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Champions League

Man City’s or PSG’s year? Madrid peaking? U.S. stars and cult heroes!

The Champions League has reached the quarterfinal stage after a round of 16 that saw, among other things, PSG oust Barcelona and Porto stun Juventus, while Bayern Munich and Manchester City cruised through. There is plenty to discuss, so we asked Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens and James Olley for responses to some big questions.

Which team is more likely to finally win the Champions League this season: Man City or PSG?

Marcotti: Manchester City. PSG right now have a dogfight on their hands in Ligue 1. There’s a reason they changed managers in mid-season (as much as I love Thomas Tuchel). City can sit back, rotate, experiment and keep everybody fresh between now and the end of the season. That’s a huge luxury. And, top to bottom, they’re a better side. (If you don’t believe me, give me your combined XI and if you convince me there should be more than three PSG guys in there, I’ll buy you a steak dinner).

Laurens: Right now, there isn’t even a debate. City are ahead of PSG in pretty much every department. They are flying with 24 wins in their past 25 games in all competitions while PSG are stuttering at home in Ligue 1 with two defeats in their past two matches. Collectively, City are a machine with great movement, intensity, pressing and flexibility in where and how some key players play (Joao Cancelo, Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne). The Parisians have none of that at the moment. Since joining the club in January, manager Mauricio Pochettino has not been able to implement any of that yet. But in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, PSG have two very special players who can win any game. So…

Olley: City are the more complete team and will have the luxury of domestic rotation given their Premier League dominance. Pep Guardiola has had a propensity to overcomplicate City’s approach, but he has masterfully restored their pre-eminence in England, chiefly through a more robust defence, which bodes well for Europe. They have not even conceded a goal in the Champions League for more than 700 minutes. Manchester United’s counterattacking victory at the Etihad earlier this month offers evidence they are still vulnerable to a well-executed sucker punch, but perhaps the biggest doubt is a psychological one after three successive quarterfinal exits.

Of the Americans in this season’s UCL, who impressed you the most?

Marcotti: I know there are eight and folks made a big deal out of that, but two stand out for me; Juventus’ Weston McKennie and Dortmund’s Gio Reyna. I’d probably lean towards McKennie, even though he started only four games (Reyna started six) for that goal in Camp Nou, which was special. I think Reyna has the brightest future, though. That stat looks impressive, but a decade ago, by minutes played, U.S. players got more game time. Ethan Horvath has started one game, Konrad de la Fuente none, Christian Pulisic two, Sergino Dest six (but Barca lost three of them), Tyler Adams two, Chris Richards one. They’re all young, they’re all at big clubs and that’s really important for their development, but let’s chill and let them grow.

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– When is the Champions League draw?

Laurens: McKennie is the outstanding candidate because he has made the biggest impact in the Champions League this season and seems the most mature too. But I like what I saw from Dest in the round-of-16 second leg against PSG. There is no doubt that Barcelona’s 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formations suit him well, much better than any other tactical systems previously used, and in Paris, he was outstanding on the right side, especially going forward. I think he is improving and is learning from the difficult moments he has had earlier in the season, like in the first leg against PSG.

Olley: The only one I’ve seen live with any regularity this season is Pulisic, but it is difficult to make a case for him given the poor season he is enduring at Chelsea. From afar, McKennie looks the most exciting prospect. COVID-19 is obviously a factor, but it is a sign of his importance to Juventus that he has been withdrawn from the latest USMNT squad to give him a much-needed break.

Are Real Madrid peaking at the right time or lucky to have got this far?

Olley: It is too early to suggest they are peaking, but Real are at least beginning to get their act together. The elder statesmen are coming to the fore with Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos among those eliciting an upturn in form that has created a nine-game unbeaten run. More evidence is required than a two-legged win over Atalanta, given how they laboured for almost 70 minutes against 10 men in the first leg before scoring. Their pedigree is undeniable, but the more progressive teams left in the draw look more appealing, especially if Eden Hazard’s latest injury is as bad as feared.

Marcotti: Real Madrid aren’t peaking. They might peak later now that Ramos and Hazard are back, but they’ve been kept afloat by five outstanding individuals: Casemiro, Modric, Toni Kroos, Thibaut Courtois and Benzema. This is not a peak; this is winning through fumes and inertia and individuals. They might yet peak and, if they do, look out. But they are nowhere near where they could be.

Laurens: Peak is too strong of a word here. Zinedine Zidane’s latest tactical innovation (3-5-2 formation) helped his team against Atalanta, but, collectively, what Madrid are producing isn’t great. They still concede chances and rely massively on goalkeeper Courtois, who is having a superb season. Offensively, the dependence on Benzema’s talent and goals is huge; he has been carrying the team for much of the season. If you add the performances of Modric and Casemiro, you have four individuals who are making up for the lack of collective strength in the squad. Madrid could have easily been knocked out in the group stages, but being outsiders will be a good thing for them.

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In tribute to Pepe’s heroics against Juventus, name your ultimate UCL cult hero!

Marcotti: Jerzy Dudek. Who can forget the goalkeeper’s double save from AC Milan’s Andriy Shevchenko in Istanbul in 2005, and his penalty-saving heroics in the shootout as Liverpool won the trophy? Or the fact that he was benched for a time that season and replaced by Pepe Reina the next year? And still got a job at Real Madrid at the end of his career? Dudek is immortal, frankly.

Laurens: Frank Rijkaard. He was the most undervalued and underappreciated of Milan’s three Dutchmen (alongside Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit), but he was phenomenal. Winning the European Cup twice with the Italians was great, especially his winning goal against Benfica in the 1990 final, but lifting the trophy again as a father figure with the Ajax wonderkids in 1995 was even more remarkable. And then Rijkaard joined a very exclusive group who have won the biggest club competition as both a player and a manager when he led his Barcelona side to success in 2006.

Olley: Mario Mandzukic. It feels as if he’s been 34 years old for about 10 years, but that’s meant as a compliment. Hard as nails but capable of scoring stunning goals, Mandzukic scored in two Champions League finals with Bayern Munich and later Juventus. The latter goal came in 2017, a beautiful overhead kick that won him UEFA Goal of the Season. Aged 34.

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