Twenty-four down, eight to go. The Champions League quarterfinalists are set, running from the predictable (oh, hi Barcelona) to the surprising (wait, Wolfsburg?). But there are no bad teams at this stage of the competition. Sure, not everybody has a Lionel Messi up front, but each team has their own special strengths. As the song says, these are the best teams. Here's what they're best at.
Manchester City are the best at ...
... raining on their own parade!
For those of you that haven't been paying close attention to Manchester City's deeply peculiar season, it's been ... well, deeply peculiar. Domestically speaking, what should have been a serious title challenge is in danger of becoming a scrap for a top-four finish, as the looming spectre of Pep Guardiola messes with everybody's heads. But the Champions League itself has been going pretty well, and they have progressed to the quarterfinals for the first time in their history. Joy! Jubilation! So you might think!
It hasn't quite been glorious. First of all there was the game itself, a 0-0 draw already being hailed as perhaps the worst in the history of this stage of the competition. City had a job to do and did it — which, for a club so closely associated with the word "typical," is not to be dismissed lightly — but this was an advert for the Champions League only in the sense that those pictures of blackened lungs and dire warnings about impotence are adverts for smoking. And as if that wasn't enough, Vincent Kompany knackered himself again, which leaves Manchester City's defence in A Bad Place. In short, City achieved something historic and admirable, but ruined everybody's day, including their own, in the process.
Paris Saint-Germain are the best at ...
... coyly concealing whether or not they're actually, properly good!
It's March. It's not even the end of March. And PSG are the champions of France. They've lost precisely once all season, they've dropped a mere 13 points and they're 25 points ahead of second-placed Monaco with a goal difference of plus-62. We don't think we're being too dismissive of French football in general when we suggest that they might be a little bit better than the rest of the league. But the problem is, then, how much does that tell us about whether they're actually, properly good?
The same goes for their Champions League campaign so far. They dealt with Shakhtar Donetsk and Malmö pretty handily, they took a point off Real Madrid and they looked generally excellent against Chelsea. But then Chelsea have been bobbins all season, Real Madrid were in the middle of the doomed Rafa Benítez experiment and still beat them 2-0, and Shakhtar and Malmö only managed to take points off one another. So ... again, same problem.
Common sense suggests that any team that can boast a rejuvenated Ángel di María, the estimable Blaise Matuidi and the aged but far from withered Zlatan Ibrahimović is actually, properly good. Cynicism counters that any such team will obviously beat up the French league and get past a limping Chelsea. Both sides agree to wait and see, and will be very annoyed when they're drawn against Wolfsburg and the question has to be deferred again.
Wolfsburg are the best at ...
... riding the random fluctuations of chance deep into a competition!
It is both amusing and frustrating that Wolfsburg, eighth in the Bundesliga, are into the quarterfinals of the Champions League while the likes of Juventus (first in Italy) and Arsenal (third in the Premier League) have been sent on their way. Frustrating for the purists seeking a genuine clash of the eight best teams on the continent (not that Arsenal are necessarily one of those); amusing for anybody sympathetic to the *~*MAGIC*~* of cup football.
Where leagues are theoretically rigorous investigations of which team is the best, home and away, against everybody, cup competitions are there to provide the oddness. They're about teams taking what they get, and finding ways to deal with it. And if that involves being drawn against a deeply dysfunctional Manchester United side in the group stage, then against Gent in the round of 16, while Barcelona and Bayern Munich are out there causing havoc among the aristocracy, then so be it. Life isn't fair, so there's no reason cup competitions should be either.
Benfica are the best at ...
... progressing to the quarterfinals without the person writing this article having seen any of their games!
Really sorry about this. SB Nation Soccer formally apologises to the proud nation of Portugal and the fine city of Lisbon. It's not you, it's André Villas-Boas.
Atlético Madrid are the best at ...
A theory on focus: it is much, much easier to maintain when everything is going to plan. So by that token, when it came to the penalty shootout between Atlético Madrid and PSV Eindhoven, it should have been the Spaniards that wavered. After all, they were the strong favourites for this tie, and while PSV were quite happy to play for penalties from the moment the draw was made, Atlético made plenty of efforts to win the thing while it was actually a football game, and failed.
But they managed to keep their heads through the shootout, as it stretched on into sudden death and as both goalkeepers flailed around uselessly. Eventually the extent to which Atlético were on it proved too much for poor Luciano Narsingh, who panicked, decided he couldn't take it any more and whapped his kick into the crossbar. We're giving Diego Simeone credit for everything, of course. It's safest that way.
Real Madrid are the best at ...
... having Cristiano Ronaldo!
While Real Madrid in general are doing that thing they do, winning football matches while wallowing in a dysfunctional slough, their best player is putting together what might turn out to be his finest goalscoring season in the Champions League. In the eight games so far Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 13 times, which is already his second-highest return for a single European campaign. The only time he scored more — 17 in 11, in 2013-14 — they won the thing.
He's had help from an uneven group stage: that total comprises six against Malmö, five against Shakhtar Donetsk and none against PSG, Madrid's trickiest opponent to date. But he scored home and away against Roma, and he stands as proof of one of the oldest adages around: if you find that your squad's a mess, your manager's inadequate and his replacement's a novice, it's very helpful to have somebody who's very good at kicking the ball in the net. Confucius said that. We think.
Bayern Munich are the best at ...
... getting everybody's hopes up, then dashing them to pieces
One of the more noble instincts that rises in neutral football fans is the desire — not universal, but certainly widespread — to see the powerful humbled and the tall brought low. Football clubs don't come much more powerful than Bayern Munich, and football managers don't walk much taller than Pep Guardiola, the apple of every sporting director's eye. Which is why the prospect of Bayern making an early, unlikely exit at the hands of plucky Italian minnows Juventus was, for 90 minutes, a tantalising prospect.
It wasn't to be. Álvaro Morata ran himself into the ground, Thomas Müller did his thing and a million arguments over whether Guardiola's time in Germany has been a failure cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. A second disappointment from Bayern, to add to their failure to knock Arsenal out in the group stages. Perhaps it's just as well that German has no word for schadenfreude.
Barcelona are the best at ...
Well, they are. We predict that they will go far.