The Road to the Champions League Final Is Paved With Intrigue

The path to the final in Istanbul will be thrilling, with the four matchups and potential semifinals set and yielding some entertaining possibilities.
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The Champions League quarterfinal draw conducted on Friday has yielded repeats of two of the finals from the past three seasons, while Manchester City must face Erling Haaland's Borussia Dortmund and Porto’s reward for eliminating Juventus is a tie against an in-form Chelsea.

The draw also set the semifinal pairings to complete the road to the May 29 final in Istanbul. In one semifinal, Man City or Dortmund will play Bayern Munich or Paris Saint-Germain, while in the other, Real Madrid or Liverpool will play Porto or Chelsea.

Here's a closer look at each quarterfinal matchup—and who will go through.

The Champions League quarterfinal field

Manchester City vs. Borussia Dortmund

First leg: April 6 | Second leg: April 14

It’s been five years since either Pep Guardiola or Manchester City last made it past the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but, after three successive exits in the last eight, the sense this year is that it’s the semifinal that will represent the real test. City has been imperious since mid-December, winning 24 out of 25 games in all competitions to all but seal the Premier League title. A quadruple is clearly possible, even if Guardiola doesn’t want to talk about it, but the big issue is whether he can guard against City’s vulnerability against teams who can play through the press—and, just as importantly, whether he can avoid derailing his sides with his efforts to protect that area.

City’s approach in the Premier League this season has been to drop a little deeper and press less intensely, which should help, and it faces perhaps the least obviously intimidating of the eight quarterfinalists. Haaland, of course, is capable of turning any game, and has been strongly linked with a summer move to City, one of his father’s former clubs, but Dortmund has structural issues that leave it fifth in the Bundesliga.

Prediction: Comfortable Man City win

Bayern Munich vs. PSG

First leg: April 7 | Second leg: April 13

This is a repeat of last year’s final, when Bayern was probably a more comfortable winner than the 1–0 scoreline suggested. In terms of personnel, little has changed—although Mauricio Pochettino has replaced Thomas Tuchel on the PSG bench—but there are perhaps subtle differences of form. The feeling last August was that while Bayern was the better unit, its high line might be vulnerable to the pace of Kylian Mbappé. In the event, Bayern’s organization was good enough to prevent that ever really being a problem, but there is a sense this season that it is not in quite such exceptional form as it was then. Bayern remains, inevitably, top of the Bundesliga. It has lost only three league games all season and has won seven of eight Champions League games. Any talk of a downturn is extremely relative, but it has conceded 35 goals in 25 league games.

PSG, meanwhile, despite hammering Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the last round, is not at its best either, three points off the top of Ligue 1. Neymar, who is back in training after suffering a thigh injury last month, should be back, but that is a mixed blessing. For all his undoubted talent, there is a sense that in the very biggest games he can have a detrimental impact on team shape.

Predictions: Narrow Bayern Munich win

Real Madrid vs. Liverpool

First leg: April 6 | Second leg: April 14

It's a repeat of the finals of 1981 and 2018; a meeting of 13- and six-time champions, a clash of the winners of 2018 and 2019, reigning Spanish champion against reigning English champion. Yet for all the status of the matchup, for all the history, this feels like a fixture between two sides oddly out of sorts. Spanish football, having dominated Europe for a decade, has been on the decline for a couple of years now; the Premier League’s rolling five-year UEFA coefficient pulled level with La Liga’s on Thursday, and the direction of travel is only in one direction. Spanish sides have looked generally slow and sluggish against the real elite clubs over the past 18 months, and Madrid couldn’t handle Manchester City’s press in the last 16 last season. Injuries have left Zinedine Zidane reliant on an aging midfield, the intelligence of Karim Benzema and the wiles of Sergio Ramos.

But Liverpool, domestically at least, is in a pitiful slump, with just five wins in its last 17 games, and one of those against what was effectively a youth side fielded by Aston Villa because of COVID-19. Injuries have forced Jürgen Klopp to deploy 18 different centerback pairings this season, and have exacerbated the entropy that often besets a side after a cycle of success. The last 16-victory over RB Leipzig, though, was impressive, and it may be that the Champions League is a welcome respite from the day-to-day pressure of the Premier League.

Prediction: Narrow Liverpool win

Porto vs. Chelsea

First leg: April 7 | Second leg: April 13

The spirit of José Mourinho looms large over the fourth quarterfinal, with the manager guiding Porto to the title in 2004 before two stints at Stamford Bridge. Porto was excellent in the group, keeping five clean sheets, and thoroughly deserved its victory over Juventus in the last 16, having the better of three of the four halves of normal time played in the tie, and offering commendable threat on the break, even after being reduced to 10 men. It is exceptionally well-organized under Sérgio Conceição, and in midfielder Sérgio Oliveira, who scored a penalty and the vital free kick in the second leg, has proved himself a canny orchestrator.

Set against that is a Chelsea side slowly adapting itself to Tuchel. It is unbeaten and has conceded only twice in his 13 games in charge, and the two legs against Atlético Madrid in the last 16 are arguably as good a performance as Chelsea has ever produced in the Champions League. Against the Spanish league leader, an experienced and awkward European campaigner, Chelsea was in control throughout and showed just how dangerous it can be on the counterattack. With Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, N’Golo Kanté, Marcos Alonso and Antonio Rüdiger all returning to form, a repeat of 2012, when Chelsea won the Champions League after a midseason change of manager, is perhaps possible.

Prediction: Narrow Chelsea win