The Champions League never fails to deliver surprises, especially in the knock-out phase, where surprises are always welcomed. Although the last eight teams are all familiar faces in Europe – Atlético de Madrid, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Arsenal, Bayern, Dortmund, and Paris Saint-Germain – there have been surprising results in the previous rounds. These serve as a cautionary tale ahead of the ties that will seal the fate of the remaining teams.

Arsenal’s Return to the Champions League

After years of absence, Arsenal returned to the Champions League, where they faced stiff opposition from FC Porto in the Round of 16. Arsenal seems rejuvenated under the guidance of Mikel Arteta, the first major leader since Wenger’s exit.

The Portuguese, led by forty-one-year-old Pepe, clinched the first leg of the tie (1-0), but after a nerve-wracking penalty shootout in the second leg, the Gunners progressed further in the tournament. 

Atlético de Madrid, to the surprise of many, eliminated last year’s Champions League finalists Inter Milan, after another series of penalties. The qualification was easier for the rest of the teams despite Bayern Munich’s unforeseen stumble against Lazio. 

The Obvious Favorites: Manchester City and Real Madrid

If there are two favourites, they remain the same as in previous years: Champions League winners Manchester City, led by the renowned Pep Guardiola, and Carlo Ancelotti’s record-setting Real Madrid. Both teams progressed easily, facing relatively undemanding groups in the group stages. 

Arsenal is also a favourite among the few survivors of the tournament. Still, after possibly defeating Bayern, a team they’ve previously faced with memorable and surprising outcomes, Arteta’s youthful squad will face the winner of Manchester City vs Real Madrid. This much-anticipated clash is a rematch of last year’s tournament, which saw the Citizens progress.

Although Manchester City is not as dominant in limiting opponents’ actions as it was last season, it is still a major force to be reckoned with. 

For Real Madrid, it will be about applying their tournament experience. Still, with a squad that largely remains unchanged, Ancelotti will need to approach this year’s encounter in a very different fashion from last year’s. In their last clash, Real Madrid sat back, and their backline was quickly overrun with Bernardo Silva taking advantage of Camavinga, who played left-back. 

If there is one clear message, it is that Madrid will need to go forward and dare to take the risk of pressing Manchester City. However, given City’s well-coordinated defence, displacing the Citizens from their current pedestal will be a tough ask. 

On the other hand, Carlo Ancelotti possesses a versatile asset in Jude Bellingham, who has taken the competition by storm. The prodigious talent is only at the beginning of his career but is already in the race for the Pichichi trophy, awarded to La Liga’s top scorer.  

While Vinicius was the superstar in recent years, with Benzema’s departure, Bellingham has stepped up to become Real Madrid’s driving force and spirit. Manchester City’s ability to limit Bellingham’s impact will become the major decider of the tie.

Bayern’s Internal Struggle and Arsenal’s Opportunity

Despite being a major contender in the tournament’s history, Bayern is unlikely to advance further. Thomas Tuchel’s tenure will end after this season, exacerbated by his beef with several players, especially superstar Joshua Kimmich, who is reportedly set to depart by summer.

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These internal conflicts and the lack of concrete planning by the Bayern board have resulted in an unstable team. This is particularly noticeable in their midfield, where the absence of a solid defensive midfielder has made them vulnerable to counterattacks. Against Arsenal, a team known for its world-class press abilities, this will be exposed on the European scene.

The Complexity of the Other Quarterfinal Bracket

In the other quarterfinal bracket, the situation is more complex. It is clear that the winner among Madrid/Bayern/ManCity/Arsenal will be the favourite to win the final, but who are they likely to face?

The clash between Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona is not straightforward, especially with PSG’s Dembélé returning to Barcelona, the team he left last summer after six seasons. Both teams have structural issues that make determining who the favourite is difficult. 

Paris Saint-Germain manager Luis Enrique’s fond memories of his time at Barcelona – where he conquered Europe with the famous MSN (Messi, Suarez, Neymar) trio – is well-known. 

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But the reality is different in Paris, where the Spaniard has had a cold relationship with Madrid-linked Kylian Mbappé, who, according to Enrique, was recently benched for long-term strategic reasons. But benching key players rarely works, and Enrique is often targeted by RMC and other major French outlets for his possession-based approach. 

The French team has historically lacked in the midfield, but Zaire-Emery’s rise, along with Vitinha and Ugarte, makes this season’s Paris Saint-Germain a little more exciting. Still, PSG’s defence has been far from exemplary, presenting Barcelona with the opportunity to advance. However, their own defence has been shaky despite the rise of Pau Cubarsí in the last weeks.

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This brings a tie in which Barcelona is tipped favourite but needs to remain careful, as seen in past editions. 

The mental side of the game has hindered the Catalans from advancing in recent years, and these will be the last European clashes under head coach Xavi Hernández, who recently announced his imminent exit after the season’s end. In a communitarian sense, the players will want to give the club legend a legendary send-off.

No Clear Favorite: The Atlético de Madrid-Dortmund Face-off

Then comes the last tie, Atlético de Madrid vs Dortmund, which presents an intriguing scenario with no clear favourite. At first hand, Atlético de Madrid seems the obvious choice, especially after resisting Inter Milan. 

But if there’s one thing Spanish soccer fans know, it is the challenge that German teams pose due to their stylistic differences. Germans play the game at a faster pace and with a more physically demanding style.  

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This contrasts sharply with Atlético, which lacks defensive players (both in quality and quantity), which could be a major problem. Diego Simeone’s team is the favourite, but they often underperform in this role. Atlético performs better as the underdog and has a horrible away record.

Despite frequently making deep runs, Atlético de Madrid would be the underdog against powerhouses like Real Madrid and Man City. Due to their bracket positioning, Arsenal is at a disadvantage to be considered favourites. Interestingly, this leaves Barcelona as the unexpected favourite to reach the final from their side of the draw.

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Yet, few people see Atlético de Madrid or Barcelona as favourites despite their easier path to the final – instead, the favourite would be the winner of the Madrid/City tie.

Injuries: The Unseen Game Changer

A critical factor that cannot be overlooked at this stage is injuries, which are poised to be game-defining. 

Arsenal, Barcelona, and Atlético de Madrid have all been challenged by injuries, while Real Madrid has also collected a lengthy list of injuries this season. This adds to the advantage of Manchester City (they remain the main favorites according to Tonybet), who can afford to bench more superstars than anyone else without compromising their performance.

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