The Champions League quarter-final stage is now set, with the eight remaining teams paired up and ready to square off in April in home-and-away double headers that will ultimately decide the final four of the competition.
Here are some key battles to watch on the field that could very well determine a winner from each respective tie:
Atletico Madrid vs. Leicester City
Leicester’s incredible fairy tale rise made the Foxes a team that the continental heavyweights would all be wary of, even if they don’t boast nearly the same talent as the competition’s other seven sides. Eliminating the underdog is a task that has fallen to Atletico Madrid. Diego Simeone can certainly appreciate the “underdog” label and will demand focus from Atletico, as such.
The Foxes have one key weakness that Simeone will look to exploit, as Leicester hasn’t managed to fill the N’Golo Kante-shaped hole in its midfield; all eyes will be on the battle between Saul Niguez and Wilfred Ndidi, with the former more than capable of scoring by exploiting space between the lines.
With the speed and trickery of Antoine Griezmann preoccupying slower defenders Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, Ndidi will need to keep a close eye on Saul, lest the Spaniard once again punish his opposition with a solo effort.
Borussia Dortmund vs. AS Monaco
Two of Europe’s most talented emerging sides clash when Borussia Dortmund faces AS Monaco in the quarter-final stage, and while there will be plenty of exciting talent on display, much of this momentous task falls on the shoulders of young 20-somethings – and teenagers – looking to prove their worth on the biggest stage.
While players like Ousmane Dembele and Bernardo Silva will certainly attract attention, keep an eye out for a battle between Djibril Sidibe and Marco Reus as Dortmund can learn a thing or two from Monaco’s last round against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
In the first leg of that tie, Manchester City’s Leroy Sane ran circles around Sidibe, tiring him out and then forcing a trio of goals in the last 20 minutes of the match. Reus is currently out injured but is expected to return just in time for the first leg. If he’s not available, the task falls on Dembele or Christian Pulisic.
Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid
Bayern Munich takes on Real Madrid, and with so much high-quality talent across the pitch, it’s hard to pick just one battle to focus on. Certainly, clashes between Philipp Lahm and Cristiano Ronaldo, or Xabi Alonso and Toni Kroos, pique our curiosity.
But the biggest matchup might come from an unlikely spot, as a physical and positional battle between a pair of center-backs – in this case, Mats Hummels and Sergio Ramos – could be the deciding factor in this heavyweight bout.
It’s no secret that Ramos has a penchant for late goals from set pieces, and that will require the total attention of the 6-foot-3 Hummels. And, while keeping track of Ramos in the buildup to a set piece is a tricky task, Hummels would be wise not to give Ramos too much time and space in the box.
He might be the only Bayern man who can out-jump Ramos, after all.
Juventus vs. Barcelona
Guess who’s back, Barcelona? It’s the Dani Alves reunion show in this quarter-final clash between the Blaugrana and Italian giant Juventus, and all eyes will be on the returning Brazilian right–back who now sports white-and-black.
His opponent? Why, Neymar, of course. The battle of Neymar and Dani Alves headlines this salivating matchup, with the most fearsome forward trio in the world tasked with breaking down Europe’s most steadfast defensive line.
Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri has a few options at right-back in Stephan Lichtsteiner, or even Andrea Barzagli, but with an in-form Neymar on the prowl, he might best be served by the Brazilian’s longtime friend and former teammate.
While Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez will be tasked with beating Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, Neymar and Alves will do battle on the touchline as opponents for the first time. They know each other well, and will look to exploit that knowledge to their respective advantage.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)