Now that the shackles are off and limitations removed from the UEFA Champions League draw process, things could get quite interesting.
Three English clubs (Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool), two German sides (Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund) and solo representatives from Spain (Real Madrid), France (PSG) and Portugal (Porto) make up the final eight contenders for European glory after a round of 16 that was rather straightforward for nearly all the victors. Come Friday, they'll all know the path to the May 29 final in Istanbul, with the draw setting up the quarterfinal matchups and potential semifinal pairings.
With no more protections for clubs facing off against other clubs either from the same group or domestic league, the possibilities are plentiful. Many would view Man City–Bayern, for instance, as a potential final, but it could well come out of the pots as a quarterfinal bout.
Before the anticipated draw, here's how the eight remaining contenders stack up:
1. Manchester City
Round of 16: Eliminated Borussia Mönchengladbach, 4–0 on aggregate
Maybe this is the year for Man City after all. Pep Guardiola's side is 14 points clear in the Premier League and closing in on a third domestic league title in four seasons, while also remaining alive in the FA Cup and awaiting the League Cup final vs. Tottenham in late April. The quadruple talk will surround this club until it's either completed or no longer attainable, but for good reason. City is stacked, balanced and reined in enough that it's less susceptible than it has been in the past to a debilitating European result.
That does not mean Guardiola won't be tempted to overtinker in a big spot again, and it does not mean that history won't repeat itself in the form of a fourth straight quarterfinal ouster—there's good reason and enough recent evidence for any City fan to have the guard way up—but no club, not even mighty defending champion Bayern Munich, is better positioned to win it all. A draw of death vs. Bayern, naturally, would put that to the immediate test.
2. Bayern Munich
Round of 16: Eliminated Lazio, 6–2 on aggregate
The only reason to doubt Bayern Munich is because it's been playing with fire so much this season. It's talented, deep, malleable and headstrong enough to overcome slow starts and deficits, but if that pattern continues, then at a certain point it's going to run into the wrong opponent and get sent home. That pattern, for what it's worth, did not manifest itself in the last round vs. Lazio, and with Robert Lewandowski still scoring at a blistering rate, it'll be a hard side to keep down no matter what chances are conceded on the other end.
Round of 16: Eliminated Atlético Madrid, 3–0 on aggregate
Chelsea has turned a corner since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard (unbeaten in 13 games, two goals conceded) to the point that the Blues are now realistic contenders to win the Champions League for the second time after making a midseason managerial change (2012). There are vast differences between Roberto Di Matteo and Tuchel, most notably being that Tuchel's previous stop resulted in a Champions League final appearance with PSG, while Di Matteo's prior experience to Chelsea was leading MK Dons and West Brom.
Nevertheless, the summer spending spree is finally bearing its fruits, even if Timo Werner still isn't scoring as much as expected. He is helping create goals, though, and with Chelsea's newfound stingy and organized approach and a depth of game-breaking attackers to complement it, no side will feel comfortable drawing the Blues from here on out.
4. Paris Saint-Germain
Round of 16: Eliminated Barcelona, 5–2 on aggregate
While defending a three-goal, first-leg lead, PSG held up well under immense pressure from Barcelona—though one wonders what might have occurred had Lionel Messi converted his penalty kick just before halftime in a momentum-altering moment. Regardless, PSG is through, having passed a big test both physically and psychologically, and with Neymar due to return, it's getting its prolific Brazilian forward back at the right time.
The club's domestic struggles (read: inability to win virtually every league match, as has become its norm) remain confounding, but between last season's run to the final and its performance on the Champions League stage so far this season, there's reason to believe in PSG's chances. Its talent and spending power have never been in question, and in Mauricio Pochettino it has a steady hand at the wheel. A draw against its former manager, Tuchel, and Chelsea would make for fascinating theater.
5. Borussia Dortmund
Round of 16: Eliminated Sevilla, 5–4 on aggregate
With Erling Haaland leading the attack, anything seems possible. Sevilla certainly found that out, as did Bayern Munich 10 minutes into the rivals' recent Bundesliga match, (though Haaland was eventually forced out with an injury). The competition's leading scorer with 10 goals, Haaland has made the Champions League stage his own personal showcase (20 goals in 14 career UCL matches), and he'll be a handful for whoever is tasked with defending him next.
As for Dortmund as a whole, it remains feisty despite having a lame-duck, interim coach, but it also must remain cognizant of its Bundesliga demands considering it's currently outside of the top four. A potentially pivotal match vs. Eintracht Frankfurt looms just days before the first leg of the quarterfinals, and that result could dictate the momentum with which the Black and Yellow enter the final eight.
Round of 16: Eliminated RB Leipzig, 4–0 on aggregate
After the last two years, Liverpool finds itself in an unusual place of having lowered expectations. It's clear this is a hampered and wounded squad, with its Premier League title hopes long gone and its European aspirations unlikely to be met. But is that not where Jürgen Klopp can do some of his finest inspiration and motivation?
Liverpool worked its magic vs. RB Leipzig in the last 16 with a pair of 2–0 victories in Budapest and has perhaps turned a corner after losing eight of 12 matches over a recent span in all competitions. There are still far too many red flags with Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joël Matip and Jordan Henderson out to consider Liverpool any higher, and the fact that it's cause for celebration when its midfielders are able to play their actual positions again is all you need to know about what kind of a slog it's been this season.
Round of 16: Eliminated Juventus via away-goal tiebreaker (4–4 on aggregate)
Perhaps Porto should be given some more love after its resilient display with 10 men vs. Juventus and its eventual ouster of Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. (despite a 3–2, extra-time defeat in the second leg). Just how sustainable that is deeper into the competition—and how sustainable the performance of 38-year-old Pepe is against more dynamic attacks—remains to be seen. There's certainly no fear factor from Sergio Conceição's side, but Mehdi Taremi will be out for the first leg of the quarterfinals due to his red card vs. Juve, and Porto doesn't have the same depth as its remaining counterparts. That said, with the right draw, Porto could find itself as a surprise semifinalist, and even with a difficult draw, it'll prove to be a tough out.
8. Real Madrid
Round of 16: Eliminated Atalanta, 4–1 on aggregate
Madrid's seeing-off of a dangerous Atalanta was commendable, but it was not without its share of gifts. The red card to Remo Freuler 17 minutes into the tie totally altered the outlook of not just the first leg but the second leg, too, with Freuler serving his subsequent ban. And even then, it took Madrid nearly until the end of a period of over 70 minutes with a man advantage to break through in that first leg. In the second leg, the backbreaking opener came off an awful giveaway from the goalkeeper that wound up teeing up Karim Benzema. That's not to say Madrid's progression was undeserved—far from it—but there's still much to be shown against a true top side before Zinedine Zidane's crew can again be considered a legitimate contender again. At the very least, Los Blancos have avoided a third straight last-16 elimination.