Time for the Champions League quarterfinal then! We keep getting closer to Promised Land. And with every round, the finetuning process gets even more ruthless. No time for slackers. No time for second chances. This is the business end of Europe's most glamourous dance. Only those slick of feet and experts of rhythm are invited. And those who miss the beat, they shall miss the bus. The bus which heads to the outskirts of Paris. The stop is Saint-Denis. Destination - Stade de France. Occasion - Champions League final!
But there are two steps and four matches to overcome before May 28. All eight teams will feel they have a proper chance of achieving the European dream. Some more than others. But, the Champions League can be a strange place. Just ask Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. Or, in fact, Paris Saint Germain. The latter can sit you down and have a long conversation about the tribulations of the continental competition. It is a slippery slope. For those not careful, the slope is a one way ticket to irreversible damage.
And so the eight challengers assemble again. For battle to separate pretenders from contenders. Benfica. Liverpool. Manchester City. Atletico Madrid. Villarreal. Bayern Munich. Chelsea. Real Madrid. Only four will remain.
Champions League preview - Benfica vs Liverpool
Benfica surprised everyone in the Champions League Round of 16. Ajax was the form team heading into the round. And Benfica, meanwhile, had an underwhelming run till then. In fact, Benfica have not been impressive in the domestic league either. Ajax, on the other hand, were yet to drop points when they visited Portugal for the first leg tie.
Benfica, however, managed to equalise twice from behind. And in Amsterdam, surprised the home side by somehow managing 0-1 away win. Benfica, thus, against the run of play will run and play two more matches in the Champions League.
Against them, though, is a proper challenge. A team that is aware of the European demands and has continental pedigree. Liverpool have won the Champions League six times and is among the recent winners as well. The 2019 winners are among the best teams in Europe and a strong contender to reach France end of next month.
Jurgen Klopp's men, however, need to be careful against their less fancied opposition. Liverpool played a convincing first leg away at the San Siro in last round's first leg. But Inter Milan managed to give them a scare at Anfield, winning 0-1 on the night. Liverpool, though, had the two0-goal lead that cushioned them against an unlikely upset.
That minor blip aside, Liverpool have been in convincing form with their big guns firing. Mo Salah and Sadio Mane are in form, so is that impregnable backline led by Virgil Van Dijk. Thiago Alcantara will be a key man in this tie as his experience in controlling games from midfield will be crucial to how this tie is played.
Champions League preview - Manchester City vs Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid have swatted aside one Manchester side. Next comes the neighbours. Once noisy. Now notable. Manchester City have come a long way in Europe. And almost won the entire thing last season. City, such high are their standards today, are favourites in every competition they participate in.
Meanwhile, Atletico overcame a patchy league campaign run in to turn up at Old Trafford and come up winners. A lot of teams tend to get joy at Old Trafford these days. However, that cannot take away from the fact that Atletico will consider it a major scalp. United remains a global behemoth and a victory on their turf is a readymade confidence booster shot, if there ever was any.
This game also provides the viewers with a fascinating clash of philosophies. There are very few guarantees in life. Among them one comes from this game. City will have lion's share of possession as Atletico set up in their typical tight low block. It is as clear as daylight on a hot summer day as to how this game will pan out.
City will flourish in possession, playing extremely neat and watchable football. Simeone's men will not mind that at all. However, in possession, they can be extremely dangerous with skillful players who are adept at breaking the press. Their full backs overlap with pace and have a wicked cross on them.
This is exactly the sort of game Pep can overthink his team into a defeat. And Simeone will not mind having the underdog tags. Buckle up for an intense game where both managers will adopt radically opposite tactics to reach the same goal.
Prediction: Manchester City
Champions League preview - Villarreal vs Bayern Munich
Villarreal sprung a major surprise in the last knockout round. And for a major part of that tie, it did not seem the most likely outcome. Juventus had taken an early lead through Dusan Vlahovic away in Spain in the first leg. Villarreal managed an equaliser before walking into Turin and shocking the home fans. 0-3 it ended up on the night. An unfair reflection on the game. But an apt reminder of how nothing is ever a given in our game. Not least in the Champions League.
Bayern Munich, firm favourites as they are, will thus have to bring their best game for this tie. They will themselves need no reminder of the consequences otherwise. In their previous tie, RB Salzburg managed a draw in Austria. And had they been more clinical, Bayern may well have been staring at a two-goal deficit.
However, the second leg highlighted what Bayern can dish out at their imperious best. The Bavarians brandished a masterclass in doubt abolishment. Anyone who had ever questioned their championship credentials would have quietly admitted their haste in drawing conclusions. A seven-goal performance in what did not even seem they had to get out of second gear.
Thus, solely a top Villarreal performance will not be enough for the Yellow Submarines. Bayern need to have two off nights in Europe on the bounce. Very few teams can render oppositions redundant. Bayern fall in that category. For when they get into their stride and start purring, hardly any team can lay a glove on them.
Prediction: Bayern Munich
Champions League preview - Chelsea vs Real Madrid
A proper big game awaits us as Chelsea face off against Real Madrid. If the Blues can keep aside their off field blues, this promises to be an intriguing game of equals. Both teams have genuine Champions League experience. They are both glittered with big game players. There is plenty of firepower in both ranks. And proven winners aplenty.
Both managers can switch between attacking and functional football. Real Madrid, in their victory against PSG, have demonstrated notable winning potential. This is a weakened Los Blancos side compared to their threepeat. However, they have serious momentum in their sail. And they have shown the appetite to make comebacks against the odds.
Led by Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Dani Carvajal and Casemiro, Madrid have proper winning experience in their ranks. Vinicius Jr. is enjoying a breakthrough campaign and the arrival of David Alaba adds winning mentality to the backline. He may not have won at Madrid, but was a serial winner at Bayern.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have retained their Champions League winning squad from last season. Thus, they possess a group of players who know how to win in Europe. And that European experience is invaluable. Thomas Tuchel has done a commendable job in guarding the players from the off field issues and has got them performing very well.
However, a recent reversal against Brentford is a timely reminder of what worse case scenario may look like. And there is enough hunger in that squad to guard against any potential freefall. Chelsea, like Real Madrid, have a fantastic mix of experience and youth to see them through tough moments before flourishing in the final third.
This game is seriously difficult to call. However, if Chelsea can play to potential and very importantly, keep Karim Benzema quiet, the game may be theirs to lose. This is despite Madrid cantering to the title in Spain.