Underdogs under more pressure in Champions League
Photographer: Fernandopascullo. CC BY-SA 4.0
Even though any team with a ticket ranked among the bosses in their domestic league in the season just past, Champions League isn’t a literal term. It’s a competition for the big clubs. Juggernauts are tipped to win the trophy every year. Unless you stretch the definition to include Chelsea  and Inter , it’s been ages since an underdog won the big-eared trophy.
Underdogs taking on juggernauts isn’t a rare occurrence. Beating them is. Such moments turn heads and live long in the memory. In 2004, Jose Mourinho’s Porto took out Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, winning at Old Trafford on their way to the crown. Last season, Roma stunned Barcelona. This tournament is a special one for the smaller clubs.
Underdogs ran riot in the last round.
Ajax ended Real Madrid's three-year reign as champions. The Merengues are the ultimate juggernauts, winning 13 European Cups, four in the last five years. A 4-1 humiliation at the Santiago Bernabeu turned Los Blancos into the first holders who failed to reach the quarterfinals since Chelsea.
Manchester United eliminated Paris Saint-Germain. On paper, the Parisians held every advantage even with Neymar injured for the second year running. A 2-0 first-leg advantage increased their chances to progress. It didn’t guarantee them, however. The table turned on the Parc des Princes turf. The Red Devils won 3-1 on a late penalty aided by VAR to advance.
Tottenham and Porto also remain in the competition although the pair travelled smoother roads. Spurs eased past flagging Borussia Dortmund 4-0 on aggregate. Porto squeezed past Roma 4-3 over two legs.
All four proved their quality to reach this point. The question is how much further can they go? It’s said the hill gets steeper the higher you climb. The quarters demand more from clubs than the Round of 16. Ajax survived Real Madrid only draw Juventus. United must contend with Barcelona after ousting PSG.
Ajax v Juventus
Juventus became strong favourites when Cristiano Ronaldo woke up against Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their R16 clash. His hat trick powered them into the next round. Barring Real Madrid, Juve are the competition’s most consistent side in the past five years, making two finals over that stretch.
Lucky is sometimes used to describe Ajax. The Dutch club were fortunate in the last round to catch Real without an answer for their irrepressible nature. In years past, Ronaldo was the answer to such questions. He’s been named to the Old Lady’s squad despite a thigh injury. Are Ajax about to become unlucky?
Tottenham v Manchester City
Manchester City pose a greater if more familiar threat to Tottenham than Dortmund. The Sky Blues defeated the Lily Whites on Riyad Mahrez’s sixth-minute strike at Wembley just before Hallowe’en. The two clubs will become even more familiar in the coming fortnight. They’ll play out the two quarterfinal legs before meeting at the Etihad for a Premier League tilt on the 20th.
Porto v Liverpool
Like Porto in this tournament, Liverpool sent Roma home in the last, surviving a dramatic second leg in which the Giallorossi couldn’t find the late strike to exploit the away goals rule. The Reds were far more aggressive in handling Eusebio de Francesco’s squad than Barcelona. They’ll take the same approach with Porto although Os Draegos want to settle the score after capitulating 5-0 in the Dragon’s Lair in a Round of 16 Valentine’s Day massacre a year ago.
Manchester United v Barcelona
Manchester United face the most daunting test against Barcelona. The Catalans are the last Spanish team in the competition. On opening day at the Camp Nou, Lionel Messi promised 99,354 Blaugrana faithful the club would bring the trophy home. The Red Devils must deal with the Catalans after successive defeats to Wolves. Even if United are up for the first leg at Old Trafford, coming out on top in Barcelona is ten times the challenge their victory in Paris proved.
It's obvious that the underdogs are in more desperate straits in the quarterfinals. They’ll need to double down on their previous performances to climb to the next level. The Champions League final eight is a steep hill indeed.