UEFA Champions League: Previewing the quarterfinal games
After an eventful international break and league action, the Champions League resumes this midweek and we have some tasty fixtures coming up.
Most of the usual suspects -- Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Juventus -- feature in the quarterfinals but also joining the party are five-time European Champions Liverpool, and Manchester City who have dominated the Premier League this season. Throw in a couple of over-achievers -- Sevilla and Roma -- and you have the perfect mix for the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
So before the next round of matches kick off and teams deem their season a success or not solely based on their performance in the Champions League, let’s dive into how each tie is shaping and what we might have in store.
Sevilla vs Bayern Munich
If you consider recent results, you'll get an idea of the difference in quality between the two sides.Despite Mourinho’s claim that Sevilla have footballing heritage, don’t let the round-of-16 result fool you.
Yes, the Spanish side scored twice at Old Trafford. But had Mourinho encouraged his team to go at this team from the first whistle, it would have been United and not the team from Seville progressing to the quarters. The Sevilla side have quite a few weaknesses. Last year’s whirlwind offence designed by now Argentina coach Sampaoli has been replaced by a disjointed attack which relies on counter-attacking football.
They are already onto their second manager for the season, after firing Eduardo Berizzo under harsh circumstances. They were thumped 5-2, 5-0 and 5-1 away from home and given Bayern’s impressive home record both in Bundesliga and Champions League, expect this to be a one-way contest.
I’m still unsold on this year’s Bayern side as true contenders for the trophy. With Bundesliga the Bundesliga pretty wrapped up in the Hinrunde, Jupp Heynckes has been using the league as a lab like a mad scientist – trying to come up with the perfect lineup to compete against the European big boys. The scouting report on most of his players is already out there for anyone to look for, but it’s tough to get a feel for this team.
The usual starting eleven is dynamic offensively but could face problems against better attacks. Vidal has lost half a step, and his days of rampaging from one box to the other are few and far between. James was never a defensive workhorse – one of the reasons why he fell out of the Zidane's rotation.
Though he showed he can press the opposition well against Dortmund this past weekend, better teams like Liverpool, Manchester City and Real Madrid can expose his frailties. Trusting Javi Martinez alone with the responsibility to shield your defence is a step too far.
But those are problems for another day. For now, enjoy Bayern raining goals on its opposition, you know, if that’s your thing.
Juventus vs Real Madrid
Two giants of the competition pitted against each other who this season are not nearly as good as last season. Juventus have a scant four-point lead at the top of Serie A, a league which they wrap usually by March. Part of the reason behind it is the exhilarating play of Napoli and part of it is the Old Lady’s slow start to the season.
Their defence is still a brick wall, with Chiellini and whoever he is partnering up with, safeguarding the penalty box. When leading a game against quality opponents, Juve narrow their defensive and midfield line, forcing oppositions to yank cross after cross in the box, a tactic that plays to their strengths.
But their offence has often been an eyesore. There are only so many needles Pjanic can thread as a deep-lying midfielder before their offence turns into a sludge. Douglas Costa provides some relief from the wide areas but it often comes down to Dybala or Higuain creating something out of nothing.
They have wildly exceeded their xG mark in the domestic league. They have netted 70 goals but the xG puts them at 47.26, a difference of almost 23 goals. Either they are the luckiest team on the face of this planet or they are bound to hit the ground hard in one of their upcoming matches. They barely eked out a win against Tottenham, and that too because of a 10 minutes stretch over the two legs where they scored all their four goals.
The past favours the team from Turin. They have knocked out Real every time these two teams have met in the knockout stages. But we know history counts for nothing especially in front of this Madrid team.
In a season where they were touted as the favourites to run away with all the trophies, Real Madrid stumbled out of the gates. Ronaldo’s ill-timed suspension and cold-shooting to start the season, the mental fatigue of bringing the same intensity game in and game out after two seasons of European success, and opponents figuring out Zidane’s widely lauded 4-4-2 diamond formation, led to the perfect cocktail as a result of which they are 13 points off the top spot.
The results have improved ever since the start of the year, in part because Ronaldo has turned into Superman jacked up on PEDs and in part because this is the time when Champions League heats up. Most other players and teams crack under the pressure of the UCL, but this group of Real Madrid players lives for moments like these.
Over the last seven years, they have been the best team in this competition - winning it three times and never doing worse than semi-finals. Even in those semifinal losses, with the exception of their loss against Barcelona in 2011, you could make a case for them as the finalists. They lost to Bayern in 2012 in a penalty shootout and were a goal away against Dortmund in 2013 and Juventus in 2015. In all probability, this is the best run we have seen from any team in the modern iteration of the competition.
But make no mistake, this team is not flawless by any means. Their defense is as strong as a wet tissue. If Juventus’ defence is Beatles, then Madrid’s defence is Nickelback. Their whole defensive structure is based on talented individual defenders making last-ditch tackles to cover up for each other’s mistakes.
This same lack of direction applies to the other side of the field also where their attack is heavily dependent on whipping crosses into the box, an outdated and inefficient method of creating chances. Though Zidane has experimented more with his player personnel and lineups in recent weeks, his policy still is “let’s roll the ball out and we will win because we got the best players”. And guess which team has the best players in this tie?
Barcelona vs Roma
Not only did Barcelona land Roma, which was the second-best draw after Sevilla for most teams, they also ended up with a team whose midfield is a bit ponderous and slow- an ideal matchup for the Catalans.
After a torrid December where Roma went on a seven-game winless streak, Di Francesco abandoned his 4-3-3 formation for a 4-2-3-1. The results have improved since, as they have redistributed some of the attacking burdens from the shoulders of Edin Dzeko. The major benefactor has been the Turkish starlet Cengiz Under. His blistering pace, dribbling skills, and a thunderous left foot has brought comparisons with Pablo Dybala.
Their attack has been coming along since the tactical shift, but their defence still leaves a lot to be desired. A Herculean performance by their goalkeeper Alisson in the second half of the first leg against Shakhtar ensured that they left for Rome with a deficit they could overturn. Barcelona won’t be so kind.
Under Valverde, the side has become a lot more stable defensively. Often known for their attacking prowess, the side have managed to add more steel with a change in impetus under the Spanish tactician. However, there have been games where they were perhaps lucky not to lose or concede more goal, like we saw against Sevilla this past weekend.
Against Chelsea, a flattering 4-1 aggregate scoreline aside, they were the least comfortable team on the pitch. Their defence has been tough as a nail, but without Messi on the ball, their attack often turns into pass after pass leading to nowhere. Conte did a near perfect job of denying Messi the required space in the final third and nearly got away with a victory in the first leg if not for a moment’s lapse in defensive coordination.
Asking De Rossi and Strootman to patrol the midfield against the likes of Messi and Iniesta is like bringing a banana to a gunfight; neither has the legs to deal with the mercurial Argentine.
Liverpool vs Manchester City
Sure, this matchup lacks the conventional cross-continental exotic taste, but man the 126 minutes of football between these two teams was the most fun I’ve had this season watching football (I’m not counting the 54 minutes of punishment that City inflicted on Liverpool after Mane’s red card during the first fixture).
And still, it’s hard to figure out based on those two fixtures which side this tie will swing. Despite City taking a 1-0 lead at the Etihad, the game was finely poised and didn’t turn into a crime scene until Mane’s red card. The reverse fixture, on the other hand, saw City make more blunders in one game than they did in the whole season together. Credit should be given to Klopp.
While everybody sits back against Guardiola’s men, overloading the middle to prevent being carved open by their incisive passing, Liverpool dared to press high and make everybody else apart from De Bruyne and Silva make wrong passing choices.
The rewards of pressing up high are enormous but so are the risks. Let one player slip the trap and suddenly he’s in acres of space between the defence and the midfield to spray passes forward for its attackers. But it wasn’t something that Klopp ingeniously came up with. Tottenham tried the same tactic but were smacked 4-1. Klopp’s men just executed it better.
Liverpool’s attack has been scintillating especially with Mohamed Salah putting anybody who plays as left-back in a torture chamber. It's their defence where they lose out to City. Guardiola’s men move around in unison covering up for players around them. Klopp’s defenders on the other hand, in his system, are fine at best and chickens running around with their heads cut off at worst.
People thought that Van Dijk will magically cure the defensive malign that plaques this Liverpool team but fail to look at the defensive structure that he's being used in. Sure he has done this team favours by being better than Lovern (and that’s not a high bar to cross), his presence alone is not enough.
City know this and should be better prepared to counter the high octane pressing of Liverpool. Because once they navigate through the initial press, they’ll have De Bruyne or Silva in acres of spaces with Sane and Jesus running on either wing and Aguero through the middle. More often than not, that situation won’t end up in the favour of the Reds.
Klopp revealed his hand in January to stop the unstoppable Manchester City team. Whether Guardiola has an ace up his sleeve to counter him, will determine the fate of the tie.