Champions League Quarter-Finals

This week saw the conclusion of the first ever round of one legged Champions League quarter finals, with all four fixtures spread throughout the week. All games were packed with drama and controversy as Europe’s elite competition edges towards it’s conclusion. 

The first game of the round was Atalanta v PSG, a fixture that was as tactically intriguing as it was entertaining. With PSG’s side packed with superstars and Atalanta renowned for its relentless attacking football, the stage was set for an epic showdown. The game started in Atalanta’s favour as a PSG side that were without Kylian Mbappe and Marco Veratti started sluggishly with Neymar wasting two gilt-edged opportunities in the first 45 minutes. It wasn’t long, therefore, before the team from Bergamo opened the scoring with Mario Pasalic bending in a fine first time effort after Duvan Zapata smuggled the ball to him just inside the 18 yard box.

PSG laid siege on the Atalanta goal in the second half, however, with the introduction of Kylian Mbappe proving to be the turning point. But the goals PSG needed came from the most unexpected sources, as defensive midfielder Marquinhos poked home the equaliser in the 90th minute following some neat play down the left hand side from Neymar. With the game seemingly destined for extra time, Atalanta were looking to conserve their energy for the final push. But with three minutes of added time on the clock, PSG surged down the left hand side again, with Mbappe pulling the ball back across the box for Eric Choupo-Moting to tuck home. Atalanta had the chance to make 2-2 in the dying moments as Luis Muriel went through on goal as the clock ticked into the final minute of stoppage time, but he couldn’t get the ball out of his feet. As such, the Parisians last minute turnaround meant that PSG progressed to the semi finals of the Champions League for the first time since 1995. 

The second quarter final in this mini tournament in Lisbon was contested by RB Leipzig and Atletico Madrid, a game which also provided viewers with another fascinating tactical battle. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid were Champions League runners up in 2016, but have continually underperformed in the competition in the intervening years. Thursday’s quarter final tie, therefore, presented an excellent opportunity for Atleti to reach the semi finals for the first time in three years, but Leipzig were not to be underestimated. The East German side may have only been formed 11 years ago, but they have finished in the a top three spot in the 3 of the last 4 Bundesliga seasons. Leipzig were without leading scorer Timo Werner following his £45 million move to Chelsea and it showed in the first 45 minutes as both sides struggled to make a breakthrough.

Five minutes after the second half, however, Leipzig’s Dani Olmo opened the scoring, putting his head on the end of a fine flowing move from the East German’s. Their lead only lasted 20 minutes, however, as Lukas Klostermann brought down João Felix inside the box, resulting in a penalty that the Portuguese wonderkid duly slotted home. As the game moved towards it’s close both sides were creating chances, but it was Leipzig who found the game winning moment. A lightning quick break was instigated by Marcel Sabitzer’s sumptuous round-the-corner ball, which gave on-loan left back Angeliño the chance to cut the ball back from the left hand side. His pass found 21 year old substitute Tyler Adams in an ocean of space on the edge of the box, whose subsequent shot took a wicked deflection off Stefan Savic before it nestled in the back of the net. Leipzig held on until the final whistle, earning themselves a Champions League semi-final spot for the first time in their history. 

The third quarter final was the pick of the bunch in terms of entertainment, but it was also a game that could have far bigger consequences than the final itself. Bayern Munich went into their game against Barcelona as slight favourites. They had comprehensively dismantled Tottenham before lockdown in both group games before lockdown and had humbled Chelsea 7-1 on aggregate in the previous round, whereas Barcelona had stuttered significantly since end of lockdown, losing out on the La Liga title in the final few games. Nonetheless, their convincing victory over Napoli gave them renewed hope as they came into yet another Champions League quarter final.

But if Bayern’s thumping of Chelsea over two legs was indicative of how far Chelsea have to go, the resulting 90 minutes was a sign of how far Barca have fallen. While the scores were level at 1-1 after the first 7 minutes, the following 40 were an example of Bayern’s ruthlessness. Goals from Ivan Perisic, Serge Gnabry and a second from Thomas Müller put the Bavarians 4-1 up before half time. There was a slight Barcelona resurgence in the second half as a well worked move ended up in a goal for Luis Suarez, but it didn’t last long. Alphonso Davies set up Joshua Kimmich for a tap in with arguably the assist of the season, turning Nelson Semedo inside out on the left wing before bursting into the box at such a pace that no Barca defender dared touch him. Further goals from Robert Lewandowski and two from Philippe Coutinho, on-loan from the Blaugranes, sealed the Catalans fate as the game ended in a crushing 8-2 defeat.

The result of Barca’s humiliation has been the almost inevitable sacking of Quique Setiene, which is still yet to be confirmed despite wide ranging reports. The Spaniard was brought in to help return Barca to their core principles of possession based football, but problems in the club’s hierarchy appear to be at the root of Barca’s turmoil. As such, senior players such as Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi are reported to be on their way out as an historic club searches for answers. 

The final quarter final of the round saw Manchester City face off against Lyon in what was inarguably their best opportunity to reach the semi finals for the first time since 2016. They have never got that far in the competition with Pep Guardiola as coach and, after Saturday’s performance, they will have to wait even longer. Guardiola has long been accused of overthinking big Champions League fixtures and it was the same against Lyon. He set his side up with a back three to match Lyon, but in doing so City lost the creativity so central to how they play. It was no surprise then that Lyon took the lead in the first half following a defensive mix up that left Ederson miles away from his goal line, giving Maxwel Cornet the opportunity to slam home into an empty net from 25 yards.

City did fightback in the second half, switching to a back four and by the 70th minute, they were back on level terms. But within 10 minutes Lyon were in front again and with a significant amount of controversy attached. Aymeric Laporte was upended as Moussa Dembele made his way onto the end of a Houssem Aouar pass, giving the French forward a clear run on goal. Raheem Sterling had the opportunity to bring parity back to the game but suffered what could be the miss of the season, sending the ball flying over the top of an empty goal from 5 yards out. A minute later, Ederson spilled a tame shot from Aouar giving Dembele the chance to poke home Lyon’s third of the evening. City will be left to rue their missed chances as they yet again fell short of the semi finals. Lyon, however, will attempt to wreak similar havoc on Europe’s elite when they face Bayern Munich on Wednesday. 

English Hopes Fade in Europa League 

This week witnessed both the Europa League quarter finals and semi finals and England was well represented. Wolves took on five-time Europa League champions Sevilla on Tuesday in what was one of the tightest games of the round. A penalty to Wolves within the first 11 minutes looked to give them the lead as the ever reliable Raul Jiminez walked up to take it, but his almost inexplicable miss gave the side from southern Spain a lifeline. After that, the game quickly fell into a familiar pattern for Sevilla as they held onto the ball for large parts of the game, leaving Wolves to defend deep in their own half. The team from the Black Country always looked threatening on the break as Adama Traore and Jiminez aimed to link up, but weary legs proved to be the difference on what was the 383rd day of their mammoth season. As such, an 88th minute headed goal from Lucas Ocampos earned Sevilla their victory as they eliminated yet another English side from Europe. 

Manchester United found their quarter final against FC Copenhagen similarly frustrating. The side from Denmark could certainly not match up to the quality possessed in riches by United, but they defended doggedly driven on by a truly inspired performance from Karl Johnsson in goal. The 30 year old made 13 saves in a game that had to be taken to extra time, but in the end, it was United who came out on top. Andreas Bjelland hauled down Anthony Martial in the area, giving United their 21st penalty of the season. The inspired January signing, Bruno Fernandes, duly stepped up and tucked away cooly from the penalty spot, earning United their ultimate victory and a semi final fixture against Sevilla. 

That semi final was the first of the two and was played out on Sunday night. United started the brighter of the two, scoring their 22nd penalty of the season after 9 minutes. But Sevilla came back strongly, using their explosive fullbacks, Sergio Reguilón and Jesus Navas, to full effect. They were soon back on level terms after a neat move was finished off by former Liverpool man, Suso, after 26 minutes. A second half barrage soon came Sevilla’s way, however, as United battered their goal in the opening exchanges of the half. Sevilla’s heroic defending proved to be all worth it, however, while United’s defensive frailties were once again exposed. A momentary lapse in concentration from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Victor Lindlöf allowed Luuk de Jong to waltz in between them and touch home a superb cross from Navas on the right hand side. United pushed hard in the final few minutes but, yet again, Sevilla made their way to the final of the Europa League as they look to add a sixth title to their collection. The loss also means that no English side has made it past the semi finals in Europe this season, in stark contrast to last season where both the Champions League and Europa League finals were all English affairs. 

The second semi final, due to be played on Monday night, is between Shakhtar Donetsk and Inter Milan after both sides comfortably saw off their quarter final opposition FC Basel and Bayer Leverkusen, respectively. Shakhtar last lifted the trophy in 2009 after beating Werder Bremen in Istanbul, while Inter have reached the final on 4 occasions between 1991 and 1998, and came out as winners in three of those finals, in ‘91, ‘94 and ‘98. Both will have high aspirations for the final as Shakhtar look to establish themselves as a major European force, while Inter attempt to put themselves back there. 

Rangers 100% Start Over 

Steven Gerrard’s Glasgow Rangers had been basking in superb form at the start of the season, having won all of their first three games against Aberdeen, St Mirren and St Johnstone. But their 0-0 draw against Livingstone on Sunday brought Gerrard’s party to an end as fresh questions were raised as to the legitimacy of their title push. Full backs James Tavernier and Borna Barisic pelted in pitch perfect deliveries all game, but Rangers’ lack of physicality upfront meant there was no forward on the end of many of the deliveries. Their eventual 79% possession against Livi is indicative of progress being made in the style of football played by Rangers, but with goals still hard to find, the Gers will find it difficult to hold onto top spot in the league. 

Celtic sit mid-table on 4 points, but with two games in hand. This is because of the ban imposed on them and Aberdeen by the Scottish government after players from both sides broke lockdown rules. The games missed by the Bhoys will be made up later in the season once the ban is lifted, but you would assume that they will make up the ground. The only question is how much ground will they have to make up. As long as Rangers continue to misfire up front, the pressure remains entirely on the blue side of Glasgow. 

Elsewhere in the Scottish Premiership, Hamilton Academical continued their torrid start to action as they lost their third straight game, this time to St Mirren. They have a game in hand due to Celtic and Aberdeen’s suspensions, but in their current form they look unlikely to lift themselves from the foot of the table. At the other end of the table, Ross County had their own unbeaten run brought to and end by Dundee United who beat the Staggies 2-1. The loss will certainly knock Ross County’s early form, but it will also add to the buoyancy of Dundee United who are aiming for a competitive finish this season. The result leaves the two sides level on points, with goals for keeping Ross County just above Dundee in 3rd place.