Champions League quarterfinals: Previewing Atletico Madrid-Real Madrid, Juventus-Monaco, Barcelona-PSG, Bayern Munich-Porto
The UEFA Champions League quarterfinals kick off this week, with the eagerly anticipated matchups including a repeat of last year's final and a clash of the leaders in Spain and France who have grown quite familiar with one another. The last two seasons have produced surprise finalists: will this year's quarterfinals allow that trend to keep going?
Here is what to look out for in this week's first legs:
Atletico Madrid vs. Real Madrid; April 14, 2:45 p.m.
This derby, a repeat of last year's final, is impossible to call: the reigning European champion Real Madrid has won its last three games by an aggregate score of 13 goals, while Atletico is unbeaten in its last six against this opponent, and won the last encounter 4-0. That was back in February, when Carlo Ancelotti teams traditionally have a dip before peaking in April and May. Madrid has been boosted by the returns of Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos and James, all of whom missed the Atletico drubbing.
Atletico has also recovered from a mini-wobble of four winless games but, until Saturday's 2-2 draw with Malaga, had gone six games without conceding a goal. That's why Slovenian goalkeeper Jon Oblak will keep his place despite Moya's return to fitness. The hero of the season so far, though, has been Antoine Griezmann, scorer of 18 goals so far, whose development as a second striker has been a typical Diego Simeone success story.
Griezmann will be a key player for France at next summer's Euros but this week could be decisive in the Spanish capital.
These teams have played each other 11 times in the last 17 months, and there are few secrets between them now. As Enrique Ortego wrote in AS: "The results will probably be decided on by the individual skills of the players themselves. Their inspiration, their intensity, their talent, their ability to adapt to the demands of their manager and their ability to keep going even when their legs are crying out to stop, especially with the tired legs that many have at this point in the year."
Juventus vs. Monaco; April 14, 2:45 p.m.
Monaco's last Ligue 1 match may have ended in a comfortable 3-0 win at Caen to keep it in contention for a top-three spot, but there was one concern after the game: captain Jeremy Toulalan limped off with a hamstring injury and is a doubt for the first leg in Turin.
"He is important for us, but he didn't play when we won at Arsenal and we have other solutions in our squad," coach Leonardo Jardim said.
How the Portuguese boss chooses to approach the Juventus tie will be intriguing: so far Monaco has the best defense in this competition, with four goals conceded in eight goals.
Juventus will look much different from the side that lost 1-0 at rock-bottom crisis club Parma on Saturday: it rested Serie A top scorer Carlos Tevez, Andrea Barzagli and Gigi Buffon, while Andrea Pirlo should be on the bench after six weeks out. Coach Maximilliano Allegri has rotated his strikers this season, with Fernando Llorente now behind Alvaro Morata in the pecking order.
"Playing with Tevez in attack, it's like studying at football university for a year," Morata told Tuttosport this week. "You're learning something every day. The really incredible thing about Tevez is that he doesn't need to run around so much, or play with such determination and effort, and he doesn't even need to defend as much as he does, but he does it all anyway! He's a superstar who plays with the attitude of a debutant."
Morata compared Juventus to last season's Atletico Madrid, and, with an 11-point lead in Serie A and a place in the Coppa Italia final, the club's treble dream is still on for now.
Porto vs. Bayern Munich; April 15, 2:45 p.m.
Bayern Munich's treatment room is almost as full as its trophy cabinet, with Arjen Robben, David Alaba, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribery the latest to be ruled out through injury. That the first two have been among Bayern's most important players this season gives Pep Guardiola another headache as the season enters its most crucial phase.
The Spanish coach, according to Marti Perarnau, who was allowed behind-the-scenes access in Guardiola's first season at Bayern for his book Pep Confidential, is now planning new tactics on a game-by-game basis.
His desire to build the team around Philipp Lahm and Thiago Alcantara is hamstrung by the fact neither is yet fully fit (they will be ready to start matches by the second leg).
It may be that containing Porto at home and waiting for the best from Lahm and Thiago next week could be his plan. That might be easier said than done as Porto, coached by Guardiola's ex-Barcelona teammate Julen Lopetegui, has won eight of its last nine league games, conceding one goal in the process. Porto is also the only unbeaten side in this season's Champions League.
"I believe in a team identity that takes the initiative, keeps the ball in the opposing half for as long as possible and attack teams opponents with intensity," Lopetegui told Marca last week.
Cristian Tello, the in-form winger who played under Guardiola at Barcelona, misses out with a hamstring tear. Instead look out for Ricardo Quaresma and Yacine Brahimi on the flanks; Brahimi's dribbling lit up the group stage, while Quaresma is in the best form of his seven-year Porto career. Lopetegui deserves credit for that, with experts noting that his work ethic and equilibrium when he is subbed off have never been seen before.
"Tello is fast and Bahimi is a dribbler, but Quaresma combines the two," his former coach Carlos Azenha told Maisfutebol. "He makes life easier for the forward."
PSG vs. Barcelona; April 15, 2:45 p.m.
Will familiarity breed contempt in what cynics are calling "the Qatar derby" (due to the sponsor clout for both clubs)? These sides met twice in the group stage and at this stage two seasons ago, when only the away goals tiebreaker saw Barcelona go through.
This time around, PSG has four big absences: Marco Verratti and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are suspended (Zlatan, two-goal hero in PSG's League Cup win, has also been banned for four Ligue 1 games for criticizing officials) while Thiago Motta and David Luiz are missing with injuries picked up in the league win over Marseille. The latter two could be more damaging: Motta was outstanding in the 10-man win over Chelsea in the last round, while Luiz has given PSG a fearless factor.
"He's not afraid of anyone or anything," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said of beIN Sports. "When he is 100% concentrated you can see how good he can be; he's a leader with charisma and you can see why they wanted to bring him in."
The aerial problem that he caused Chelsea in the last round will also be missed, though this season Barcelona has tightened up its historical deficiency at the back. Assistant coach Juan Carlos Unzue has taken much of the credit for this, and for Barcelona's increased success from set pieces (13 so far this season). It could be a Frenchman, Jeremy Mathieu, who troubles PSG's back line with his recent scoring habit: he has scored headers in the win over Real Madrid and the winner over Celta Vigo.