March Madness ended last week, and the tournament this year was a reminder of something that I forget every year: While the first weekend gets all the publicity, with sheer wall-to-wall tournament hoops blanketing the country, the second weekend is far better to watch. The blowouts have mostly been eliminated, the doormats have gone home, and the schedule has been winnowed to a handful of engrossing, high-quality games.
The quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League start next week, the soccer equivalent of the second weekend of March Madness, offering a balance of quantity and quality that is unmatched anywhere else in the soccer universe.
The highlight of the matchups is Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid, with the best, richest team in Germany taking on the best, richest team in Spain. If nothing else, the stakes are higher in this matchup than in any other. Both clubs will likely win their respective league titles, but the loser of this matchup will look at its season as a part-failure.
In terms of star power, Barcelona vs. Juventus will follow right behind that matchup. Juventus has built its success in Italy on having the best defense in Serie A, a defense-minded league. Barcelona boasts the biggest offensive stars in the world and has the best attack in La Liga, an offense-minded league. The onus is on Juventus, and manager Max Allegri, to produce the kind of era-defining European success that has eluded the club, even as it has won five straight Serie A titles.
The most intriguing tactical matchup might be the one between Atlético Madrid and Leicester City. Leicester has rediscovered the counterattacking mojo that brought it the Premier League title last season, but in Atlético, the Foxes run up against a team that’s perfected a defense-first, counterattacking style. Both teams win by playing hard without the benefit of possession; it will be fascinating to see the two go up against each other.
Flying under the radar are the games between Borussia Dortmund and Monaco, two high-powered, attack-minded teams that don’t have quite enough star power to draw the coverage of the other games. Monaco has scored more goals than any major European team except Barcelona, but they’ve done it with young players who are only becoming famous. Dortmund has struggled to maintain its high-flying style this year, but if nothing else, American wunderkind Christian Pulisic will be playing, giving fans here at least one reason to watch.
Weeks like these are why the Champions League keeps going — the chance for Europe’s best and brightest to cross borders and test themselves. It doesn’t get any better than these games, which will be played over the next two weeks, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. During the NCAA tournament, plenty of workers sneak away from the office to catch a little daytime basketball. If you’re inclined to do the same for soccer, this would be the week to do it.
• Another year, another failure for MLS in the CONCACAF Champions League. Both Dallas and Vancouver lost semifinals against Liga MX teams, and either Tigres or Pachuca will take this year’s title — the ninth win in nine years for a Mexican team, and the seventh time in nine years that the final has been an all-Mexican affair.
• St. Louis was the prohibitive favorite for the next MLS expansion franchise, but the city’s voters weren’t nearly as excited as MLS. A $60 million city referendum went down at the polls, with 53 percent voting against. The city’s bid now appears dead — bad news for St. Louis soccer fans, but good news for the other 11 cities seeking a franchise.
• It’s hard to have a worse week than Spanish third-division team Eldense had last weekend. Spanish reserve teams play in the regular league system, and so Eldense came up against Barcelona’s B team. Barcelona B won the encounter 12-0, guaranteeing that Eldense would be relegated. In response, team management forfeited the rest of the team’s games this year — and in the aftermath, two players, a coach, and the team’s manager, and general director were arrested for match-fixing.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
La Liga: Atlético Madrid at Real Madrid, 9:15 a.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. While everyone was paying attention to Sevilla’s brief run to the top of Spain, Atlético was quietly working its way back up to third in the table. They won’t catch their crosstown rivals at the top of the standings — but they can still throw a wrench into their rivals’ plans for the La Liga title.
Premier League: Chelsea at Bournemouth, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Chelsea finally stumbled briefly at the top of the Premier League, with a shocking loss to Crystal Palace, but a home victory over Manchester City should right the Blues’ ship. That said, a trip to Bournemouth, which is coming off an excellent draw on the road at Liverpool, won’t be that easy.
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Bayern Munich, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. The two German giants have equal home records this season, but while Bayern has been just as good on the road as they have at home, Dortmund has lost more games than it’s won — the main reason Bayern will win the title, while BVB chases third place in the standings.
Liga MX: Toluca at Pumas, noon Saturday, Univision. Don’t look now, but unexciting Toluca has climbed to the top of the Mexican standings, with only six games to go in the spring. Pumas, meanwhile, is stuck in a group of eight or nine teams that is chasing four or five playoff spots, and needs to get consistent results to guarantee a top-eight spot.