Your Champions League Quarterfinal Preview

What are realistic goals for all eight remaining teams?

Most professional sports competition is zero-zum:  Someone wins! everyone else loses!

I could be wrong on this, but I don’t think sports would’ve turned into a many-billion-dollar global industry if, at the end of of each season, all but one or two percent of the participants -- players, management, and fans alike -- felt like failures. There’s gotta be some satisfaction in the journey, even if it doesn’t end with a team captain hoisting a shiny trophy while he gets blasted with an air-cannon filled with team-color confetti, right?

Eight teams remain in the Champions League, and 88 percent of them are going to be eliminated at some point over the next month and a half. However, a satisfactory exit for a team like Porto looks very different than it does for Juventus or Barcelona. So, to preview the quarterfinals, I’m stealing an idea from ESPN’s Sam Miller, who sketched out the “success floors” for all 30 Major League Baseball teams before the season began.

Let’s run through the quarterfinalists -- ordered by their projected odds to win it all, per FiveThirtyEight -- and figure out what a satisfactory end to the season would look like for all eight. Vince Lombardi was no Eugene Delacroix; winning isn’t everything, and it’s also not the only thing.

Manchester City

Odds to win: 34 percent

Remember that little stutter this team went through over the winter? When they lost three out of four games? No? I don’t blame you because City’s current run make that feel like it happened during the Reagan presidency and on a parallel timeline. They’ve played 23 games since the loss to Leicester the day after Christmas, and they’ve won 2 of them2. They’ve already won the Carabao Cup (again, if you don’t know what this is, rather than listening to me explain it, just know what I envy you). They’re in the FA Cup final and will be heavily favored to win that against a Watford team they’ve beaten twice and outscored 5-2 in their pair of Premier League matchups this year. They’re a point back of Liverpool, but they’ve got a game in hand, and that 22-of-23 tear they’re on translates to an absurd 2.87 points per game pace. Oh, and they’re the favorites to win the this tournament, too.

Even Pep Guardiola is easing off his perfunctory pessimism a tiny bit, as he called the prospect of winning four trophies “almost impossible” after City’s FA Cup semifinal win. In February, he was definitive about a potential quadruple: “It’s impossible”.

This is the best team in the world in just about every way—save for silverware in Europe. They conquered the Premier League last year with a record 100-point haul, but couple that with a disappointing dismissal in last year’s Champions League quarterfinals at the hands of Liverpool, and well, that’s how you create an almost impossible standard for yourself. City’s yet to advance beyond the quarters with Guardiola in charge, and so I am permitting myself to deploy this cliche: If you wanna be the best, you gotta beat the best.

How to be satisfied: Win the Champions League; or win the Premier League, with a Champions League final appearance and an FA Cup win


Odds to win: 24 percent

In some ways, it feels like this Barcelona season is already a success. At the beginning of last season, Real Madrid were coming off a La Liga/Champions League double produced by a squad with a bunch of veterans backed up by prime-age and up-and-coming talent. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s squad was aging, they kept screwing up signings, they’d lost Neymar, and Messi had less than a year left on his deal.

Fast-forward to now, and Barcelona are about to win their second La Liga title in a row by a wide margin, they’ve added a variety of key younger contributors -- Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Arthur, and Clement Lenglet -- and Messi, who’s now signed through 2021, is ... having one of the best seasons of what was already probably the best professional career in the history of modern soccer. Here are all the stats, per Football Whispers data, that the 31-year-old Messi leads La Liga forwards in: assists, assists from open play, big chances created, big chances scored, dribbles attempted, dribbles completed, fast breaks, forward passes, goals from free kicks, goals from inside the box, goals from outside the box, goals, long passes attempted, opposition-half passes completed, passes attempted, passes completed, passes to right wing, shot assists in open play, shots, shots from center of the box, shots from outside the box in the center, shots off target, shots on target, through balls attempted, through balls completed, touches, open-play goals, open-play expected goals per 90, open play xG+expected assists, open-play xG+xA per 90, total xG, total xG per 90, total xA, and total xA per 90. He’s also, accidentally, the Joe Morgan of this sport:

Thanks to all that, the Pope -- as in: THE POPE -- had to dispel the notion that Messi is, in fact, God.

How to be satisfied: Win La Liga, plus at least one of the following ... make the Champions League final, or have the Pope recant his claim


Odds to win: 23 percent

The last time Liverpool won the Champions League, in 2005, they earned 58 points on a goal differential of plus-11 during the corresponding Premier League season. This year, Liverpool have earned 82 points on a goal differential of plus-55 ... and they still have five games left. Their current points total is just four fewer than their highest-ever total for a full Premier League season, and the club has never ended a year with a goal differential better than 51. Through 33 games, only two Premier League teams have had a better record:

Here’s the club’s trajectory under Jurgen Klopp, in graph form:

Outer space here we come! Seems pretty satisfactory, huh? Nope! City will slide into that third spot if (read: when) they win their 33rd game.

With a savvy front-office, an owner who’s willing to spend, and one of the best managers working today, Liverpool seem set for sustainable success. Fifteen players have played at least 1,000 minutes for the Reds in the Premier League this season; only one of them was older than 28 at the start of the campaign; and he, James Milner, has the lungs of a Mexican ultra-runner and the muscle-density of Vernon Davis. This team is gonna be good for a while, but they’re currently so good that moral victories have ceased to exist. Unless they, I don’t know, lose the rest of their games, their final points total will look great, but it won’t feel like that unless there’s some hardware to go along with it.

How to be satisfied: Win the Champions League or the Premier League


Odds to win: 7 percent

This is where FiveThirtyEight and the betting-market projections really diverge. At the time of the quarter final draw, bettors pegged Juve as third-favorites, with what amounts to a 20-percent chance of winning it all:

Three reasons why the projections aren’t as high on the Old Lady: 1) City are, by far, the best team according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, and the draw puts them on City’s side, 2) the model is bullish on Ajax, 3) it’s bearish on Juventus.

I won’t deny that it’s easier for me to imagine Cristiano Ronaldo, who is currently being investigated after being credibly accused of rape, winning than it is for me to envision him losing. But! The past three Champions League seasons have broken my brain. So, if I can briefly ascend beyond the realm of hunches and guts, I will say that I see City, Barcelona, and Liverpool as a top three, Juve in its own tier, followed by a tier with Tottenham, Ajax, and United, followed by a another tier with Porto. City and Barca have steamrolled their way through the tournament thus far, and despite a scoreless first leg draw, Liverpool really did dominate a Bayern Munich team that, based on this past weeked, still seems pretty damn formidable. Meanwhile, Juve’s first-leg flop against Atletico (a 2-0 loss in Spain) showed a bigger weakness than any of the other favorites revealed.

They’re going to win Serie A for the ninth-straight season, but since January 1, they’ve performed like one of the better teams in Serie A, rather than one of the best teams on the continent. Courtesy of the great, new Total Football app, here’s the top four by xG differential in Italy over that span:

Without Ronaldo, Juve were able to win Serie A eight times in a row, and they reached two of the past four Champions League finals. When you make a $133 million bet on a 34-year-old, there’s really only one way it can work out.

How to be satisfied: Win the Champions League


Odds to win: 5 percent

After a 3-1 win over PSV two weekends ago, followed by a PSV draw this past weekend, Ajax are now in first place in the Eredivisie, thanks to a plus-74 goal differential through 29 games.

These dudes already played Bayern Munich even through two group stage games -- a 1-1 draw, followed by a 3-3- stalemate. And then they sent Real Madrid packing with a 4-1 win in the Santiago Bernabeu. They haven’t won the Dutch title since 2014, and now that seems likely. Throw in a famous European victory over the three-time defending champs (plus a bunch of other impressive performances in the group stages), and anything else that happens is gravy.

This team’s swinging way above its financial weight:

Dusan Tadic was in a Premier League relegation battle at this time last year. And now someone else needs to ask the Pope about his divine nature:

Here’s why Ajax-Juve is my favorite matchup of this round: One team has to win; the other one has nothing to lose.

How to be satisfied: Win the Eredivisie or advance to the Champions League semi finals


Odds to win: 4 percent

This is one of the weirder seasons I can remember. They delayed moving into a new stadium for six months. Despite one of the best core groups of talent in all of Europe, they didn’t buy a single player in either the summer or the winter transfer windows. They’ve only drawn one game all year. All of their best players have been hurt and/or at risk of being called away from the team in order to serve a mandatory military sentence at one time or another. When a handful of those guys were all injured at once, the team kept winning games and through 26 matches had a record points haul for a third-place team despite never really being all the convincing. Then, Harry Kane came back ... and they flatlined for about a month, plummeting back into a battle for the third and fourth Champions League places. Then, with their manager suspended, they went to Anfield and played Liverpool to a stalemate (until, uh, you know, that thing happened). And then they opened their stadium and -- after a season of roughly taking the same number of shots as their opponents -- they went absolutely wild in their first game in the new ground:

All of which is to say: Maybe Tottenham are really good now and could actually put up a fight against City! But also: every presupposition anyone has made about this team so far this year has been dead wrong, so I’m gonna stop presupposing and instead just bathe in the chaos. I feel about Tottenham the same way I feel about Oakland A’s: It’s impressive that they’ve been so successful given their lack of spending, but their owners are swimming in cash and should actually spend on the team because this is a competitive sport after all and the point is to do everything you can to help your team win! If players get shit when they take a play off, then so should the owners when they decide to mail it in for a full year.

How to be satisfied: Finish ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League or advance to the Champions League semi finals


Odds to win: 2 percent

Since winning the Champions League in 2004, Porto haven’t advanced past this stage in any of the ensuing campaigns. They’ve won eight of the 14 Portuguese titles since then, with the other six going to Benfica. They’ve settled into steady, if uncomfortable, reality where the ceiling and floor aren’t too far apart: Win or finish in second in Portugal, never go farther than the quarters in Europe, sell off your best players, sign and develop the next round of prospects, and doido it all again, year after year.

There frankly  just isn’t enough time for these Porto teams to develop into anything close to resembling that 2004 side. Most of the stars on that team -- and of course the manager, Jose Mourinho -- ended up leaving, but guys like Deco, Maniche, Paulo Ferreira, and Ricardo Carvalho were all either 24 or 25 the season they won the European Cup. They were in their primes! The talent gets scooped up so much quicker now. Porto bought Eder Militão from Brazilian club Sao Paulo for €7 million last summer. Less than a year later, they’ve already agreed to send him to Real Madrid for a club-record fee of €50 million. He just turned 21 in January!

Without Eder, Porto lost to Liverpool, 5-0, in last year’s Round of 16. I don’t think it’ll be that bad this time -- Eder might be one of the best players to come out of Portugal in a long time, and rangy center backs have been able to Liverpool all year long --  but Porto have shuffled plenty of talent in and out over the past decade, and the end result has never really changed

How to be satisfied: A competitive two legs against Liverpool and a Portuguese title

Manchester United

Odds to win: 2 percent

On the one hand, this team fired its manager in December while they were closer to 14th place than fourth.

On the other hand:

Wages and revenue are the biggest predictors of success in modern soccer; I know I say it all the time, but it’s sort of the core fact that everything else flows out from. A handful of teams -- Atletico Madrid, Leicester, Monaco, and fine, let’s throw Tottenham in here, too -- have figured out ways to break that chain. So have Manchester United; they’re just doing it in the wrong direction.

United finished second in the Premier League last year, so any realistic outcome for the rest of the season will be unsatisfactory when seen through the lens of last summer. But since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over mid-season and started ... playing his best players (remember when Paul Pogba just wasn’t starting games for a couple weeks? What the hell was that?) and earning some nice results, the satisfaction spectrum has temporarily been reset.

With games still to go against Chelsea and Manchester City, in addition to a three-point gap to make up, United only have about a 1-in-5 chance of finishing in the Champions League places, per FiveThirtyEight. They’ve got the same odds when it comes to overcoming The Guy Who the Pope Says Is Not God But Can We Really Trust Him on That. Neither result is likely, but for our purposes, they’re gonna need at least one of them to happen.

How to be satisfied: Beat Barcelona or finish in the top four of the Premier League