The chaaaaampiooooons. Yes, yes, yes, it is back.
Not only does Tuesday signify the return of North America’s favorite weekday afternoon while-we-should-be-working activity, the UEFA Champions League, it also means it’s time to get really, really serious, as world soccer’s premier club competition kicks off its quarterfinal round with a pair of tantalizing ties both Tuesday and Wednesday.
Atletico Madrid vs. Real Madrid
Remember when these Madrid giants met in last year’s Champions League final? Remember how tight an encounter that game turned out to be, going to extra time before Real ran away with a 4-1 victory?
Would you believe me if I told you that day, May 24, was the last time Real beat Atletico in any competition? Because it’s true, and that includes two legs in the Spanish SuperCup, two legs in the Copa del Rey and two La Liga meetings. Real are a pitiful 0-for-6 against Atletico this season. No single-leg victories, no aggregate victories, no anything.
And yet, it’s almost impossible to see anything other than a Real victory occurring over the next two weeks, isn’t it? Carlo Ancelotti’s side has won their last three league games by a combined score of 14-1, while Diego Simeone’s men are struggling to fend off Valencia and Sevilla for third in the league.
Cristiano Ronaldo has scored eight goals in his last four games since Los Blancos narrowly avoided defeat at the hands of Schalke in the round of 16. Luka Modric has returned from a long-term injury and brought a sense of calm and stability to the midfield, while the defense has allowed just the one goal since they tasted El Clasico defeat on March 22.
Meanwhile, Atletico’s leading scorer, Mario Mandzukic has been hobbled by an ankle injury for the better part of two month, though it does seem he’ll be available on Tuesday. Only Ronaldo’s scintillating for bests that of Antoine Griezmann (four goals in three games), as the Frenchman enjoys a dream debut season (18 league goals) for Los Rojiblancos and prepares for his first foray into the business end of the Champions League.
Juventus vs. Monaco
According to…well, anyone and everyone who watches European soccer, Monaco weren’t supposed to be here. This was the year, they said, that Arsenal would break their streak of four-straight season bowing out in the round of 16, because they had finally been handed the “easy” draw. Monaco are third in the “terrible” Ligue 1 and a three-point drop away from fifth, for crying out loud.
And yet, Leandro Jardim’s men went into London, snatched a 3-1 victory at Emirates Stadium and held on at home in the second leg. Now they find themselves facing a Juventus side which long ago sealed their fate as Serie A champions-elect (14-point lead with nine games to play before resting three-quarters of their regular starters last weekend), a Juve side who see themselves with the proverbial “golden ticket” into the semifinals for the first time since 2003.
Carlos Tevez is in irresistible form at the moment (four goals in three games) and all signs point toward Andrea Pirlo returning from a calf injury in time for Tuesday’s game, though the hamstring injury which will keep Paul Pogba out another four weeks is unquestionably a bigger blow than Pirlo’s presence is a boost.