Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and PSG all have their eyes on European domination, but they're all already out of the Champions League before the quarterfinal stage. So what will come of the three powers?
The Champions League quarterfinal field is set, and it's quite the intriguing group of eight. Between the four Premier League clubs looking to bring the first Champions League trophy back to England since 2012 and just the fourth since the turn of the century, to Messi-led Barcelona, Ronaldo-led Juventus and a pair of talent-laden upstarts in Ajax and Porto, the battle to reach the June 1 final in Madrid has some unique possibilities.
The eight survivors of the round of 16 advanced at the expense of some high-end, big-spending competition–three, in particular, more than others.
Liverpool, Ajax and Manchester United ensured that Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and PSG had their European dreams smashed. These clubs don't take to failure too kindly, and repercussions are sure to follow. Such is the standard that they've either set or aspire to set given the expenditure on the rosters.
While the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Roma, Lyon and Schalke all had their European dreams shattered as well, the fallout on those fronts shouldn't be as drastic. Roma manager Eusebio di Francesco and sporting director Monchi appeared to be on the way out anyway, and their inability to get by Porto sealed their fate. Atletico Madrid had the misfortune of drawing Juventus early and then totally capitulated in the second leg in Turin, but that's not going to alter Diego Simeone's future. The manager just signed another extension at the club, which will continue trying to upset the apple cart going forward. Dortmund and Lyon will stick to their ways of competing while churning out transferable young talent, while Schalke just hopes to avoid relegation in Germany now that its European pipe dream is over.
It's three disappointing powerhouses where eye-opening changes could–and already has started to–follow, so let's take a closer look at each of the situations:
The revolution is already underway. Florentino Perez didn't wait until the summer to ring in the changes, luring Zinedine Zidane back from his coaching hiatus and planting the seeds for an Empire Strikes Back kind of campaign in 2019-2020. Real Madrid can't win anything else this season, with the only aim now just holding onto a top-four place in La Liga (which, with 10 points of breathing room and 11 matches to go, shouldn't be all that difficult).
The eye already is cast to the future, with the recent policy of going younger and stockpiling prospects for the future appearing to give way to the return of the Galactico mentality. Eden Hazard, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, N'Golo Kante, Mauro Icardi ... the list goes on of superstars linked with moves to the Bernabeu.
A good, young core is already in place, and the necessity to completely overhaul might be overstated some, but Real Madrid doesn't react by taking small, measured steps. Hundreds of millions of euros will be spent this summer, remaking a squad that had tremendous success in the last five years in Europe, less success domestically and is smarting from never properly replacing Cristiano Ronaldo. Overcompensating for that failure is the name of the game in the Spanish capital.
If Niko Kovac has one thing going for him, it's that Bayern is back in the Bundesliga title hunt after appearing to have little chance of catching Dortmund earlier this winter. BVB's slump coupled with Bayern's return to form, at least domestically, has given the first-year manager a lifeline, but the listlessness with which Bayern exited the Champions League won't sit well in a boardroom hell-bent on European domination. It sounds like it's not sitting well in the dressing room, either.
Robert Lewandowski didn't mince his words after Wednesday's elimination, criticizing the tactics with with Kovac deployed Bayern in both legs. Based on the outcome, you could hardly blame him.
"In both games I think we played too defensive," Lewandowski said. "We didn’t try to push forward to create situations–in the first game and today.
“We didn’t risk much, we were playing at home it was our game, but that’s why I think Liverpool beat us. We were playing too deep, we didn’t take risks, I don’t know why.
“We tried to push Liverpool but offensively sometimes it was two against four players and that’s why we didn’t do much.”
Amid all of this, Bayern has already begun building for the future. Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery won't be around for long and the defense and forwards are aging and getting beyond their prime, but the club is stockpiling young talent to usher in a new era of dominance. The big question is: who will be the manager that oversees it?
PSG will win Ligue 1 again, and it might take another domestic cup this season, too. Hooray.
The club's only aim at this juncture is winning in Europe, and yet it has followed three straight Champions League quarterfinal exits with two straight last-16 ousters, leaving its ownership likely flummoxed at what to do next after spending hundreds of millions to craft a winner. A common theme in the last two seasons is that Neymar was injured. He missed the 2018 last-16 ouster at the hands of Real Madrid (the luck of the draw!) and then this season's exit vs. Manchester United. VAR's influential role also had a huge say in this season's misfortune. The club can run out whatever excuses it would like, and to an extent, manager Thomas Tuchel has. He called it an "accident" instead of fully taking accountability for letting a Man United side missing 10 first-team players and featuring novice teenagers as late-game substitutes go into Paris and walk out as victors.
Still, drastic changes shouldn't be expected. Chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi maintains that Neymar and Mbappe will not be sold. Even if Neymar were to go, the club has shown it's arguably more balanced and more cohesive without his individual brilliance. Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola probably should've started in place of Gianluigi Buffon (it's so painful to say), and should be the choice going forward. Defensively, it's probably time to consider a long-term replacement for the aging Thiago Silva.
There's little PSG can do to get better, week-in and week-out competition in Ligue 1, but it can refine its own squad and have Tuchel mold it more so that the inconsistent showings (poor vs. Liverpool at Anfield, excellent in Paris; excellent vs. Man United at Old Trafford, poor at home) become less of a theme and more of a way of the past. Good fortune in the draw and less controversy by way of VAR couldn't hurt, either.