April viewing guide: Finding Champions League final four, more

Georgia qualified for the Euros. Bayern Munich’s title streak all but ended (and they didn’t even steal the coach responsible for it). Manchester City did the opposite of seizing control of the Premier League race. We got ourselves a lopsided Champions League quarterfinal draw (and another “Dos a Cero” between the U.S. and Mexico).

March was a lot, and it gave us a lot to keep track of as we enter the penultimate month of the 2023-24 European soccer season.

April will give us our Champions League semifinalists and some lower-division domestic cup finalists. It will likely provide us champions in the Spanish, German, Italian and French title races. It might also provide some clarity in the epic three-way Premier League title fight between Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City, not to mention races for Champions League spots and relegation.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

It’s time to once again set the table. Competition by competition, here are the five or so biggest matches of a particularly huge month.

It’s like there was a seeding error. If you list the Champions League quarterfinalists by their current ClubElo.com rankings, you get No. 1 Manchester City, No. 2 Real Madrid, No. 5 Arsenal, No. 6 Bayern, No. 8 PSG, No. 9 Barcelona, No. 11 Borussia Dortmund and No. 14 Atletico. Those are also the quarterfinal pairings. The two best teams play each other in the quarters, along with the next two best, et cetera, and the top four teams are in the same half of the draw. That will assure us of an upstart finalist — or whatever qualifies as an upstart these days in European soccer — and it will also assure that the most high-quality matchups of the knockout rounds happen in the quarterfinals.

So be it. City vs. Real Madrid will give us all the raw technical talent and tactical contrast we could want. Arsenal vs. Bayern will be a fascinating battle between a pragmatic Gunners team looking for its first Champions League semifinal in 15 years and a Bayern team that wins the xG battle about as well as ever but is, um, cursed. PSG vs. Barca gives us two hot teams and an excuse to have “La Remontada” flashbacks. BVB vs. Atletico will give us two demonstrative home environments and a clear semifinal underdog.

Meanwhile, in the Europa League, we get the latest episode of Will Bayer Leverkusen Ever Lose? Late heroics have become a habit of late, and a treble remains on the table for Xabi Alonso’s squad.

Both the oddsmakers and Pep Guardiola agree: Liverpool, with a two-point lead over Arsenal and a three-point lead over Man City, are the Premier League title favorites at the moment. But the Opta power rankings say City are still the best team in the world, and since the start of 2024, Arsenal have comfortably been the best team.

Past three months:

– Arsenal: 2.78 points per game, +1.88 xG differential per match
– Liverpool: 2.50 PPG, +1.56 xGD
– Manchester City: 2.40 PPG, +1.07 xGD

The Gunners even took four points in head-to-head matches against the two this year as well, with City managing two and Liverpool just one.

In other words, with just nine matches to go in the race, you can still see whatever you want. Whoever you think is the favorite, you’ve got solid logic on your side. The three teams are done playing each other, but between Liverpool visiting Old Trafford (where the Reds lost in the FA Cup just a couple of weeks ago), Arsenal playing both fourth-place Villa and fifth-place Spurs, and City welcoming Villa as well, there are still plenty of opportunities for plot twists. Meanwhile, on the weekend of April 21, we’ve got one of many opportunities for a lower-division team (Haji Wright’s Coventry City, in this case) to make a cup final.

Speaking of lower divisions, it’s worth mentioning that (a) Leicester, Leeds and Ipswich are all on pace for at least 97 points in the Championship at the moment, (b) in the last 20 years, only one of 39 teams with even 86 points failed to earn promotion, and (c) since there are only two automatic promotion spots, one of these three will end up in the random outcome generator known as England’s promotion playoff. This could be an all-time finish in the second division. None of these three contenders have particularly demanding April schedules, though Ipswich’s Saturday trip to sixth-place Norwich is noteworthy.

Following Saturday’s late plot twists — Bayer Leverkusen’s late flip of a 1-0 deficit against Hoffenheim into a 2-1 win, combined with Bayern Munich’s first home loss to Borussia Dortmund in a decade — Leverkusen’s magic number is now nine. If they win or Bayern drop nine more combined points, the title is theirs.

Late in the Leverkusen-Hoffenheim match, it was still pretty easy to talk yourself into a Bayern comeback. If Leverkusen lost to Hoffenheim and Bayern beat BVB as they typically do, the Leverkusen lead would have been down to seven points with Leverkusen facing upcoming matches against fourth-place BVB on April 21, third-place Stuttgart on April 27 and sixth-place Eintracht Frankfurt on May 5. There would be plenty of opportunities to clam up. Instead, Leverkusen pulled off more late magic, Bayern disappointed again, and now we’re facing a when-not-if coronation.

Even without much title drama, however, there remains plenty of intrigue ahead. The battle for fourth place between BVB and RB Leipzig (and maybe Stuttgart, four points up on BVB) could go down to the wire — Stuttgart vs. BVB and BVB vs. RBL in the coming weeks are enormous — and third-division Saarbrucken, conqueror of Bayern, Eintracht and Borussia Monchengladbach in an all-time cup run, attempts to reach the DFB-Pokal final against a Kaiserslautern team that might soon join them in the third division.

It’s a good thing the Premier League title race is so gripping because it’s just about the only one we’ve got. In Spain, Real Madrid lead by eight points with eight matches remaining and, per Opta’s power ratings, boasts a 98.7% title chance at the moment. Sunday’s comfortable win over fifth-place Athletic Club all but put things to bed, but hey, we’ve still got an El Clasico to look forward to in April.

We’ve also got a super-tight fourth-place race — Atletico trail Athletic by a point with a game in hand (Opta top-four odds: Atletico 62%, Athletic 40%) — and this coming Saturday, we could see Mallorca lift a cup. They face Atletico in their first Copa del Rey final since a 3-0 win over Recreativo de Huelva in 2003. A young Samuel Eto’o scored twice for Los Piratas in that one.

(*Serie A schedules for the weekend of April 27-28 have not yet been determined.)

Different country, same story: Inter have all but locked up the Scudetto — they lead by 14 points with eight matches remaining, and their magic number is 11 points — but we’ve still got plenty to follow further down the table. There are eight teams within three points of the relegation zone, and with Italy likely to land a fifth Champions League berth next season, the race for the top five is in an interesting spot.

Odds of a top-five finish, per Opta power ratings:

– Juventus 97% (86% of top-four)
– Bologna 87% (60%)
– Atalanta 78% (41%)
– Roma 31% (11%)
– Napoli 3% (0.4%)
– Lazio 2% (0.2%)
– Fiorentina 1% (0.1%)

Three of those seven teams will qualify if a fifth berth is indeed secured, and while Opta favors Juve, Bologna and Atalanta, Roma are currently holding the No. 5 spot in the table — they’re two points ahead of Atalanta (though Atalanta have a game in hand) — and get huge matches against both fourth-place Bologna and eighth-place Napoli. Atalanta’s huge 3-0 win at Napoli this past weekend, combined with a pretty easy home-stretch schedule, gives them a solid chance of eventually overcoming Roma for fifth.

Atalanta also have a Coppa Italia to play for. It’s Atalanta-Fiorentina in one semifinal and Juve-Lazio in the other. If 10th-place Fiorentina wants to play in Europe for a third straight season next year, it looks like this might be the best available path to a bid.

I was exaggerating above when I said the Premier League was about the only title race we’ve got. It might be the only one among the Big Five leagues — PSG are just about ready to wrap things up as well, though the battle for second between upstart Brest, Monaco and maybe Lille is tight — but we’ve got some potential thrillers brewing just below the Big Five.

In Portugal, Sporting lead Benfica by one point with a game in hand and have a head-to-head matchup coming on Saturday. In Scotland, Sunday’s Old Firm could decide things in Scotland: Rangers trail Celtic by just a point with a game in hand. There are few things in the world more watchable than a Rangers-Celtic match with high stakes.

Then there’s Belgium. I’ve remarked on Union Saint-Gilloise’s title pursuit many times throughout these monthly previews, and now the rubber meets the road. In 2021-22, freshly promoted, they topped the table heading into Belgium’s title playoff — the top four teams cut their points in half and play a round robin against each other to finish the season — but lost to Club Brugge by four points.

In 2022-23, they had a hand on the trophy with just minutes to go in the season, but collapsed against Club Brugge and watched Royal Antwerp seize its first title in 66 years. This time, they took a three-point lead over Anderlecht into the playoff, but watched it immediately disappear with a 1-0 loss to Genk on Monday. They’ll face their derby rivals away on April 14. That could decide whether this story ends in heartbreak yet again.

Also, if you didn’t get enough lower-division glory above, Valenciennes are about to get relegated from France’s second division, having won just two league matches all year. But they’ve won four matches and two penalty shootouts in the Coupe de France to somehow reach the semifinals. Will they beat an extremely in-form Lyon this afternoon? Almost certainly not. But you have to watch, just in case.

One dull round can often set up a set of classics in the next. That’s forever been a lesson for March Madness, and it could apply to the Women’s Champions League as well. The quarterfinals were less than amazing: Thanks to a couple of group-stage surprises (which followed some qualification surprises), we saw some mismatches and four teams advancing by an average of 3.5 goals. But now those four teams — heavyweights, all — must face each other.

In one semifinal, we’ve got Emma Hayes’ final Chelsea team needing to beat mighty Barca to keep its Treble hopes alive. In the other, we’ve got eight-time European champions and 16-time French champions Lyon against a PSG team that disappointed early this season, with five blemishes in their first 12 matches (including losses in their first two Champions League group stage matches), but hasn’t lost since falling 1-0 to Bayern on November 23. The French title is all but gone — Lyon have dropped just two points all year and lead by seven — but a win here would put PSG back in the Champions League final for the first time since 2017 (when they lost to … Lyon).

Before we get to the Champions League, though, we’ve got a series of big international matches. Qualification for the 2025 Euros begins in a few days, and the method for qualification guarantees some early heavyweight matchups. The top 16 teams in Europe were split into four groups of four; the top two from each group will qualify, while the bottom two will enter a massive playoff, and we come flying out of the gate with matchups like Netherlands at Italy (April 5), Sweden at England (April 5), Germany at Austria (April 5), Norway at Netherlands (April 9) and France at Sweden (April 9).

If we take all the matches listed above and lay them out in chronological order, we get our viewing schedule for the month.

– April 2: Kaiserslautern at Saarbrücken (DFB Pokal)
– April 2: Valenciennes at Lyon (Coupe de France)
– April 3: Atalanta at Fiorentina (Coppa Italia)
– April 5: Netherlands (W) at Italy (W) (Euro qualification)
– April 6: VfB Stuttgart at Borussia Dortmund
– April 6: Athletic Club vs. Mallorca (Copa del Rey)
– April 6: Benfica at Sporting CP
– April 6: Ipswich Town at Norwich City
– April 7: Liverpool at Manchester United
– April 7: Celtic at Rangers

– April 9: Bayern Munich at Arsenal (Champions League)
– April 9: Manchester City at Real Madrid (Champions League)
– April 9: France (W) at Sweden (W) (Euro qualification)
– April 10: Borussia Dortmund at Atletico Madrid (Champions League)
– April 10: Barcelona at PSG (Champions League)
– April 11: West Ham at Bayer Leverkusen (Europa League)
– April 13: Girona at Atletico Madrid
– April 14: Aston Villa at Arsenal
– April 14: Union Saint-Gilloise at Anderlecht
– April 14: Chelsea (W) at Manchester United (W) (FA Cup)

– April 16: Atletico Madrid at Borussia Dortmund (Champions League)
– April 16: PSG at Barcelona (Champions League)
– April 17: Arsenal at Bayern Munich (Champions League)
– April 17: Real Madrid at Manchester City (Champions League)
– April 18: Bayer Leverkusen at West Ham (Europa League)
– April 20: Chelsea (W) at Barcelona (W) (Champions League)
– April 20: PSG (W) at Lyon (W) (Champions League)
– April 21: Manchester United at Coventry City (FA Cup)
– April 21: Bayer Leverkusen at Borussia Dortmund
– April 21: Barcelona at Real Madrid
– April 21: Monaco at Brest

– April 22: Inter Milan at AC Milan
– April 22: Bologna at Roma
– April 24: Fiorentina at Atalanta (Coppa Italia)
– April 27: Borussia Dortmund at RB Leipzig
– April 27: VfB Stuttgart at Bayer Leverkusen
– April 27: Barcelona (W) at Chelsea (Champions League)
– April 27: Lyon (W) at PSG (W) (Champions League)
– April 28: Arsenal at Tottenham Hotspur
– April 28: Athletic Bilbao at Atletico Madrid
– April 28: Real Madrid at Real Sociedad
– ~April 28: AC Milan at Juventus
– ~April 28: Roma at Napoli
– April 28: Chelsea (W) at Liverpool (W)

The first men’s Champions League semifinal kicks on April 30, too, and since this was mostly Europe-based, we didn’t even get into the SheBelieves Cup (April 6-9), CONCACAF Champions Cup quarterfinals (April 2-10) or the start of Brazil’s parity-friendly Serie A season. This is one hell of a month.

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