UCL talking points: Was round of 16 a bit boring?

The 2023-24 Champions League round of 16 is all wrapped up with plenty of drama, two penalty shootouts and historic moments. Barcelona’s youngsters made all the difference, Arsenal reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 2010, and Harry Kane rescued Bayern Munich to keep his hopes of a trophy this season alive.

Friday’s quarterfinal draw will feature plenty of European heavyweights such as defending champions Manchester City and LaLiga leaders Real Madrid, while Borussia Dortmund and Atlético Madrid will look to deliver an upset. And could Kylian Mbappé finally lift the title in what will be his last season at Paris Saint-Germain?

We asked ESPN writers Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden and Julien Laurens to answer some of our burning questions.

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Gab Marcotti: No, I don’t think it’s been boring at all. Obviously you have seeded teams against unseeded teams, so one team will be markedly better. But of the eight ties, only two were done and dusted after the first leg (Manchester City and PSG and, by the way, PSG were a lot of fun to watch). Lazio beat Bayern; that wasn’t predictable. RB Leipzig outplayed Real Madrid and hit the woodwork at the end. A few centimeters over and it would have been extra time. Arsenal and FC Porto went to penalties. Napoli weren’t great in Barcelona, but it was a fun game, and if Jesper Lindstrom doesn’t squander that chance … who knows? The Wednesday ties were all very much in the balance. More importantly, we’ve seen a lot of open football. So yeah, it’s predictable in the way that higher-seeded teams are usually better than lower-seeded ones and more likely to win, like at Wimbledon or March Madness. But that doesn’t make it boring to me. And most of the games themselves weren’t predictable.

Mark Ogden: The round of 16 is always something of a slog, largely because the seeding element — group winners facing runners-up — leads to some pretty predictable ties, but there was plenty of drama at Arsenal and Atlético Madrid in the second legs this week. We always knew that Manchester City would easily beat FC Copenhagen, but Bayern Munich and Real Madrid found it tougher than expected to overcome Lazio and Leipzig, respectively. But in the end, Bayern and Real still won, as did Arsenal, PSG and Barcelona. We haven’t had a surprise result in this round, but that was never likely. Don’t worry, though — there will be some box office ties in the quarterfinals, and some real jeopardy will make the competition come alive.

Julien Laurens: I couldn’t disagree more! I have really enjoyed these matches. The suspense in the two penalty shootouts was amazing. We had to wait eight years for a Champions League penalty shootout, and then we got two in two days. Apart from that, even if all the favourites won (apart from Atlético), it’s really only the Manchester City-Copenhagen tie that was not up to the standard because it was too one-sided.

Ogden: Atlético Madrid are the perennial underdog, the team that is always underestimated, and Diego Simeone’s side is stacked with players who don’t get the credit or adulation that they deserve. But nobody sums Atleti up better than Ángel Correa. He is the perfect Simeone player — tough, but with understated quality in everything that he does. Anyone who has seen the Simeone documentary will know all about how the coach has built Correa’s confidence as a player and as a person, and Correa repays it every time he is on the pitch. And what a penalty he scored, too, in the shootout win against Inter.

Laurens: I would go for Memphis Depay. He had such a massive impact coming off the bench for Atletico Madrid in the second leg against Inter on Wednesday. He scored the goal that took the game to extra time, he hit the post, scored his penalty in the shootout. He was just outstanding. He is one of the best super-subs in Europe this season and people forget how talented and good he is.

Marcotti: I’m not sure too many players are underrated given the size of the teams in this competition. But if you want names, I’ll pick out guys who I think are relative unsung heroes. Declan Rice’s international profile isn’t what it should be, but he’s critical to Arsenal. Manuel Ugarte’s contribution to PSG is greater than he’s given credit for, as is Donyell Malen’s to Borussia Dortmund. A shoutout for Fermín López as well: he might not play all the time and Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsí (and Gavi, of course) may get most of the hype, but López was critical against Napoli and will play an important role the rest of the season.

Laurens: Nothing has changed. Manchester City are still the best team in this competition and the heavy favourites to go back-to-back and win it again. Over two legs, I think they are too strong for everyone else. If you meet them in the final, over 90 minutes, they could be put under pressure as we saw against Inter Milan last year in Istanbul. Even if their priority is to win a fourth consecutive Premier League title to make history, they would love another Champions League trophy as well. Whoever will try to knock them off their European perch will have to be very strong.

Marcotti: You ask this every time and, I think, I always give the same answer. Manchester City are the best team left in the competition. By some margin, too. That said, this is football, and over two legs, I can see a number of teams beating them. But when it comes to who the favorite is, it’s open and shut. Now, between now and the final, a lot can happen and teams can get better or worse. I could see City getting worse if there’s an injury to one of their key men (in my mind, Erling Haaland or Rodri; we’ve seen them win without Kevin De Bruyne). And I could see PSG getting better (I’m not sure Luis Enrique has made them more than the sum of their parts yet) and Borussia Dortmund getting better (it’s a low bar). I suspect most of the others are what they are right now.

Ogden: Manchester City are still the team to beat, but even though they can repeat last season’s treble, there are maybe as many as four teams who could beat them, especially in a one-off game in the final. I can’t see any of the remaining teams being strong enough to beat City over two legs, but Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Arsenal and PSG (if Mbappé is in top form) could all win over 90 minutes at Wembley. The one team you would fancy to beat City over two legs aren’t even in the competition, so Liverpool will have to settle for the Europa League instead.

Marcotti: I’ll go for Bayern vs. Barcelona, for the simple reason that it pits two managers who know they’ll be gone at the end of the season (though I still think there’s a shot Xavi changes his mind … call me a romantic). There’s an evident symmetry there with their domestic disappointments, too, plus we’re obviously talking about the two legit heavyweights.

Ogden: Arsenal vs. Manchester City, simply because they play each other in the Premier League on March 31, and the prospect of two more seismic clashes within the space of two weeks would give us incredible tension on and off the pitch and, by the third game, plenty of subplots that would add even more spice to the tie. Beyond that, I agree with Gab in that I’d definitely take Bayern vs. Barca. Two superclubs enduring the ignominy of a fall from grace domestically, but with a puncher’s chance of winning the big one if they can ride their luck through to the final.

Laurens: There are great narratives for many potential quarterfinals. Arsenal vs. Bayern, with Kane and Tuchel coming back to London and the Gunners out for revenge after some heavy defeats to Bayern in the past. What about a Man City-Barça quarterfinal? Pep Guardiola returning home to face his star pupil, Xavi. Finally, a Madrid derby would be awesome as well.

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