Saturday, May 28, 2022

Champions League bold predictions: Pep Guardiola keeps it simple for Man City; Liverpool overwhelm Benfica

Five games sit between the Champions League quarterfinalists and continental glory. Here’s what to look out for in this week’s first leg matches on Paramount+:

1. Manchester City vs. Atletico Madrid: Guardiola sticks to the formula

Featured Game | Manchester City vs. Atlético Madrid

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The business end of the season is truly upon Manchester City. By Easter Sunday, they could be favorites for the treble or fighting an uphill battle to win any silverware whatsoever. Even the Champions League seems to be on an inexorable path that will pit Pep Guardiola against Jurgen Klopp in Paris come May.

That is, of course, assuming they navigate their way past Atletico Madrid and a semifinalist. While those outside the Etihad Stadium cannot help but get distracted by the battles yet to come, Ilkay Gundogan and company are firmly focused on the present. “It is game by game because every game is a final now,” said the Germany midfielder after scoring in City’s 2-0 win over Burnley on Saturday. 

“We all play football for these types of games and we have had it in the last few years and every single year that we came into this period where we know that every game is a big one. The next two or three weeks are very decisive, all of the games are decisive now to be honest.”

Guardiola will not need telling twice about the challenges Atletico pose. After all, the idea that he overcomplicates big Champions League ties rather dates back to the defeat to Diego Simeone in the 2016 semifinal, one where his decision to drop Thomas Muller for the first leg drew much consternation and his side were hit by a counter-attacking sucker punch in the second leg.

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Since that day, there has been a tendency to view Guardiola teams as blinking under pressure. Defeats to Monaco, Lyon and Chelsea have been cast in that light to varying degrees of accuracy. Similarly, the title race has come to be framed as a 14-point lead frittered away by the holders since the turn of the year, with precious few noting that that advantage existed for only one day when City had played two more games than Liverpool.

For the most part, what City have proven themselves to be is a team capable of dealing with the pressure that is being exerted on them. In the immediate aftermath of Liverpool’s victory over Watford, a trip to Turf Moor seemed an extremely fiddly test even for City, yet Guardiola’s side negotiated it in the most comfortable of fashions, winning the game in the first 25 minutes and holding Burnley at arms’ length for the remainder of the contest, preserving their energy for battles ahead.

They even played in the most classically City of fashions, sticking to the formula that has proven most effective for Guardiola this season: Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as the free eights ahead of Rodri, Phil Foden through the middle while Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling stretched play to the flanks. This was City by rote. That perhaps suits them, as does the fact that there is precious little time for their manager to overthink things, as he acknowledged he tends to. “In the Champions League, always I overthink. I overthink a lot. Absolutely. That’s why I’ve had good results. I love to overthink and create stupid tactics. Tonight I take inspiration and there will be incredible tactics tomorrow. We’ll play with 12.”

Evidently from his joking, he is not seriously concerned about going down the rabbit hole. Perhaps he knows he does not have time, that right now all he can do is keep things ticking over as they were in last season’s 21-game win streak, to which he referred back after beating Burnley. 

Guardiola told CBS Sports that that run was “like a routine machine making pizzas: pizzas, pizzas, pizzas, pizzas. It’s the same: next game, next game.” He himself acknowledged that the time between winning the league title and the Champions League final gave him time to think. Perhaps it was too much. One can see the same in the defeat to Lyon in the post-season one-off games of the lockdown era. At the moment, there simply is not time for City to stop and think, to give over time on the training ground for varying up the formula. That might just be good news for Guardiola.

Benfica vs. Liverpool: Eagles can’t repeat Ajax shock

Featured Game | Benfica vs. Liverpool

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Far be it from this column to rain on any club’s parade, not least one who has reached the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in six years, but unless Benfica are able to come up with a very different approach to that which they deployed last time out, this may well be the end of their European journey. In the round of 16, Nelson Verissimo’s side slowed the Ajax juggernaut to an extent, though winning their second leg 1-0 still necessitated a great display of wayward shooting by Antony and company. 

There is no shame in building your approach on defensive rigidity, but this is a team that has given up more than 16 expected goals (xG) across its eight matches since the start of the group stage, which they reached with displays of surprisingly rigid defending. Not since their second matchday — when they beat the rabble that was passing for a Barcelona side at the time — have they kept an opponent to a half-dozen shots in the penalty area. Ajax had 11 in the Johan Cruyff Arena and it is fair to assume that if Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino get the sort of unmarked headers that Erik ten Hag’s side will have they might force Odysseas Vlachodimos to make a save.

The Greek international has been the hero of Benfica’s run and has a case for under-the-radar star of the tournament. Across all 12 games Vlachodimos has played in the competition, he has prevented 5.97 goals, according to Opta metrics. The next best, Thibaut Courtois, just about clears three. And yet, if a goalkeeper is such an outlier in a statistical sense and is generally not considered the next Lev Yashin, one has to assume that he will regress to the mean sooner or later. If he does that on Tuesday, Benfica might just be toast.

Even if Vlachodimos continues his fine form, is it enough to hold Liverpool at bay? The hosts can try to hold off the tide for 90 minutes, the challenge is that Jurgen Klopp has options this season he has rarely had before. Whoever starts, he will have at least two top-tier attackers to freshen up the side along with a host of versatile midfielders. Even Kostas Tsimikas can add thrust from full back if Andrew Robertson were to ever fade. There are teams against whom holding firm and gambling you can pinch one at the other end might work. Then there is Liverpool.

Villarreal vs. Bayern Munich: Visitors kill off the tie

Featured Game | Villarreal vs. Bayern Munich

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A few weeks ago, one might have given Villarreal something of a chance in this tie, but recent form has not been kind to those hoping that this might offer some hope of a quarterfinal upset. Villarreal in particular look to be on quite the wobble since overcoming Juventus, losing to Cadiz and Levante as their attack grinds to a halt. Indeed, even including that famous 3-0 victory in Turin, Unai Emery’s side have registered just nine shots on target in their last four games and are seemingly struggling to establish themselves as an attacking force even with Gerard Moreno back in the side.

Emery does at least appear to know what the problem is. “Against Levante, we were close to their box, but we lacked a cutting edge to make the match different,” he said after the defeat. He would add that the clash against Bayern will be different, indisputably so as Villarreal will surely not dominate possession against the German champions as they did against a relatively lowly Spanish opponent.

Go back to early March and it would be altogether easier to put together a case for why Villarreal might win this game. Julian Nagelsmann’s willingness to play with a back three and no real wing backs offered the sort of avenues that might be exploited by a Yeremi Pino or Arnaut Danjuma on the counter much as Red Bull Salzburg did in the first leg of their round of 16 tie. Rapid transitions looked like they could unsettle the Bavarians; they still might, though it is hard to imagine Emery’s team being so assertive in the first leg of a Champions League tie.

In victories over Freiburg and Union Berlin, Nagelsmann has reverted back to more classic formations, whether a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, it places enormous strain on Joshua Kimmich and the hope for Villarreal might be that Bayern’s No. 6 and Leon Goretzka are struggling with injury.  However, the reality is that the Bundesliga leaders have tightened up at the back without losing their punch at the other end of the field. They may not be in their best possible form, but against a struggling opponent, they might well take swift control of this tie.

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid: Shots at a premium

Featured Game | Chelsea vs. Real Madrid

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What to make of Chelsea’s shock thumping at the hands of Brentford? Unlike the game, this was most immediately reminiscent of last season’s 5-2 loss to West Brom. Thomas Tuchel could not point to some freak shots flying in and an xG tally that told a different tale to the result. The Blues got battered, consistently undone on the counter attack as Christian Eriksen and company shredded the space in behind Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso.

It is safe to assume that there will be changes aplenty on Wednesday. Indeed, one would assume that a team that included fringe players such as Alonso, Timo Werner and Ruben Loftus-Cheek was made with half an eye on the visit of Madrid to Stamford Bridge, even if Tuchel might claim to the contrary. With Reece James managing 35 minutes off the bench, it seems eminently plausible that he will change system as well as personnel, returning to the three-man defense with one of Andreas Christensen or the excellent Trevoh Chalobah entering the side.

That system is nothing if not effective at nullifying opponents on the European stage. Since Tuchel took the reins, only two teams have registered more than one non-penalty xG against the Blues in a European game: Zenit Saint Petersburg in a mad final group game before Christmas and a Porto side who enjoyed five minutes of real pressure in last season’s quarterfinal first leg. The past year and a bit suggests that when Chelsea wobble defensively, their manager makes the sort of minute tweaks that tidy things up at the back again.

Tuchel is not the only manager with cause to fear an open game. Carlo Ancelotti will need no reminding of what Barcelona did to his side in the second half of El Clasico. Or what Paris Saint-Germain might have done more of in the second leg of their round of 16 tie. Or indeed what N’Golo Kante did in open spaces in last year’s semifinal. 

Even if the Blues opt for a more cautious approach in the first leg, a front three of Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount and Kai Havertz that has Kante bringing the ball to them will need mitigating against, particularly if James is also at anything approximating his best. When their 3-4-3 is clicking, Chelsea are experts at spreading the pitch wide. Real have proven in their biggest games that when you start dragging them wide, they do not always have the dynamism in midfield to plug the gaps.

So do not be surprised if Ancelotti opts to simply pack his defense, not least because it was rather lost in the opprobrium of the result that until Kylian Mbappe’s moment of brilliance Madrid had achieved their task (albeit with a helpfully poor penalty from Lionel Messi). They know what Chelsea can do to them in open field. Their hosts have a tendency to tighten things up in this competition. Do not expect goals or even shots aplenty.

Tuesday’s broadcast schedule

Wednesday’s broadcast schedule

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