Home » Champions League quarter-finals: Predictions, players to watch and tactical talking points

Champions League quarter-finals: Predictions, players to watch and tactical talking points

The draw for the Champions League quarter-finals has thrown up intriguing ties: a clash between faded European aristocrats; a Guardiola-Bayern reunion; a trip back to Chelsea for Carlo Ancelotti; and a local squabble between two Serie A giants.

We asked our experts Oliver Kay, James Horncastle, Sebastian Stafford-Bloor, Nick Miller and Liam Tharme to analyse the major talking points and offer their predictions.

Why is this tie worth watching?

JH: It’s a repeat of last season’s quarter-final, which set the tone for Madrid’s most Madrid Champions League triumph in years. Chelsea under Todd Boehly remind me of early Perez Madrid — big spenders without giving due consideration to how the signings fit as a team.

SSB: Chelsea are yet to develop the chemistry necessary to be cohesive on a full-time basis and Real are, and have been for a while now, capable of playing possum across a two-legged game, before taking advantage of whatever opportunity they’re given. It’s not a tie that promises incessant waves of quality, but it’s a virtual guarantee of great moments.

OK: I was in Madrid for the second leg of last season’s quarter-final and I found it extraordinary. Chelsea produced arguably the best performance of Thomas Tuchel’s tenure (including when they won it the previous season) and Madrid were atrocious as they went from 3-1 up on aggregate to 4-3 down before finally getting their act together. Hard to imagine similar drama this time, but here’s hoping.

NM: Carlo Ancelotti v Graham Potter is a real ‘nice guys of football management’ clash: you wonder if the younger man will be able to absorb his Chelsea predecessor’s ability of maintaining that affability, while also being a serial winner.

LT: Madrid have proved over the last few seasons that any Champions League tie involving them is worth watching. Even when they have looked down and out in previous knockout ties, notably in the second leg at home to Manchester City last season, their capacity to turn it on in the biggest moments is incredible.

Which player on each side are you eager to watch?

JH: Fabio Capello was talking the other day about the best players of the post-Ronaldo-Messi generation. He put Kylian Mbappe head and shoulders above the rest and then name-checked Erling Haaland and Vinicius Junior. It’s remarkable what Vinicius Jr has achieved at his age. He has hit new heights under Carlo Ancelotti. If Reece James is fit, I look forward to the battle on that flank.

OK: Luka Modric. There is a tendency for television commentators to overstate his influence on certain matches — I felt he only really started to dictate proceedings at Liverpool last month once Real were 4-2 up — but I’m nitpicking. He’s a phenomenon. To play the way he does at the age of 37, to be so calm and yet so decisive and creative, while covering so much ground is extraordinary. For Chelsea, coming up against Modric is the perfect opportunity to find out more about Enzo Fernandez. As strange as it is to say this about someone who excelled in Argentina’s World Cup triumph, he’s still something of an unknown quantity at this level.

NM: We must drink in every last drop of Luka Modric, but Eduardo Camavinga looked so assured against Liverpool. For Chelsea, it’s a big one for Enzo Fernandez.

SSB: Mykhailo Mudryk for Chelsea, because we’ve really been starved of the opportunity to watch him since he moved to England for that big fee. But the fragments of his game are still thrilling in a way that promise to come together to produce something electric. For Madrid, well if you’re tired of Karim Benzema, you’re tired of football.

LT: Vinicius Jr is on fire in Europe. He has already scored more goals (six) in the Champions League this season than in any previous campaign and he has 14 goals and 15 assists in 42 appearances overall in the competition — including the winner in the final last season. His playing relationship with Karim Benzema is a sight to behold. For Chelsea, the enigmatic Joao Felix is facing his parent club’s (Atletico Madrid) local rivals and will be up against an aged midfield that has technical excellence but perhaps not mobility.

Vinicius Jr playing for Real Madrid against Liverpool in the Champions League (Photo: Denis Doyle via Getty Images)

Where will the game be decided?

JH: In midfield. Madrid have been written off for years because of the age of Modric and Toni Kroos. But fitness coach Antonio Pintus has extended their careers and they’re still able to run games. How Enzo Fernandez and Co measure up should be fun.

SSB: Reece James v Vinicius Jr is probably the area to focus on. Vinicius Jr makes his own case; he’s become so destructive. But James’ delivery and movement is so important to Chelsea’s ability to mask their lack of a true goalscorer, which is to say nothing of the way he’ll have to patrol that right side and guard against pace and threat.

OK: I’ll agree with Seb. It’s James v Vinicius Jr. Trent Alexander-Arnold found Vinicius Jr too hot to handle in the previous round, which is probably a large part of why he was left out of the England squad in favour of James. We now get to find out whether James, whose season has been stop-start due to injury, can do any better.

NM: In the heads of the Chelsea players. Can they get over the psychological hold Real seem to have over the Champions League? They did in 2021, after all…

LT: If Potter continues to play the Tuchel-esque 3-4-2-1 that he used against Borussia Dortmund then Chelsea will overload Madrid’s midfield three. Though a high-possession approach from Chelsea would play into Madrid’s likely game plan of mid-block-and-counter, so Potter will need to have his counter-press well drilled.

Our predictions

OK: I didn’t think Real Madrid were a great team when they won it last year — and they certainly have not looked great in La Liga this season — but they were very impressive against Liverpool. In this competition, you have to fancy them.

SSB: Real advance. Drama.

JH: Madrid’s history in this competition, not to mention that of Carlo Ancelotti, should automatically make them favourites at the start of every Champions League season.

NM: Real Madrid.

LT: It feels incredibly naive and difficult to overlook Real, despite Chelsea’s recent improvements.

Inter Milan v Benfica

Why is this tie worth watching?

JH: This is a throwback to an age when Benfica and Inter ruled European football in the 1960s. It feels slightly odd to characterise Benfica as a revelation this season when they reached the same stage a year ago, but the team has come on leaps and bounds under Roger Schmidt despite selling Darwin Nunez and Enzo Fernandez.

OK: Inter haven’t reached this stage in the Champions League since 2011. Benfica haven’t reached the semi-finals since 1990. This is an incredible opportunity for two clubs who have adapted very differently to the challenges of the past decade: Benfica largely building around youth, Inter preferring experience.

SSB: Benfica are the story. Honestly, they’re good enough to win the whole thing — and if they don’t, their football will mean they go down swinging.

NM: Novelty and nostalgia: these two haven’t faced each other in this competition since the 1965 final, which is fairly extraordinary, two historical giants of the European game going at it again.

LT: At their best, Inter’s 3-5-2 and advancing wing-backs are really, really fun to watch. Their overall approach might look defence-first — they kept clean sheets, just, in both legs against Porto in the last round — but they are particularly threatening down both sides, especially when attacking a back four that they can overload. As for Benfica: goals. They scored seven in the round of 16 against Club Bruges and only Napoli, Bayern and Liverpool scored more group-stage goals than them (16).

Which player on each side are you eager to watch?

OK: I have a peculiar fascination with Benfica goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos. I remember a scout telling me he was one to watch 10 years ago when he was a teenager in Stuttgart’s B team and then again when he went to Panathinaikos. He probably hasn’t quite reached the heights expected, but my fascination persists. Inter? That’s a harder question. They’re not really a team you particularly look forward to watching, are they? They have some very accomplished players, but, with respect to Nicolo Barella and Lautaro Martinez, I wouldn’t say they’re a team who has me on the edge of my seat.

NM: Goncalo Ramos did it at the World Cup, he’s doing it in the league, he did it against Club Bruges, but it’s big boy time now. The man he’ll be trying to beat: Andre Onana.

SSB: Goncalo Ramos’s form has been a joy but, while this may sound silly in a few years’ time, I still don’t quite trust it. Instead — and this is sentimental — I’ll pick the resurgent Joao Mario and his opportunity to put his old side to the sword. That he’s still just 30 describes how young he was when he was prematurely anointed as one of the stars of his generation. It’s been a disappointing decade and he suffered through that difficult time at Inter, with curious loan spells in Russia and West Ham (as well as at Sporting CP) Now, though, he’s playing the best football of his career. Who doesn’t enjoy a redemption story?

Goncalo Ramos, Joao Mario

Joao Mario climbs on Goncalo Ramos as Benfica celebrate scoring against Club Bruges in the Champions League (Photo: Gualter Fatia via Getty Images)

JH: Andre Onana has replaced Inter captain Samir Handanovic in goal on merit. His quick-thinking distribution was magnificent away in Barcelona and he came up with huge saves in the Porto tie. As for Benfica, Antonio Silva has emerged as the next great centre-back to come through at the club. Expect him to fetch Ruben Dias-style money one day.

LT: For those who like attacking full-backs, Benfica left-back Alejandro Grimaldo is exciting. An ever-present for Roger Schmidt’s side in Europe this season, he ranks joint top in the squad for chances created (14) in the Champions League this season and suits the 4-2-3-1 shape where he can overlap the left winger. Inter’s front two, Edin Dzeko (6ft 4in) and Lautaro Martinez (5ft 9in) look like a typical ‘big man, little man’ strike partnership but both are capable of playing either role.

Where will the game be decided?

NM: Lautaro Martinez has been banging them in at home, but only has one in the Champions League this season — can he find his Euro shooting boots?

OK: Benfica coach Roger Schmidt will know his team have to succeed where their great rivals Porto failed. Porto had so much possession in the second leg and so many half-chances, but Inter defended resolutely and kept them at bay across the whole tie. Benfica will have to hope Goncalo Ramos, in particular, can prove more incisive.

SSB: Probably Inter’s defence. Injuries have been an issue, but manager Simone Inzaghi’s backline hasn’t been stable enough this season, either in its personnel or performance. The Onana-Handanovic goalkeeping handover has been easier than anticipated but the whole department will need to improve.

JH: Benfica are super provocative in the final third and keep winning penalties which is one of the reasons former Inter midfielder Joao Mario is up to 21 goals in all competitions. Inter’s centre-backs will need to be on their best behaviour.

LT: A 3-5-2 against a 4-2-3-1 always makes for a fascinating clash. How Benfica defend Inter’s wing-backs when they push on — and can overload their back four — will be critical. But Inter’s defence, with five clean sheets in eight Champions League games, will be a big test for Benfica’s firing attack.

Our predictions

OK: This one feels like a coin toss. Benfica. No, Inter. No, Benfica. I’ll stick with my first answer. Benfica, with a flourish.

JH: Keep an eye on Inter. Let’s go early and make them a finalist. They’ll be reasonably satisfied with this draw and Simone Inzaghi is a cup specialist. Inter were the first team to beat Napoli this season and hammered Milan in the Super Cup and most recent Derby della Madonnina.

NM: Benfica.

SSB: Benfica, with a flourish.

LT: Really, really hard to call. Winner of the first leg takes it.

Manchester City v Bayern Munich

Why is this tie worth watching?

OK: It’s always fascinating to see how Manchester City cope with the intense pressure of the knockout stage. They were incredibly unfortunate to lose to Real Madrid in last season’s semi-final, but the agonising, spectacular nature of that stoppage-time collapse can only have added to the pressure they face this time.

SSB: Pick your narrative: Guardiola vs Nagelsmann. Past vs Future. Haaland returning to Germany. Super League vs The Resistance. It’s the headline quarter-final and the one with the highest chance of producing this year’s winner. And if past knockout games have burrowed their way inside Guardiola’s mind, imagine how busy his synapses will be before this one?

JH: Well, Julia Roberts, if you’re reading this Pep remains the gold standard at Bayern. OK, he didn’t win the Champions League in Munich. Jupp Heynckes pulled off an unprecedented treble the season before he arrived, which kind of stole Pep’s thunder. But in terms of standards set, Pep is unmatched at the Allianz. Julian Nagelsmann was supposed to get Bayern close to that level again, but they were eliminated by Villarreal last season (in the quarter-finals) and may relinquish their Bundesliga title this time around.

NM: To see whether Guardiola’s ongoing Champions League existential crisis with his current club can be worsened by ghosts of the Champions League existential crisis at his former club.

LT: If you need convincing to watch this game then football is probably not for you.

Which player on each side are you eager to watch?

OK: Kevin De Bruyne. He has been up and down this season, but at his best — in the Manchester derby last October, against RB Leipzig the other night — he is a joy to watch, a wonderful combination of dynamism, creativity and skill. For Bayern, it’s Jamal Musiala. I love watching him dribble. He has had an outstanding season and looks better — physically stronger and more mature in his decision-making — every time I watch him.

SSB: Musiala is magical. Not just effective in productivity terms, but an actual delight with the ball at his feet. He is the ethereal element — the drifting player who can hurt opponents in all sorts of ways from all sorts of positions. He’s a star already. In blue, it’s Erling Haaland, but not for the obvious reasons. When he was at Dortmund, this kind of fixture sometimes made Haaland frustrated, given the team’s fragility. Now he has a backing cast to support him it really will be interesting to see how — or if — he delivers.

Lionel Messi, Jamal Musiala

Jamal Musiala shakes hands with Lionel Messi after Bayern beat PSG in the Champions League (Photo: Alex Grimm via Getty Images)

NM: Musiala is the predictable answer, but sometimes things are predictable because they are true. See also Haaland, who scored five times in seven games against Bayern in Germany.

JH: Musiala keeps going from strength to strength. I’ve already mentioned Vinicius Jr and we’re spoiled for imaginative players in the final third at the moment. Musiala has a total of 20 goals and assists in the Bundesliga alone this season. Wait until Todd Boehly finds out he was once on Chelsea’s books. Joao Cancelo’s name is going to come up over the course of this tie, but I fancy watching the guy who took his place, Rico Lewis, purely because Pep is using him like he used Philipp Lahm and Joshua Kimmich.

LT: In the all the deserved awe of Musiala, I think Kingsley Coman gets underrated. He scored the winner in the 2020 Champions League final and, playing as left wing-back, netted the only goal in the round of 16 first leg away to PSG. For City, it’s Kevin De Bruyne’s time to shine.

Where will the game be decided?

OK: In the mind. City are a brilliant team who seem to have developed a mental block in the Champions League knock-out stage. When you think they’ve got over it, like last season against Real Madrid, it resurfaces.

SSB: Let’s rattle through a list: Eric Choupo-Moting’s ability to take chances at the same rate as Haaland; the partnership between Matthijs de Ligt and Dayot Upamecano; the quality of the goalkeeping; and the fitness of players who neither team can afford to do without: Goretzka, Musiala, De Bruyne, Rodri, Gundogan.

NM: Inside the heads of the managers.

JH: Dayot Upamecano and De Ligt contained Messi and Mbappe. Let’s see how they cope with Haaland who seems more involved in City’s play than before. Pep gave this glowing review to Sky Italia after his ‘manita’ against Leipzig: “It’s important he had 30 touches. Before he scored five goals and touched the ball seven times. I don’t like a striker that stays up there. I want them to be involved in the process of playing and play and play and play.”

LT: The gut instinct is that Guardiola is bound to do something tactically or with personnel that is a little strange.

Our predictions

OK: You can never underestimate Bayern, but I’m inclined to go with City here. All season long I’ve had them down as favourites to win it and, despite a very tough draw, I’ll stick with that.

SSB: It’s City’s tie to lose, but they will.

JH: Eric Choupo-Moting to have another one of those incongruously big Champions League moments.

NM: Bayern Munich.

AC Milan v Napoli

Why is this tie worth watching?

OK: For me it brings out a certain nostalgia for the late 1980s — Gullit and Van Basten v Maradona and Careca — and an old bootlegged VHS tape I bought at a market in Cyprus. But these days it’s about Kvaradona, not Maradona. I cannot get enough of watching Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. It’s such an evocative clash anyway, but all the more so when Kvaratskhelia and Napoli are the most compelling team and most compelling story of this season.

SSB: Perceived entitlement vs an inferiority complex. It’s a tinder box of a fixture.

NM: For those of a certain vintage, the sight of Italian sides riding high in the Champions League brings a fuzzy nostalgic glow.

JH: It’s the current Italian champions against the next Italian champions, so this is the best Serie A has to offer. The game at San Siro earlier this season was fantastic and even though Milan lost, it ranks as one of their finest performances. Milan have changed system since then and it’ll be interesting to see what Napoli learn from the league encounter at the Stadio Diego Maradona at the beginning of April.

LT: You’d be silly not to watch any game involving Napoli right now. Their 4-3-3 is fluid and dynamic and without any major weakness. They scored the most group stage goals (20) of any team but had so much variety in them too.

Which player on each side are you eager to watch?

OK: For Napoli, it has to be Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. He’s such a pure talent, always trying those little twists, turns and the type of individualism and spontaneity that is so rare in the highly prescribed football we see these days. The fact he has come so far from relative obscurity in such a short space of time adds to his appeal. For Milan, I’m looking forward to seeing more of Malick Thiaw.

SSB: For Napoli, it’s still Victor Osimhen. He’s at that thrilling stage where nobody quite knows how good he can be. Tellingly, this season has seen him score goals at important times and that’s always a betrayal of emerging greatness, but the range of those goals… goodness me. It comes down to this: turn up to watch Osimhen at the moment and you might see something you haven’t seen before. Mike Maignan might be Milan’s most important player – or certainly among them. Their win over Tottenham got consumed by the Conte fallout and just how wretched Spurs were, but without Maignan’s plunging save at the end to deny Harry Kane, Milan might not have got through at all.

JH: Luciano Spalletti teaches the regista role better than anyone in Europe. It’s enough to think of the work he did with David Pizarro at Roma and Marcelo Brozovic at Inter. He’s turned the diminutive Stanislav Lobotka into a Slovenian simulacrum of Andres Iniesta. Staying with the position, Ismael Bennacer remains strangely under the radar even though Lobtoka himself recently revealed the Algerian to be one of the players he most enjoys watching. Game recognise game.

NM: English eyes will look at how Fikayo Tomori shackles that Napoli forward line in this context. You fear Kvaratskhelia and Osimhen may be picked off soon, so let’s enjoy them while they’re still together.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia celebrates scoring against Ajax in the Champions League (Photo: Francesco Pecoraro via Getty Images)

LT: Napoli’s forward line always gets its flowers but centre-back Kim Min-jae is the perfect blend of modern and old-fashioned centre-back. He tops the Napoli charts for clearances (31) and tackles plus interceptions (also 31), but ranks third for progressive passes (27). As for Milan, the Theo HernandezRafael Leao combination continues to excite. The Portuguese likes to roam inside and this makes space for the Frenchman to overlap, and is the key cog in Milan’s slightly limited attacking wheel.

Where will the game be decided?

NM: In that Napoli left channel. Good luck Pierre Kalulu, or whoever has to keep tabs on the loping Georgian.

OK: No team in Europe is playing more thrilling, devastating football than Napoli under Luciano Spaletti. They just need to keep doing what they are doing and play to the strengths of that brilliant forward line. If they do that, it will be very hard for Milan’s young back line to deal with them.

SSB: In the dressing room. Sometimes in European football — and this is especially true when teams from the same country face each other — the form team plays the history rather than the opposition. If the uninhibited Napoli of the season so far show up then Milan are a huge outsider. If Spalletti and his players pay too much attention to those red and black stripes and the weight of what they’re on the cusp of, then it will be much more even.

JH: One of the reasons Napoli are so damn hard to play against is their press and the number of opposition defenders Spalletti’s attackers attract. A quick regain sets Kvaratskhelia up for one-v-ones against disorganised defenders. The way he dribbles and takes players on (eight Atalanta players tried and failed to stop his goal at the weekend) often means markers have to abandon Osimhen. The Nigerian essentially does the same job for Kvara, drawing across a rabble of desperate defenders. Milan will have to keep their discipline and shape.

LT: Milan need to shut down Napoli’s attack across all parts of the pitch. As practically every opponent of Napoli’s this season will tell you, that is easier said than done.

Our predictions

OK: Unless they end up overwhelmed by the emotional wave they have been riding all season, I firmly expect Napoli to win this one — and to reach the final.

NM: Napoli.

SSB: Milan with the upset. Somehow.

JH: This is uncharted territory for Napoli as a club. It isn’t for seven-time winners AC Milan (even if this young group of players is still relatively new to the competition). Ultimately Milan’s season comes down to this and finishing in the top four. If they can leverage their football heritage in the way Madrid did to devastating effect last year then who knows. Milan need Rafa Leao to finally deliver a statement performance in the Champions League.

LT: Napoli to win both legs and reach the final. Maybe I am seduced by their style, but they look unstoppable.

Our predictions for the final

OK: Manchester City v Napoli.

JH: Real Madrid v Inter.

LT: Real Madrid v Napoli

SSB: Bayern v Benfica.

NM: Bayern v Napoli.

(Top images: Victor Osimhen by Francesco Pecoraro; Vinicius Jr by Angel Martinez; Reece James by Lars Baron; and Erling Haaland by Catherine Ivill, all via Getty Images)