Busquets, who limped off the field early in the second half of Wednesday’s game. His absence in the first leg of last year’s quarterfinal might have been the critical factor in the tie, and the dropoff between him and the depth behind him is distinct. If he misses time, it would make it easier for any team playing them.
Juve won’t go into a tie with Barca with any fear, but it will be an incredibly tough task to knock them out at this stage two years running.
No matter how badly Real have struggled this year, there’s something about the Champions League knockout rounds that just doesn’t make you want to touch them.
It’s when Cristiano Ronaldo hulks up. Any mistake made within 10 yards of him is immediately punished. He’s scored 18 times in 22 games in La Liga this year, but 12 in eight in Europe. He downed Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16 with three goals over the two legs, and on form alone is the most dangerous man in this tournament.
Much like their archrivals, however, Real run the real risk of an overreliance on their star. Zinedine Zidane has a more diverse cast of goalscorers than Valverde does, but Karim Benzema is the only other man to have scored more than once in UEFA competition, and no one other than Ronaldo has hit double digits in La Liga.
If Juve were to play Real again, they’ll need to contain not only Ronaldo but Marcelo. Last year’s final was billed in part as a matchup between him and compatriot Dani Alves on the Juve side, but it ended up being a one-sided affair. Marcelo dominated Alves and Andrea Barzagli for long stretches of the game and caused havoc on the left side. This year Barzagli is (hopefully) less likely to be matched up on him alone, and the right backs that he would potentially come up against, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Mattia De Sciglio, won’t give in to the temptation to relinquish their defensive duties and freelance the way Alves did during the final.
They’ll also have to match up in the midfield. Casemiro was huge in a holding role in Cardiff — perhaps the energy of Blaise Matuidi could cause a bit more disruption for the Brazilian and his mates, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
Playing Real Madrid in the Champions League is just a different animal. Juve certainly has the ability to beat them over two legs — the 2014-15 team that did just that in the semifinals did not have the same type of quality this one does — but it’s best to stay away from them as long as possible.
It was difficult to choose between Bayern and Real in these two spots, but if I had to chose I’d take the Bavarians over a trip to Castille.
That’s not to say this would be anywhere close to easy. Bayern hasn’t lost in an 18 game stretch in all competitions dating back to their last game of November.
That’s a far cry from the struggling team we saw before Sept. 28, when Carlo Ancelotti, who had lost the locker room, was sacked in favor of former coach Jupp Heynckes. It was Heynckes who led Bayern to their last European title in the 2012-13 season. Juve were matched up with that team in the quarterfinals and lost each leg 2-0 — the home leg being the only home loss Juve has ever suffered in European competition.
That Juve team was vastly inferior to this one, especially up front. A better comparison comes the round of 16 two years ago, when Guardiola led Bayern to a 6-4 aggregate win after extra time in the second leg. Juve were 30 seconds away from winning that tie before a mistake by Patrice Evra forced the extra period — and it needs to be said that Massmiliano Allegri made big tactical mistakes in both legs as well.
But that Juve team played pretty much on par with that Bayern team, and the personnel in Munich really hasn’t turned over that much. There’s a little more of guys like Kingsley Coman and a little less of guys like Franck Ribery, and Joshua Kimmich is not the timid mouse he was two seasons ago, but the roster is surprisingly similar. One big change is in goal, where one of the world’s best, Manuel Neuer is nursing a long-term injury, forcing Sven Ulreich into a starting role. Not having Neuer — probably the best keeper in the world when healthy — and his unique set of skills will be a major advantage to Juve.
Bayern obliterated Besiktas 8-1 on aggregate in the Round of 16, but Besiktas were the team everyone in the runner-up pot wanted to play when the draw was made in December, and on top of that they sold their top scorer to Everton in January. The next round will be a much more even test for Heynckes and his men, and Juve can match up with them in a lot of areas.
This would be one of those ties that will come down to who the ball bounces for.
Hey, look, that Guardiola guy.
This Manchester City team is a lot different than the Manuel Pellegrini-led team that Juve beat home and away in the group stage two seasons ago. After a year of growing pains, Pep has the team humming the way he likes it. The Citizens are running away with the English Premier League and have had it pretty easy in every game they made an effort with in the Champions League.
City’s strength is obvious: a titanic attack led by Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva...the list of quality attacking players on this team is high.
Where they’re less certain — and where a team like Juve can hurt them — is in defense. Nicolas Otamendi can be beaten by above-average forwards, John Stones is still to prove that he was worth the transfer saga he put Everton through, and Vincent Kompany is never healthy for more than six weeks at a time.
The defense is City’s biggest vulnerability for another reason. Over the course of the season, the teams that have had the most success against them have sent wave after wave of pressure at their back line. That was best exemplified by Liverpool, whose 4-3 win over Guardiola’s men at Anfield — and that game was not nearly as close as the score makes it look — was keyed by focusing heavy pressure on the Man City defense, specifically the center-backs, and even more specifically Stones.
Big pressure on defenders? Am I crazy or does that sound like a job for Mario Mandzukic?
They had the sheer quality to overwhelm Round of 16 opponent Basel, but now that they’re dancing with the big boys they’re going to be playing an entirely different game. If Juve can replicate the blueprint that Liverpool and a few other English teams have laid down, they could mug City and put the tie out of reach before they know what hit them. With precise tactics, this tie could get easy — but if the execution isn’t perfect Juve will have to suffer for a result.
Unless the draw gives us two extra Classicos, a Juve/Liverpool tie will be the most emotionally charged in the entire tournament this season.
Juventini hate Liverpool. This is understandable, considering the fact that violent Liverpool fans caused the death of 39 Juve supporters by triggering a stampede and human crush at the Heysel Stadium in Brussles in 1985. The Reds have tried to make amends over the years — there is a memorial plaque to the dead at Anfield, and when the teams were drawn together in the 2005 quarterfinal Liverpool fans extended an olive branch by spelling out the word “amicazia” in a fan choreography. Some fans accepted the gesture, but many refused it, and many more consider the Hillsborough disaster four years later—which saw 96 Liverpool fans die in a similar incident—what amounts to karma.
Playing and beating Liverpool would be a deeply satisfying thing. That 2005 quarterfinal is the only time the two teams have played each other since the Heysel disaster, and Liverpool won that tie 2-1 on aggregate. It’d feel really nice to take them out.
Apart from the off-field reasons, there is one big reason to want to face Liverpool: their defense is awful.
The list of center backs on this team reads like a mid-table side: Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren, and Ragnar Klavan. None of them would be considered starters on any of the teams we’ve already covered. If they’re on form, Higuain and Dybala would have a field day. Costa would have loads of fun against Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right side. Coach Jurgen Klopp has also had a revolving door in goal, with Simone Mignolet and Loris Karius shifting on a whim, although Karius has taken charge of every Champions League games.
Liverpool’s attacking trident of Saido Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah is incredibly effective, but Juve has held down better over two legs, and their familiarity with Salah from his days with Fiorentina and Roma will be an asset. Unfortunately for Liverpool, the speed demon from Egypt hasn’t added a ton to his game since arriving in England.
This is the first tie where Juve would likely be a favorite. The difference will come down to the defenses, and if Juve can exploit Liverpool’s weakness in that area. If they can, Juve could have an easy time.
For the first time in 11 years there are two Italian teams in the quarterfinals. Roma have done incredibly well to get this point, but they’re in uncharted waters here.
Juve have proven over the last six-and-a-half years that they’re one step — or more — ahead of Roma. The Giallorossi have lost all seven of their trips to the J Stadium since it opened. They’ve done better at the Olimpico since the advent of the Conte/Allegri era, winning three times and drawing twice while losing just once.
Roma would certainly be motivated in a tie against Juve, but if you think the pressure of a scudetto race is intense, they have no idea what awaits them in the late rounds of the Champions League. Daniele De Rossi’s World Cup experience is the only thing that comes remotely close. Juve, on the other hand, are in familiar territory — and would be playing against very familiar opposition.
While Roma could certainly pull a surprise, but Juve would be comfortable favorites if they were drawn with them.
Sevilla get top spot on the list mainly because the emotional element of an intra-Italian clash is absent. On a technical level Sevilla and Roma are very close, and Juve is comfortably better than them on paper.
That’s not to say they don’t have fangs. A pair of former Serie A opponents, Luis Muriel and Franco Vazquez, help trigger the attack, while Wissam Ben Yedder has scored eight times in seven games. He scored twice on Tuesday to propel the Spaniards past Manchester United, but he’s the only Sevilla player to score more than once in Europe this season. Their defense is led by former Palermo and Roma center-back Simon Kjaer and left-back Sergio Escudero—not schleps, but certainly not elites.
Sevilla will have to do some shuffling in midfield, as they will lose Ever Banega to yellow card accumulation, but Steven N’Zonzi is a tough customer in the middle of the park and can help elevate anyone who plays next to him.
Sevilla’s secret weapon is Sergio Rico. The goalkeeper is criminally underrated, and he’s cost Juve points in several group stage games over the years. If Juve gets Sevilla, the’ll have to hope that Rico doesn’t get those superpowers again. If he does, his team will have a puncher’s chance. But if Juventus plays the way Juventus can play, Sevilla won’t be able to resist them.