Barcelona. Real Madrid. Liverpool. Juventus. Manchester City. These are all European soccer teams, and more specifically the teams in the Champions League round of 16 that seemed most likely teams to take home the double-eared trophy on June 1. Barcelona and Real Madrid have won the last five Champions League titles between them, Liverpool and Juventus have been on the losing side of the last two finals, and Manchester City has the best coach on the continent in Pep Guardiola and is probably the best European side on paper.
You would expect all those teams to win their round of 16 ties with relative ease; Liverpool and Juventus drew Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, neither of which is a pushover but both of which are not quite as good as their recent history might lead you to believe. Naturally, the round of 16's big sides have almost unanimously dropped massive deuces on the proceedings.
Barcelona and Liverpool both saw out plodding 0-0 draws on Tuesday, against Lyon and a Bayern side that can’t decide if it’s good or not, respectively. (For the record, Bayern was not good on Tuesday, save for Mats Hummels putting in his defensive performance of the season.) The Spanish champions have relied on Lionel Messi to almost comical degrees this season, and when he has an off-day or is blanketed by the opposition, as happened in Lyon, the blaugrana look lost. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s rapid-fire counter-attacking style continues to struggle against organized defenses, although the Pool Boys would and should have beaten Bayern had Sadio Mané not forgotten how to kick the ball into the goal.
Last week was more of the same. Sure, Real Madrid scraped out a 2-1 win against Ajax in Amsterdam, partly due to having a better squad and partly because Sergio Ramos is a very talented hothead. But the three-time defending champs were lucky to escape with that win; Ajax outplayed them from the word go and a weirdly called-off goal could have shifted momentum to the Dutch kids if not for the new addition of video review to the tournament. Madrid will likely advance comfortably, as it hosts the second leg at the Bernabeu, but the spark that they always lit when the Champions League arrived at the knockout stages seems less likely to flare up this season.
On Wednesday, both favorites fell in line with the struggle narrative, one more embarrassingly than the other. Juventus went into Atletico Madrid’s home stadium, which is coincidentally the site of this season’s final, and lost 2-0 thanks to scrambles in the box that led to goals from Atleti defenders José María Giménez—just minutes after Álvaro Morata had a goal iffily taken away by VAR—and captain Diego Godín. The vaunted Atleti defense was good on the other side of the field as well, and kept Cristiano Ronaldo and co. from raising many credible threats. And now they go to Turin for the second leg knowing that a classic Atleti defensive performance will be enough to see them through to the quarterfinals. At the very least, the Giménez goal gave us a glorious Diego Simeone celebration, no doubt aimed at the VAR shenanigans:
Manchester City, the aforementioned Best Team In Europe, narrowly avoided an even more embarrassing loss against Germany’s 14th-place side, Schalke 04. Two clear penalties almost doomed City in this one, as did a Nicolás Otamendi second yellow that will see the Argentinian miss the return leg. But, because Manchester City is stacked beyond belief, they were able to bring in Leroy Sané, who scored a beautiful free kick in the 85th minute to tie it at 2-2. Another goal from Raheem Sterling in the 90th made it 3-2, seemingly locking up the tie for the English side. City will head home with three away goals in the bank, but the way forward is not all clear. Fernandinho picked up a yellow card as well, and the side looks noticeably worse without their tiny tornado in the center of the pitch; their winter struggles can be traced back to his extended injury absence.
While the traditional powers showed very little, the best-looking teams of this round of games have been two teams with injury reports longer than their history of bottling. Tottenham defended their shoddy home turf at Wembley with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over German league leaders Borussia Dortmund. Though we’ve written about Spurs’ injury struggles before, the absence of Harry Kane didn’t slow the goal-scoring down. This was because center back turned makeshift left wingback Jan Vertonghen decided to play absolutely out of his goddamn mind, setting up Tottenham’s opener and scoring one of his own to put the game out of reach.
And then there’s Paris Saint-Germain, which walked into Old Trafford and put an absolute beating on Manchester United. Despite missing Neymar and Edinson Cavani, the club’s two best and most productive players, PSG whomped United behind the left foot of expert troll Angel Di Maria and Kylian Mbappe’s video-game speed. With Neymar likely returning for the next round and barring a PSG collapse of the kind the Paris side admittedly isn’t unfamiliar with, the French champs could be rounding into form and health just in time to scare the struggling favorites.
And that’s the thing: sure, it’s been just one round of matches, and most of the favorites will still likely advance. Liverpool faces arguably the toughest road, needing to walk out of Bayern’s Allianz Arena with a positive result; at least it will have the away goals rule in its favor. But the problems that flared up in these first matches are not problems contained to just the Champions League.
Barcelona keeps extending its La Liga lead due more to its rivals’ propensity to display poor form, but their Messi problem boils down more than anything to the inability of any of his teammates to step up. Luis Suarez looks straight up washed, and more likely to fall over than he is to score whenever he gets the ball. Ousmane Dembélé has been a bright spot, but he also just came back from yet another injury; erstwhile replacement Philippe Coutinho has not settled in at the Catalan club and could be on his way out this summer, if rumors are to be believed.
Liverpool has looked like a different side than the world-beating death machine that went 20 games without a domestic loss earlier this season, and its away form during the Champions League this year has been atrocious—three losses in three matches, including to minnows Red Star Belgrade. Madrid isn’t going to see Ronaldo walk through that door again, and so has to manufacture goals however they can. It’s not ideal that their best hope for goals is the 18-year-old Vinicius Junior, no matter how good he already is.
United may be in a minor resurgence under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, but overcoming a 2-0 deficit on the road is not easy for any side. Juventus has Ronaldo, but even he isn’t up to his best in the tournament; he only has one goal in five Champions League matches for Juve, though at least he has 21 goals domestically. The bianconeri also have an injury and suspension crisis of their own, as Alex Sandro will miss the return leg against Atleti, Sami Khedira is out for at least a month, and wingers Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi are both nursing knocks from earlier this month. And, as mentioned above, City will be missing Fernandinho in midfield and Otamendi in defense. That’s enough to give Schalke at least a glimmer of hope at the Etihad.
For the first time since Real Madrid’s run of dominance began in 2014, there is no overwhelming favorite to take home the Champions League trophy. Aside from the winner of the Roma-Porto tie, there is no opponent that any advancing team should feel comfortable facing in the quarterfinals. While all this has made for some disappointing performances and some letdowns where match quality is concerned, the parity across the very elite levels of Europe should make the next three rounds of the competition more of a dogfight than we’ve seen in recent memory.
And who knows where we go from here? At the end of all this, we could see Tottenham against PSG in the final, playing third-string youth players out of sheer necessity. Nothing that’s happened so far in the knockout round seems any likelier than that. No one else is any good.