By Brian Beard | 20th MAR 2021
Wow, what a line up of the last eight clubs in the Champions` League, any one of which is capable of winning the trophy. That is the measure of the quarter finals and who ever ends up lifting the trophy will have done it the hard way and fully deserved it.
Manchester City v Borussia Dortmund
As well as the sub-plot that sees `wunderkid` Erling Haaland, an alleged transfer target for City, I am looking forward to the intriguing battle between born-again John Stones and the Norwegian striker.
Pace, power and the most unerring eye for goal I have seen since the young Robbie Fowler versus John Stones, the best centre half in the Premier League, on his day, and he`s had more than a few so far this season.
Stones can’t match Haaland for pace but he has got the nous to nullify that with his exceptional reading of the game. And in the physical stakes it is a more even match-up, just.
But this tie is about much more than one particular duel. City have been favourites for this trophy all season, and have justified that with their stunning form in the Premier League this season. Meanwhile Dortmund continue to vie with RB Leipzig as heirs-apparent to Bayern Munich`s domestic dominance in Germany.
Looking at this tie as one team against another I have to go for City.
FC Porto v Chelsea
This is going to be a bit special. Most onlookers see Porto as the team that surprisingly won the 2004 UCL under Mourinho but they have been very impressive in this season`s competition. Pepe is the `Marmite Man` galvanising their defence despite the advancing years. At the other end of the team one only has to look at the way Taremi blew Juventus away to understand they have a vital cutting edge to go with their compact organisation and team ethic.
On the other hand Chelsea have come of age. They have been flying under Tuchel and the new coach may prove every bit as important to Chelsea as Klopp did at Liverpool and he`s not done too bad has he.
This is a tough one to call and will be a very tight affair but I think if push comes to shove I take Chelsea to edge it, perhaps by a single aggregate goal.
Chelsea to progress
Bayern Munich v Paris Saint-Germain
Don`t the media love it when the teams that contested the last final meet again with words like revenge making the headlines, boringly. A more pragmatic perspective for this tie is how much further along their learning curve are the French club. Currently NOT running away with League 1, they trail surprise leaders Lille by three points, they are never the less improving as a unit under Pochettino while Bayern are leading the usual Bundesliga procession.
Centre stage will be two world class strikers, at opposite ends of the age/experience scale. Kylian Mbappe is flying and has added maturity to his natural ability as he shoulders the mantle that seems to have proven too heavy a burden for Neymar. For Bayern the mere mention of Robert Lewandowski frightens the life out of opposing teams as the Pole tears up scoring records every week, defying age in the process.
I think the holders will edge this one but will obviously need to be most wary of Mbappe who showed against Barca just how effective he can be.
Bayern to progress.
Real Madrid v Liverpool
Two teams struggling domestically but Liverpool have been far more impressive in the UCL than Real. It`s almost as if Klopp`s team has decided, inwardly, that the UCL trophy has their name written on it this season.
Real are not the force they were, even most recently, and their reliance on Benzema, for goals as well as the well-publicised internal wranglings between Sergio Ramos and the Real hierarchy do not auger well for stability.
Taking a `step-back` kind of perspective the main difference between the two sides, and the one which will be pivotal, is this. Neither defence can defend, well enough, but not only do Liverpool have the `Holy Trinity` of Mane, Salah and Firmino, who can turn any scoreline deficit around, they have recently welcomed back Jota who picked up from whence he left off, before injury.
Plus Liverpool have Neco Williams and Curtis Jones who have been stepping up to the mark this season and Thiago who not only looks like Eden Hazard but has started to play like the Belgian, with a steely edge and looks likely to be the fulcrum around which Klopp will rebuild the team for the immediate future.
Oh, nearly forgot. I think Mo Salah will have a pretty special reason for besting Senor Ramos in this tie. Watch this space.
Liverpool to go through.
Granada v Manchester United
The Spanish club has been the surprise package of the UCL this season and certainly made the football world sit up and take notice with their 3-2 defeat of Napoli but Manchester United seem to have turned a corner.
Ok, so they are not the force they used to be, at home, but, is any team these Covid-19 days? However, their stunning away record is what makes them favourites for not only this tie but the trophy in Gdansk.
Granada have been punching above their weight in Europe and the eighth place they currently occupy in La Liga is perhaps a more accurate indicative of their level.
Only two sides in top flight domestic history boasted a longer unbeaten away run, than United, 21 league matches without defeat on the road. Only Nottingham Forest and Liverpool had a better run to their name and of course United improved that sequence by winning at Manchester City and Milan.
The big question mark hanging over United is how many of their stellar players turn up on any given occasion. Other questions still centre on their erratic defence though to be fair Lindeloff is starting to win me over, neat and nasty but oh so effective.
But going forward, they can be such a force; down the left, down the right and down the middle, United can be the most effective team in Europe when the bulk of their players are in synch. I think they will be too much for Granada and it will be `Granada`s` second most famous export, after `Coronation Street`, that will prevail.
United to go through
Arsenal v Slavia Paraha
Oh if only Slavia had not blotted their copybook against Rangers the football world would be talking about their exploits on the field that stunned Leicester City. But then they added accusations of racial prejudice to their vanquishing of Rangers and football became secondary.
Whatever happens between now and the ties actually taking place, presuming Praha are still in the competition next month, Arsenal will go into the game being liked by most neutrals. Allied to that will be the way, however nervously, they weathered the 1-0 defeat by Olympiacos at the Emirates to progress 3-2 on aggregate. Their performance in the first leg gave the Gunners a platform on which they managed a difficult game at home to get through. It was also interesting that on the night, despite losing to the Greek club, Arsenal created a bucket load of goal chances. Ordinarily that would be highlighted as a negative but, Arteta especially will point out he would be more worried if they were not creating chances.
If Arsenal can match Slavia`s football and their work ethic I see the Gunners going through. If not there will be a Czech team in the last four.
Ajax v AS Roma
This is my tie of the round. Each of these two European giants is capable of lifting the trophy and I think they are so evenly matched.
Ajax are romping away with the Eredivise with their youthful, energetic football guided by the vastly underrated skipper Dusan Tadic. He is everything to his young charges, mentor, leader, inspiration, goal scorer and goal maker. Another player defying time but at still just 32 he has enough time left in him, and his legs, to drive Ajax to yet more silverware.
Roma may be considered second favourites for the Europa League but they are showing in Serie A, where they lie 6th, 15 points behind leaders Inter, that they are struggling to make Europe next season so what better incentive to win the Europa League than next season`s UCL. Henrikh Mkhitarian is back to the kind of form that earned him a move to Manchester United back in 2017 but needs more support form his team mates if Roma are to prevail against Ajax.
I take Ajax to progress.
Dinamo Zagreb v Villarreal
It wasn`t just the shock win over Tottenham, in the second leg, 3-0, that blew away Spurs` 2-0 first leg win, that made football sit up and take notice of Zagreb. It was the manner of that second leg annihilation that thrust Zagreb into the forefront as potential winners of this competition.
The hat-trick by star man Mislav Orsic also highlighted what a threat he is on front of goal, whatever the opposition. The Croatian club are neck and neck in their domestic league with surprise package Osijeck but Zagreb are the highest scorers in that league with 62 goals, 13 more than the current leaders.
Villarreal are struggling in La Liga, seventh, and unless they win the Europa League are unlikely to need their passports next season. The Spanish club have certainly served up their best results this campaign but they will need to maintain that higher level of performance against Zagreb if they are to progress. I think the Croatian team will be too strong for Villarreal.
Zagreb for the last four.
By Brian Beard, Associate Historian to the Football Association