There is something rote about the Champions League knockout stages. By and large, it’s the same teams, year after year, in a series of matchups we’ve seen before — usually fairly recently.
In the last decade of finals, for instance, only nine teams have played, meaning less than one new team per season has reached the European title game.
This year’s quarterfinals similarly count a host of usual suspects. Barcelona is in its 11th consecutive quarterfinal — but has advanced just once in the last four seasons. Bayern Munich is here for the seventh year in a row, and will seek to make the semis an eighth time in 10 seasons. Real Madrid, of course, has won this tournament three times in the last four seasons and has never once been absent from the semifinals since 2010. Juventus lost the final in both 2015 and 2017.
There tend to be a few interlopers at this stage ever year. However, they are rarely as varied and unaccustomed as they seem to be this year, bucking the predictability somewhat.
Sevilla hasn’t made it this far since 1958, in spite of winning the second-tier Europa League five times in 11 seasons, including three in a row from 2014 through 2016. Once-mighty Liverpool hadn’t been to this stage since 2009. Roma is on its deepest run since 2008.
Only Man City falls into the deep chasm between these two categories of quarterfinalists. The Citizens reached the semifinals in 2016 but stranded in the round of 16 in the three years sandwiched around it. Yet considering its complete dominance of the Premier League this year, it seems very likely that Pep Guardiola’s side will very soon join the tournament juggernauts and become a regular at the business end of the Champions League.
The fresh faces make for intriguing match-ups as the bigger sides largely avoided each other in the draw.
When Barcelona faces Roma, for instance, the Romans will plainly be outgunned by a Barca side that is cruising towards another La Liga title; is a win away from a Copa del Rey trophy; and could well do the treble again — all without losing a single game in the league or in Europe.
That makes the dynastic Catalan side the towering favorites, because this American-owned Roma team is cash-strapped by comparison. It could only reinvest a chunk of the sizable transfer fees it collected in recent months for Mohamed Salah, Leandro Paredes, Antonio Rudiger and Emerson Palmieri, who bolted for Liverpool, Zenit St. Petersburg, Chelsea and Chelsea, respectively.
It’s harder to figure out what to make of Sevilla’s season on the eve of its showdown with Bayern Munich. On the one hand, it stands in the aforementioned Copa del Rey final and these quarterfinals; on the other, it hasn’t made much of a dent in La Liga, sitting in sixth place with a whole 12 losses to only 14 wins, and a 14-point gap with fourth place and the Champions League berths. Sevilla stunned Manchester United in the last round, when the underappreciated Wissam Ben Yedder scored both goals to take his continental tally to eight in eight games — second only to Cristiano Ronaldo in the competition.
Bayern’s narrative is more straightforward. Following a 3-0 hiding at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain in the group stage, the player rebellion against Carlo Ancelotti reached a full boil. He was replaced with the retired Jupp Heynckes for the latter’s fourth spell in charge of the club. Since then, Bayern has sauntered to a 17-point lead in the Bundesliga and ambled into this contest after an aggregate 8-1 win over Besiktas in the last round.
In the only true heavyweight bout, Juve and Real will reprise last year’s final, which was won 4-1 by Real. It’s been a weird season for the Spanish giants, going for a fourth European crown in five years and a third in a row. They’ve dropped an uncharacteristic number of points in La Liga with five losses and six ties. And they were shocked by Leganes in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey. Yet Real Madrid also befuddled Barca in a 5-1 aggregate Supercopa de Espana win and claimed the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup. For all its domestic troubles, Real has had no issues at all outside of its borders — save for a pair of tricky group stage games against Tottenham Hotspur, resulting in a loss and a draw.
Juve, at the other end of the field, is the favorite to win a seventh straight Serie A title. It looked to be in deep trouble against Spurs in the last round, but if nothing else, Max Allegri’s team understands how to win. And it pulled out the two goals it needed to stun the North Londoners and find a way through regardless.
This is the first time since the 2013-14 season that two English clubs have made it to the last eight. Unfortunately for those who would like to see a return to the Premier League’s glory days in Europe, they drew each other.
Liverpool has found something elusive under Jurgen Klopp: a semblance of consistency. It still doesn’t have enough of it to compete for the league title, but it has served the Reds well in Europe where they have yet to lose. While they’ve tied four of their eight games, when they have been victorious the scores have been 7-0, 7-0, 5-0 and 3-0. Yet their firepower pales in comparison to City’s.
City is ascending to a kind of dominance only recently seen in … well … other teams coached by Guardiola. Their swashbuckling attacks have been uncontainable. That being said, the only team to beat City in the league has been Liverpool in a 4-3 thriller, one of the games of the season.
In all likelihood, the slate of semifinalists won’t look all that different from years past. But some new teams making a deep run in the tournament can only serve to freshen things up a little.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.