While Manchester City securing progression through to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday appears a foregone conclusion, things are less certain ahead of the second leg between Juventus and Atletico Madrid — but only slightly.
With a 3-2 advantage — not to mention three away goals — nothing short of an epic collapse could stop Man City from finishing off a hapless Schalke side that suddenly finds itself flirting with relegation from the Bundesliga. League form is as poor as could be — two points from their last seven games — and they currently sit 14th, just four points and two places clear of the relegation playoffs. To make matters worse, Domenico Tedesco’s side wasted its best performance in months in the first leg against City, going from 2-1 up to a 3-2 defeat at the hands of 10-man City.
Meanwhile, the reigning Premier League champions are in the midst of their best string of results all season: 10 wins from their last 11 league games, and just the one defeat in their last 18 games across all competitions. The record-setting champions from a year ago have returned with a vengeance, though Pep Guardiola was quick to remind his side this week that they’ve accomplished very little when it comes to European competition.
No matter the size of the advantage, Guardiola isn’t taking Schalke likely: “Many things can happen in 90 minutes in this type of competition. In the first leg we were quite lucky, playing for 20 to 25 minutes with ten men when 2-1 down. In normal circumstances we could have been out of this competition, so we were lucky. I don’t feel the pressure to win it. Pressure is to do a good job, to compete better in quarter-finals and semi-finals, and to improve on past mistakes. This is a competition that punishes your mistakes a lot because of the quality of the opponents.”
Of all the ever-present UCL combatants come this point in the competition, Atleti must be considered best suited to see out a 2-0 advantage away from home. They are Diego Simeone’s meticulously drilled side, after all. It’s a virtual mountain for Cristiano Ronaldo and Co., to climb, yet it still feels unwise to count out the competition’s all-time leading goalscorer (121 goals in 159 career appearances) and a five-time winner, including each of the last three years.
On the other hand, this has been Ronaldo’s most fruitless UCL campaign since 2006 — nearly completely devoid of goals, having found the back of the net just once in six games. Prior to moving to Juve last summer, he had scored double-digit UCL goals in seven straight seasons. Should the Portuguese superstar muster the requisite heroics to drag the seven-time (soon-to-be eight) defending Serie A champions through to the next round, he’ll be well on his way to justifying the club’s $123-million investment toward winning this very trophy.
Simeone, predictably, is relishing the challenge: “We have to take advantage of any space that we get as we know we’ll be afforded much less than in the first leg. Juve are a very strong side, with very experienced players that are good not just in attack but also in defense. We will have to be very careful. The first leg is one thing, the return is totally different. There are small details which can be very difficult to explain and can make the difference; this is why football is fantastic.”