The Champions League semifinals are set with Real Madrid facing off with Chelsea and Manchester City set to clash with Paris Saint-Germain. There is plenty to break down from Real’s defeat of Liverpool, Chelsea overcoming FC Porto, Man City beating Borussia Dortmund, and PSG eliminating holders Bayern Munich. ESPN’s Rob Dawson, Sid Lowe and Derek Rae look back at the action and preview the next stage.
Who wins it all: Manchester City, PSG, Real Madrid, or Chelsea?
Dawson: It’s hard to look past Manchester City. They’ve won 28 of their last 30 games in all competitions and one of those defeats was against Leeds United when Pep Guardiola rotated this squad heavily. Defensively they look far more solid than they have done in previous seasons and have continued to score goals even without the use of a recognised striker. Crucially, they didn’t panic against Borussia Dortmund. There were times during previous Champions League knockout exits to AS Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Lyon when they seemed to panic but there appeared to be more composure at the Signal Iduna Stadium on Wednesday night, even after going a goal down. It’s a good sign ahead of the semifinal with PSG and City have every reason to believe they can go on and win it.
Lowe: Real Madrid. Of the four teams in the semifinals, most would agree that they are favourites to get through (and they will be happy that they didn’t have to meet PSG, Bayern or City on route, all of whom may be better than them). And in a European Cup final: well, it’s Real Madrid and a European Cup final. For a lot of this season the truth is that Madrid haven’t been very good but they still have a midfield trio unlike anyone else (Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro), plus Fede Valverde, and a goalkeeper and a striker of the highest level in Thibaut Courtois and Karim Benzema. There’s seriousness about Madrid that brings the defensive solidity they lacked earlier in the season. (Here’s a question: do they defend better without Sergio Ramos?) And above all there’s just
Rae: I see this as Manchester City’s Champions League to lose now. They are the most complete team left in the competition and there is a fierce determination to atone for the mishaps of recent knockout stages. Their quality really told when it mattered against Dortmund and the whole story was capped off by Phil Foden’s moment of brilliance to seal it. But having said all that they’re really going to have to earn it against PSG. We saw in the first leg against Bayern how much individual quality in their ranks and I can’t imagine the PSG-City semifinal being a runaway in either direction. PSG’s lethal counter attacks from Kylian Mbappe and Co. will be a real test for Ruben Dias and John Stones. Maybe surprisingly to some I make Chelsea favourites against Real Madrid. I’m not reading anything into their second-leg defeat against Porto as the object of the exercise was to progress after a competent first-leg performance and Thomas Tuchel’s men still did that with relative ease. I feel they’re better equipped to stifle a classy midfield and attack in a way that Liverpool couldn’t in their quarterfinal first leg. Plus Chelsea might have the best, deepest bench of any of the teams left.
Biggest “shock” in the quarterfinals?
Rae: That Dortmund coach Edin Terzic took the bold step of naming Ansgar Knauff in the starting XI both times against City. Now that sounds strange in the light of the 19-year-old winger’s match-winning contribution against VfB Stuttgart but if we were to transport ourselves back in time to the start of last week, it was a decision that raised eyebrows. Giving Knauff his first start at the Etihad in the heat of Champions League quarterfinal battle took guts. Knauff had a rough opening and looked slightly out of place but eventually found his game feet. As Terzic said the other day, the youngster is no longer an occasional visitor to the Dortmund squad. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this fast, talented player and the experience will have served him well. It’s just a pity for Dortmund that qualifying for next year’s Champions League appears a task too great, given the seven-point chasm between them and fourth placed Eintracht Frankfurt.
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Dawson: The Champions League quarterfinals is the time for managers to pick their strongest teams and it was telling that Raheem Sterling played just two minutes of Manchester City’s tie with Dortmund. Sterling has been a key part of the City team which has dominated English football since Pep Guardiola’s arrival in 2016 but at the business end of the season, the England winger had found himself on the sidelines. Guardiola has explained that Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden are in better form and, with both scoring in the 2-1 win over Dortmund on Wednesday, Sterling may find it tough to win back his place before the semifinal with PSG.
Lowe: There were no shocks, not really. Not even the surprises are huge surprises: Bayern going out; Liverpool lacking the subtlety to get past a deep defence and Mohamed Salah not taking the chance when it came to him; Madrid defending deep and catching on the break; Porto giving Chelsea problems, a lot of them, but ultimately coming up short. Even Vinicius Jr. scoring two in the first leg isn’t that much of a shock — however much it was treated in Spain as a grand revelation and however much his finishing has been an object of fun. He is different, a player that shakes games up, makes things happen and excites (while also being exasperating). That said, he might be the “surprise” of the round. Or maybe the biggest surprise is Dortmund striker Erling Haaland not scoring?
Who was unluckier in the quarterfinal: Liverpool, Dortmund or Bayern?
Lowe: Bayern were. On one level this is a simple conclusion: they were the only team to go out on away goals. But there’s more: just count the shots against PSG. Look at the chances they missed in the first leg, the way they actually played — better than anyone else in the quarterfinals. Even in the second leg when PSG were probably the better side making the chances, they were so close to going through. And then look at the absence of Robert Lewandowski and ask yourself: does this happen if he doesn’t get injured playing for Poland against Andorra?
Dawson: Borussia Dortmund can count themselves very unlucky not to be in the last four. Despite struggling in the Bundesliga, they matched City for much of the 180 minutes and if Jude Bellingham’s perfectly legitimate goal in the first leg had not been inexplicably ruled out then the outcome might have been different. The penalty awarded against Emre Can in the second leg was not as controversial but there was still plenty of debate about whether it should have been given. In the end, City were just about the better team and deserved to go through but the margins were very fine and unfortunately for Dortmund they were on the wrong side. On top of that, they were missing one of their best players, Jadon Sancho, because of injury. Dortmund didn’t have any luck at all.
Rae: I’m half tempted to say Dortmund due to Bellingham’s wrongly disallowed goal in Manchester and a penalty award against them that was by no means clear cut in the return. But I have to say Bayern were the unluckiest of all the teams in the quarterfinals. First, they lost Lewandowski to injury at the worst possible time in the lead up to the initial PSG game. Then the first leg was a tale of their walking wounded as both Niklas Sule and Leon Goretzka had to go off injured. They still played superbly in an attacking sense and kudos to the unfairly maligned Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting who for me was the best Bayern player on the pitch in the home leg. Choupo-Moting went on to score the only goal in the return only to see Germany’s champions bow out on away goals. Bayern are left to rue the defensive mistakes made in Munich where the damage was done. They were always chasing after that, but rarely has a side played so well over quarterfinal legs yet gone out. A cruel exit.