The first legs of the Champions League quarter-finals presented mixed fortunes for Madrid clubs, wins for Premier League title chasers Manchester City and Liverpool, a grueling defeat for defending champions Chelsea and a shock for Bayern Munich.
Rob Dawson, Bill Connelly and Derek Rae give their thoughts on the big issues in midweek action.
Is there anyone more important to his team than Karim Benzema?
Dawson: No. Benzema is in the form of his life and there is no longer any team in the Champions League who would like to have chances to stop him when he plays like that. Real Madrid are always a team full of top players, but when you have a striker who seems to score every half chance, it takes the team to a different level. His two headers in the first half of Wednesday’s 3-1 win at Chelsea were works of art. He is the best player left in the competition.
Connell: I could flip that and say Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku is even more important at this point – as in, any chance Chelsea have of getting back into that tie is probably desperately dependent on him finding the goal form that eluded him for a big part. parts of this season. But yes, Benzema’s Champions League form this season (11 goals in eight appearances and two hat-tricks in three knockout ties) has been otherworldly. While Liverpool and Manchester City in particular are favorites due to the overall strength of the squad, Real Madrid’s No.9 gives them a fighting chance against anyone.
Rai: There is no more important individual for his team among the remaining teams in the competition than Benzema. The few times he disappeared during Los Blancos, there is simply no comparable replacement. The range of goals he has scored this season has been quite staggering and the first of his arrivals at Stamford Bridge will long be remembered: a work of art that leaves us wondering how he got so much power on his head . Robert Lewandowski is getting closer to this issue but I think Bayern could still find a way without him in a one-off game. I’m not sure the same applies to Real Madrid.
Alejandro Moreno praises Luis Diaz’s contributions in Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Benfica.
What caught your attention during the quarter-final first leg?
Connell: Liverpool have so, so many ways to attack you. Diogo Jota saved them against Watford at the weekend, and he didn’t even start Tuesday’s 3-1 win at Benfica. Neither did Roberto Firmino. Or Jordan Henderson! Instead, Luis Diaz and Naby Keita combined for a goal, an assist, eight shots worth 1.6 xG and completions worth 0.7 xA, and Liverpool easily won. a Champions League quarter-final away game. Yes, Benfica are the weakest team left on the pitch, but the depth of Liverpool’s attacking options is absurd.
Rai: You have to go back a bit to the last time Bayern looked as exhausted in the Champions League as they did in their 1-0 defeat at Villarreal. Perhaps the last such performance dates back to 2019, against Liverpool. Frankly, no one really gets a passing grade, except maybe Kingsley Coman. One wonders if manager Julian Nagelsmann made the wrong decision by risking Alphonso Davies from the start after such a long absence through injury. It was all very frantic and the damage Villarreal inflicted could have been even greater. It’s a crumb of comfort that Bayern can cling to. Another is that they have 90 minutes, or even 120, in front of their own fans to turn things around.
Dawson: Pep Guardiola deserves a lot of credit for the way he handled the game in Manchester City’s 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid. It was a surprise he left Phil Foden and Jack Grealish on the bench, but when they both came on midway through the second half it looked like a planned move and if so, it worked wonderfully. Foden, in particular, was a game-changer with the way he won the ball in tight spaces and Guardiola said afterwards that the 21-year-old was able to take advantage of some tired Atletico legs. The City manager has received plenty of criticism in the past for getting it wrong in the Champions League so it’s only fair that he gets credit when he does succeed.
Steve Nicol was totally disappointed with Atletico Madrid’s performance in the Champions League against Manchester City.
Would Atletico benefit from a more attacking style of play?
Rai: The funny thing about watching Atletico on a regular basis this season is that they have searched for a new identity and regularly shown us their wilder side. It hasn’t always paid off, and so it’s understandable that in Manchester – against a very accomplished side – coach Diego Simeone reverted to the approach that most fans around the world associate with him and Atleti. In that case, playing like they did gives the reigning Spanish champions a chance. It wasn’t pretty but it never would be.
Dawson: I do not think so. Simeone has created a way of playing that has been very successful, so why would he consider suddenly becoming more expansive? Atletico’s good attacking players – Joao Felix and Antoine Griezmann – take advantage of the situations they create, it’s a big part of Simeone’s plan which is just as important as how his side defend. Ultimately, Atletico under Simeone have won a lot of games (59.2% of them over a decade with him at the helm) and you can’t do that without scoring goals, he has to so do something good.
Connell: What Simeone did in the first leg at Manchester City, the most possession-hungry of any possession team, made perfect sense. Atleti rolled out a literal 5-5-0 for much of the first half and left City completely goalless in possession, and you could argue they should have maintained that for the whole game. Alas, they have to score now in the second leg, and it will be interesting to see what Simeone feels comfortable doing and when he does. They score a lot of goals in La Liga, obviously: only Real Madrid and Barcelona have scored more this season.
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What makes Unai Emery such a good coach in the Round of 16?
Dawson: It’s not that he’s a good coach in the round of 16, he’s just a good coach, period. Some Arsenal fans will probably disagree, but you can’t argue with his CV. When a good manager finds a team that matches his style and also adheres to what he’s trying to do, anything is possible and that’s what’s happening at Villarreal now. Juventus and Bayern Munich have better players, but when you have a tactically astute manager, the quality gap can close very quickly.
Connell: His teams are so strong. They make themselves look better than they give you, and they’re really good at forcing you to play left-handed. Bayern’s Lewandowski averages 39.7 touches per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga and 34.0 in the Champions League, but he only had 29 against Villarreal and managed just two shots (and only one of particular quality ). Villarreal forced others like Coman or Davies to create something from the perimeter, and they couldn’t do it. They could still do it in the second leg, of course, but Villarreal brilliantly takes you away from Plan A.
Rai: Emery is the type of coach who is almost happiest preparing a game plan that involves letting the opposition have more ball. The trick is to unbalance the opposition and force them into certain areas of the pitch. Sometimes it’s about moving just one player and the excellent Giovanni Lo Celso was the key figure, going from a right-wing attacker in a 4-3-3 with the ball, to a wide midfielder in a 4 -4-2 without the ball. Emery deserves more respect than he sometimes gets.