The Champions League first knockout round is complete, with notable moments seeing Real Madrid produce a stirring comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid stunning Manchester United and Manchester City and Bayern Munich scoring goals galore.
We asked Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens and Alex Kirkland for their views on some big questions.
What caught your attention from the second legs of the round of 16?
Ogden: Inter Milan’s 1-0 win at Liverpool in the second leg of their tie wasn’t enough to avoid elimination, but Simone Inzaghi’s team were impressive for an hour in the first leg at San Siro and unfortunate not to win by more at Anfield.
No Italian team has won the Champions League since Jose Mourinho’s Inter in 2010, but perhaps there are now some signs of a Serie A resurgence on the back of Italy’s Euro 2020 success. If Inter can hold onto Inzaghi and replace some of the team’s older players, they will only get better. Inter and Juventus both reached the round of 16 and, although Juve were routed by Villarreal, Inter showed enough to suggest that Italian clubs can start to compete regularly again.
Laurens: I absolutely loved all the away wins we saw in the second legs. Even if Inter didn’t go through, they inflicted a first home defeat of the season on Liverpool, which is an achievement in itself. Atletico went to Old Trafford and delivered the archetypal Diego Simeone performance, fully helped by how poor Manchester United were.
For Benfica, the task was even harder as Ajax had been in amazing form at home. And against all the odds, when everybody, including myself, predicted them to be out, they defended superbly and took, pretty much, the only chance they had.
But maybe the most impressive away win was Villarreal in Turin. This Juventus team is not the Juve of old and their manager, Max Allegri, is too old-school, but Unai Emery and his Villarreal players were fantastic. They rode their luck in the first half and hit Juve hard with three goals in the final 12 minutes. Huge credit to them.
Kirkland: In a decade of going to games at the Bernabeu I’ve never heard the crowd as raucous as during Real Madrid’s second-half turnaround against Paris Saint-Germain. Madrid’s reputation for European comebacks is, to a certain extent, self-mythologising — they haven’t done it that often — but this was the real deal and it was a privilege to be there.
Villarreal’s 3-0 win at Juventus was almost as remarkable. The Yellow Submarine, the ultimate well-run small-town club, have a proud record in Europe — 2006 Champions League semifinalists, Europa League winners last year — but this smart, clinical display to eliminate the would-be Super League founders ranked among their very best European nights.
– When is the Champions League quarterfinal and semifinal draw?
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
England and Spain each have three clubs left; pick your favourite from each country to win it all
Laurens: Chelsea are a fantastic cup team since the arrival of Thomas Tuchel. With everything happening to the club right now off the field, their progress could galvanise this squad even more. Karim Benzema is the best player in the world right now, along with Kylian Mbappe, and he can take Real Madrid all the way too.
Kirkland: I can see Manchester City going one step further than last year and finally winning their first Champions League, or Real Madrid winning their 14th.
Ogden: Liverpool play with a freedom and belief in the Champions League that Man City are still searching for, so I’d back Jurgen Klopp’s team every time ahead of Pep Guardiola’s side. And same goes for Real Madrid in Spain — nobody does the Champions League quite like they do.
Do you miss the away goals rule?
Kirkland: More than miss it, I’ve had to keep reminding myself it’s no longer a factor. Away goals were so dominant in the discourse for so many years that it will take a little longer to break the habit. We haven’t seen a significant impact yet. Real Madrid’s position when Mbappe scored at the Bernabeu to put PSG 2-0 up on aggregate felt hopeless, regardless. There were fears that the rule’s abolition would lead more games to go to extra time or be decided on penalties — so far that hasn’t been the case.
Ogden: Yes, the knockout ties have lacked an element of jeopardy without away goals. Rather than being an outdated concept, the rule posed a tactical challenge to teams and coaches in terms of whether they were bold enough to push for a goal on the road, at the risk of leaving gaps in defence.
Moreover, deciding games by away goals at least reflected something that happened during the course of the game. Surely it is better for it to be decided by a goal in open play than via a penalty shootout? Both teams have the opportunity to score an away goal, so those on the wrong end only have themselves to blame.
Laurens: Absolutely not. It was a pointless and unfair rule. I can guarantee that United and Juventus, for example, would have played for a 0-0 draw at home in the second legs to go through. I’m sorry, but a team playing for a draw twice over two legs should not be able to qualify without going to a penalty shootout. Instead, we had some fascinating second legs where everybody had to attack and had to score. That’s what football is about. As for the away goals rule posing a tactical challenge, that’s ridiculous. All it used to do was make teams be more calculating and cautious.
Ale Moreno was confused by Manchester United’s substitutions in their Champions League loss to Atletico Madrid.
What is the quarterfinal match-up you want to see and why?
Ogden: Man City vs. Liverpool. Perhaps I am being greedy, but if the teams also reach the FA Cup semifinals, there is the prospect of four meetings in 12 days. They are already due to play a potential Premier League title decider at the Etihad Stadium on April 10, which is sandwiched between the first and second legs of the Champions League quarterfinals.
Bayern Munich may argue otherwise, but City and Liverpool are the best two teams in Europe. Pep Guardiola’s side are chasing a treble, while Jurgen Klopp’s men can still achieve a quadruple. Given that, let’s see them get up close and personal as often as possible to decide who is really No. 1.
Laurens: I want a full Anglo-Spanish battle in the quarterfinals! I want all three of each country to face each other. Manchester City vs. Real Madrid with Pep Guardiola vs. Carlo Ancelotti, Kevin De Bruyne vs. Karim the Dream. Liverpool vs. Atletico Madrid would give the Reds a shot at revenge, two years after Marcos Llorente’s goals at Anfield knocked them out. And finally, Chelsea vs. Villarreal would be Thomas Tuchel vs. Unai Emery, with both coaches showing former employers PSG what they are missing.
Spain vs. England: Felipe VI vs. Elizabeth II, tapas vs. Sunday roast, bullfighting vs. darts! This would be amazing. Spanish teams usually do well in England. However, this time, it would be a tough ask. I predict England 3-0 Spain.
Kirkland: Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid. It’s been five years since the Madrid teams last met in Europe — before that, a four-year run saw Atletico’s European dreams cruelly dashed by their local rivals season after season, beaten in the 2014 and 2016 finals and eliminated in the 2015 quarterfinals and 2017 semifinals — so it’s high time Simeone’s team were given another opportunity for revenge. Chances are, Real Madrid would only break their hearts again, though.