Over a week on from the fallout of the European Super League, the focus of the football world is back on the action on the pitch, with the Champions League semi-finals resting on a knife edge ahead of the second legs.
Both first leg ties delivered on their promises to be mouth-watering clashes, providing narratives all over the pitch. In some ways, if you were to have laid out these four teams in front of a football fan and told them to pick their ideal games, it is likely that they would have selected exactly those that we are all enjoying so fervently over the next week.
This was the first time that Chelsea and Real Madrid had ever faced each other in the Champions League, so that particular fact made that game ever more interesting. City’s clash with PSG was petro-state against petro-state, Abu Dhabi against Qatar and probably Europe’s two best squads doing battle. So what can we expect from the second legs of the Champions League semi-finals?
Champions League semi-finals preview
Chelsea vs. Real Madrid
Chelsea, for about an hour, looked imperious. They’ve been impressive since Thomas Tuchel took the reins back in the winter, but this was certainly their best spell of football under him.
Zinedine Zidane had tried to go with a back five to combat Chelsea’s forward runners, but this only encouraged them more. Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount were able to find acres of space in the channels between the wide centre backs and where Madrid’s fullbacks should have been. But for some better finishing, Chelsea could have had the Champions League semi-finals in the bag by half-time.
Finishing has been something of an issue for Chelsea all season, with Timo Werner struggling to consistently find the net.
Werner chose to miss Leipzig’s Champions League quarter and semi-final ties last season in favour of getting himself fit at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground. Some Chelsea fans might be wondering if that time might have been better spent practising his finishing.
There were signs of encouragement for the German, as there have been all season, but once again the ultimate feeling was one of nagging disappointment. Not only was he missing chances here, but also his runs were also off – which is unusual for him.
One particularly damning incident occurred in the first half when Mason Mount picked up the ball in the right hand side half-space. With Werner and Pulisic steaming on ahead of him, the opening looked promising for Chelsea. But Werner’s run was wayward, struggling to find the right space. Mount found him and owing to his non-position – neither wide nor central enough to create or score himself – he could only find the side netting.
Tuchel has got almost every big decision right since he stepped into the west London hot seat in January. And he has another one to make in the shape of the former Leipzig man. Werner has the potential to cause Madrid problems, as he showed in parts of the first leg. But if a chance were to fall to him late on, a hypothetical his manager must be thinking, does he truly believe in himself to finish it?
Real Madrid’s pedigree in this competition means it is always unwise to rule them out, but if Chelsea are able to even half replicate their performance for an hour in Madrid, then you would be unwise to bet against them. This one is perfectly in the balance, and you couldn’t ask for much more in the Champions League semi-finals.
Manchester City vs. Paris Saint Germain
This game really lived up to its billing. On paper, and probably on the pitch too, these two are Europe’s best teams. One could argue that PSG are somewhat unlucky in that in the past two seasons they’ve come up against an imperious Bayern Munich side and then a similarly impressive Manchester City team. But, such is European competition.
In a similar way to Chelsea, PSG looked really quite good for much of the opening period of the Champions League semi-finals. They were attacking with the speed and vigour of a side containing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, amongst others. Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker barely made it out their own half in the first period and the rest of the City team looked equally shell-shocked.
Passes were going astray and Guardiola’s decision to go without a recognised number nine looked to have exploded back in his face. When they did retain possession, there was no outlet and the ball just ended up being recycled by the superb Marquinhos or the equally adept Marco Verratti. PSG could, and likely should, have killed Manchester City here.
Half-time brought some welcome relief for the English champions-in-waiting, and whatever was said appeared to work.
A feature of this City side is that even when they are down, more often than not they are able to keep their heads and rectify it. A feature of this PSG side, it seems, is that they perhaps want it too much. Their petulance when City began to grab the initiative in the game was indicative of a side that is perhaps too emotionally invested when the chips are down to recover.
Their defeats to Barcelona and Manchester United in recent years in this competition, when seemingly well on top, are emblematic of such a fact.
That appears to be the big stumbling block for Paris Saint Germain in this competition. It cannot be that they lack the resources to go all the way. They possess two of Europe’s three best attacking players.
It is set to be a magical night at the Etihad. We’ve got the Guardiola-Pochettino narrative; we’ve got the score line for a perfect second leg; the only thing it’s lacking is a packed house. The lack of fans is becoming evermore glaring as the season enters its business end. Let’s hope both ties can distract from that fact and ensure and entertaining climax to the Champions League semi-finals.
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