Who will succeed Real Madrid as Kings Of Europe?This season promises to be one of the most open Champions Leagues in recent times, given that Real Madrid are already out. They had won the previous three editions but their run came to a juddering end against Ajax in the last round. The losses of Zinedine Zidane as coach and Cristiano Ronaldo as star striker, ultimately, proved too much to bear. Zidane is back but too late to rescue the season this time around. Fellow heavyweights Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid are also gone and, given they have occupied semi-final and final positions in recent seasons, there is space for another club to go closer to glory. While Manchester City and Barcelona might fancy their chances more than most, there is a cluster of teams all capable of clinching the title in the Wanda Metropolitano on June 1. We have ranked the Champions League's eight teams based on the ELO rating system.
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Porto will be considered the rank outsiders in the final eight, particularly as they play Liverpool at Anfield in the first leg. Moreover, memories of last season’s 5-0 embarrassment at home in the first knockout round will be fresh. But Porto are a tough proposition this time around. They have added experience to the backline with three-time Champions League winner Pepe and can boast six wins from eight European matches this term. Porto - like Liverpool – are fighting on two fronts and currently are neck-and-neck with Benfica at the top of the Primeira Liga table. There can be no let up. Nonetheless, Liverpool – thanks in no small part to Porto’s many injuries - possess better quality all over the field and will be expected to claim the semi-final place at the expense of the Dragons, who squeaked through against Roma in the last round.
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It was a coming-of-age performance for Ajax in the last round, demolishing Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu and defying the odds to take their place in the quarter-finals. The likes of Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and David Neres put themselves on the map with landmark individual performances, while few players can claim to have had a bigger impact in the last 16 than ex-Southampton playmaker Dusan Tadic. Ajax’s reward for deposing the threepeat champions Madrid? A showdown with Juventus. The first leg is in Amsterdam but that will make the scale of the Ajax task no easier. Madrid under Santiago Solari were all at sea, both individually and collectively. Juventus are a totally different proposition. It will take another stunning display over two legs for the Eredivisie leaders to pass the Italian champions.
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reward for overturning Paris Saint-Germain’s first-leg advantage and leading Manchester United to the Champions League quarter-finals was a three-year contract as permanent manager. It was a comeback in the classic United style, defying logic and all good sense. Things have wobbled since then for the Norwegian and again his side are very much second favourites for this tie. The only game they’ve won since Marcus Rashford’s last-gasp penalty in Paris was a very unconvincing Premier League outing against Watford a couple of weekends ago. Both Arsenal and Wolves – twice - have damaged United both in the Premier League and FA Cup. Lionel Messi and Co. will be licking their lips ahead of the trip to Old Trafford.
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Tottenham are finally home. Last week’s Premier League victory against Crystal Palace at the deluxe new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium delivered Spurs a psychological boost, heading into the Champions League quarter-finals against Manchester City. And how they needed it. Aside from their safe passage against Borussia Dortmund in Europe, Spurs have been tanking in recent weeks. There was a run of zero victories in five Premier League games, a sequence which all but extinguished their outside shot at the title. It’s a fresh slate against City – however – in the European arena where Spurs will be reasonably confident of upsetting Pep Guardiola’s side, who are still in line for a quadruple.
Juventus have in their ranks a player with a well-justified sense of entitlement in this competition. Cristiano Ronaldo might well have been struggling for fitness ahead of the first-leg encounter against Ajax in Amsterdam but there have been encouraging noises from Turin in the build-up. And how Juve could do with him. He’s won it five times, he put them through in the most dramatic of circumstances against Atletico Madrid in the last round. Quite simply put, Ronaldo was signed for nights like that; the final piece of the Juventus jigsaw to win the Champions League for the first time since 1995. There is plenty of quality elsewhere with young striking sensation Moise Kean scoring five times in his last four Serie A games. The Italy international has made a big impact on the field and in taking a stance against racism in Cagliari last week. He is still waiting for his Champions League breakout moment. This could be it.
Jurgen Klopp’s team are doing remarkably well to keep pace with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League with the title race going down to the wire - and the draw for the quarter-finals of the Champions League was merciful to the Merseysiders too. Having made light work of Bayern in the round of 16, Liverpool are paired with a Porto side they will be expecting to swat away. There is a steely determination about Liverpool this season – epitomised by Virgil van Dijk at the back, and they are no less ruthless in attack. This team – beaten finalists last year – are experienced and know all about what it takes to succeed at this level. If you asked any Liverpool fan if they’d prefer the Champions League or Premier League title, they would probably opt for the latter after a wait of 29 years. However, they don’t have to make a decision just yet with the team in the shakeup for both.
Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final victory against Brighton hinted at some of the problems that may come down the line for quadruple-chasing Manchester City. They are going to face so many big games in the quest for the last three trophies that there is simply no room for an off-day. They were beneath their best at Wembley and fortunate that Brighton didn’t take advantage. In the Premier League and the Champions League there will be no mercy. Tottenham on their day are capable of defeating City and Pep Guardiola will have to think on his feet to prepare bespoke game plans for a group of players who may well be struggling for freshness. But the scale of their task is clear. Keep winning and they will go down as the most successful team in club football history. That’s motivation enough.
Now on the brink of yet another Liga title following the weekend win against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona are relatively free to concentrate on their European exertions. They have been beneath their best in this competition having last won it in 2015 and have been powerless to prevent their great rivals Real Madrid carting off three consecutive titles. But with Madrid out, Barca will consider themselves favourites to end their four-year wait. Leading it all will be Lionel Messi, comfortably the best player in the world, exerting influence and wreaking havoc in every game he plays. With Messi spearheading, Barca have every chance of winning the lot. First up, an away goal at Old Trafford and a second leg dismantling of Manchester United at Camp Nou.
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Finally, a Messi v Ronaldo final?When the draw for the quarter-finals was made, the paths all the way to the final were also laid out. And if things go to plan, there is a chance the world might finally glimpse a Champions League final which pits Cristiano Ronaldo against Lionel Messi. Should Ronaldo and Juventus eclipse Ajax, they will then have either Tottenham or Manchester City to deal with in the semis. On the other side of the draw, should Barca beat United then they will face Liverpool or Porto in the last four. Get through those encounters and at the home of Atletico Madrid, Ronaldo and Messi could face off against one another - at long last - in the game's ultimate showpiece event. There is plenty of football to be played before that eventuality however.
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