The Champions League semifinals are upon us, the action starts Tuesday on CBS and Paramount+. Manchester City host Real Madrid on Tuesday before Liverpool and Villarreal face off the following night. Here is what to look out for.
Vinicius outshines Benzema for once
Real Madrid have not gotten this far because they have been the clearly better team across the entirety of two legs in the previous rounds. Both Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea exited the Champions League believing that they had outplayed their conquerors over the course of the tie. Rather, in the biggest moments, they have had the best player on the pitch in Luka Modric or Karim Benzema.
It is hardly a sustainable approach, not least when the latter is running on one extremely hot streak. With 12 goals to his name, including back to back hattricks in the knockout stages, Benzema will probably be a shoo-in for this competition’s individual accolades and may yet leapfrog Robert Lewandowski to win the golden boot. But a word of caution comes from comparing his actual scoring return to his expected goals (xG) tally of 6.46.
True greats, such as the Frenchman, may be expected to slightly overperform against their xG even in the long term but not to such a gaudy level that he is scoring almost twice as many goals per 90 minutes as the quality of shots suggests he might. Put it in simpler terms, Benzema’s two headers against Chelsea were so remarkable precisely because of how infrequently those sorts of positions end up in goals. Even the very best cannot magic up those sorts of moments at will.
City, meanwhile, might be an altogether more awkward matchup for Benzema than his last two opponents. On both occasions he made hay popping into the spaces between midfield and defense. It was most notable in the win at Stamford Bridge, where the game’s most devastating striker registered more touches in right back positions than the three he had in the penalty area. A recurring theme of that game was Jorginho glancing furtively over his shoulder. He’d spot the Frenchman, too far forward for him to drop back and give space to Modric and Kroos, too deep for Thiago Silva to be dragged upfield.
That might not happen so frequently against Manchester City, who will have Rodri anchoring their midfield. They have, on occasion this season, gravitated to something more like a 4-2-3-1 with Bernardo Silva dropping deep to aid build up, but largely it is unambiguously Rodri’s responsibility to protect the spaces Benzema likes to drop into.
Still, there will be other positions Madrid can exploit. This might well be a game for Vinicius Junior, who will almost certainly be attacking a player who is not ready for the task. Joao Cancelo’s suspension was enough of a headache for Pep Guardiola but both Kyle Walker and break-in-case-of-emergencies right back option John Stones are struggling with injuries. City’s boss offered a relaxed assessment of what that might mean for his team after Saturday’s win against Watford. “If it was November or December, it’s a problem but if Gabriel [Jesus] has to play right-back, he’d play right-back. So it’s not a problem, when the players feel we are in real trouble, the players do extra.”
That is as may be, but Vinicius won’t be handing out favors to those putting in extra effort. When he realizes he is up against the weak link on the pitch, as was the case against Andreas Christensen at Stamford Bridge, he is remorseless in his probing. At full pelt Walker should be able to tame the Brazilian. If City do not have their best covering defender at that sort of level, then it might be Vinicius rather than Benzema who does the damage.
De Bruyne drives City on
Of course it is not just City who have injury headaches. Indeed there may be no absence with the potential to have a more defining role on this contest than Casemiro’s. The Brazilian has travelled with the squad to England but reports in Spain suggest he is a serious doubt to be able to feature in any capacity. Without him can Madrid really hope to quell the driving runs of Kevin De Bruyne?
As the Belgian has hit top gear in recent weeks he has had something of another Manchester City great to his game. He is picking the ball up on the turn, surging past a player and committing yet more in a fashion extremely reminiscent of Yaya Toure. Where earlier in the season De Bruyne was progressing the ball perhaps fewer than 100 yards up the pitch with seven or eight progressive carries those numbers are now up. In recent games, most notably against Brighton, he was in excess of 150 yards of progression and double figures for progressive carries.
Twice in the fifth minute of the 2-2 draw with Liverpool he barged his way up the pitch, first playing a through pass to Raheem Sterling that subsequently led to Gabriel Jesus going close before he then struck the game’s opener. He was doing much the same against Atletico Madrid, who looked like they had precious few ideas to quell him beyond fouling him, and it is fair to question who exactly can get in his path and slow him down.
Villarreal make Liverpool work for their win
It couldn’t happen again, could it? Almost certainly not is the answer, an unfortunate one for those of a Villarreal persuasion or indeed those who just want to see a bit of spice in the latter stages of the Champions League. Then again one could have written the exact same thing throughout this competition. Villarreal had just about enough to squeeze past Atalanta but it won’t work against Juventus. Villarreal had just about enough to squeeze past Juventus but it won’t work against Bayern Munich.
Be warned, Jurgen Klopp. This will not be a pleasant affair. All the statistics and underlying metrics do of course point to a gulf between these two teams. After 10 Champions League games, Liverpool’s goal difference is twice as good as Villarreal’s seven. The Reds average 2.15 xG for and 1.1 xG against per European game. Unai Emery’s team are at 1.86 for and 1.46 against.
Then of course there is the on field talent gap. One of these teams has nine players in our top 25 of our best 50 left in the competition. The other has two. Villarreal have very good players such as Arnaut Danjuma and Pau Torres. But, set them against their counterparts in red (Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk for instance), and it becomes apparent that this is very good players against the best in the world.
Over time, you would expect that talent gulf to be reflected in the results. But, time may well be needed. One thing that is very true about Emery’s side is that they are a tough nut to immediately crack. Across their Champions League games so far Villarreal have given up 4.85 expected goals and two actual goals in the first half as opposed to 9.73 and nine in the second. Those banks of four or more ahead of Geronimo Rulli take time to break down no matter the context.
In the second leg of the quarterfinal, with Bayern trailing by a goal on aggregate, these were the shots they put up. The size of the bubble reflects the xG value of each shot. And yes I have double checked that there hasn’t been a mistake on their sizing. That’s what 0.38 xG off eight shots looks like.
Naturally that cannot last forever. Defenders tire. Opponents get more desperate. But, it was in that first half of the second leg that Villarreal seemed to conclude that they would win this tie, their belief not repressed even by Robert Lewandowski’s goal. The same thing could happen again, in this leg or the next. But it seems altogether more unlikely.
When Julian Nagelsmann cast around his bench he had Serge Gnabry, left back Alphonso Davies and Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting as options to freshen up the attack. If the starters were not going to win it for Bayern, it was fair to question whether the bench could. The same cannot be said for Liverpool, who could make a rather devastating front three out of whoever does not make Klopp’s starting XI. Against Inter Milan, Roberto Firmino was their match winner off the bench, for Everton in the Merseyside derby, Divock Origi was Thanos-level inevitable.
Flip the script of recent Villarreal games and if Klopp needs to tighten things up, he tends to have a top tier midfielder with fresh legs on the bench. Lately Jordan Henderson has excelled in that closer role. If he really needed, it he would also have one of Ibrahima Konate or Joel Matip waiting on the bench. Whatever the circumstances Liverpool can change them with fresh legs against tiring Villarreal minds. This looks like being the end of the road.
Bonus prediction: English teams sweep the European board
Here’s one that has been sizzling away in the background for a while, not ready to be unleashed on the world until Barcelona crashed out of the Europa League. Now is the time to boldly declare this bit of Premier League exceptionalism. English teams are going to win it all. Certainly that’s no great surprise in the case of the Champions League where Liverpool and Manchester City have been strides ahead of the field for some time now.
From the pinnacle of European football to base camp, Leicester go into their tie as relative underdogs to Roma but a squad that has been addled by injuries for most of this season looks rather stronger now that Jamie Vardy has returned from injury. Wesley Fofana and Jonny Evans have also been eased back into action with Brendan Rodgers prioritizing this cup run. That duo might well have enough to quell Tammy Abraham. At the other end, Inter Milan showed the rewards that can be won through the sort of direct counterattacking the Foxes can excel at… if their manager is ready to abandon the possession play he has gravitated to of late. Leicester may not be favorites for the Europa Conference League, but then these wouldn’t be a very bold prediction if they were.
West Ham are in a similar position with RB Leipzig the most likely team to be lifting the Europa League trophy in Seville next month. But, there is something to be said for the remorseless momentum that has gripped this club, where everything is being funneled into their pursuit of continental silverware. David Moyes showed on Sunday he is prepared to sacrifice Premier League form to have the best possible chance against Eintracht Frankfurt, seasoned experts in this competition.
Come Thursday’s first leg Michail Antonio, Jarrod Bowen and Declan Rice will be as well rested as anyone could expect for this stage of the season. A defense that may have only Craig Dawson as a fit center back will be tested but this is a team that has stood firm at both ends of the pitch in Europe. With the London Stadium at their backs they could well do enough to take control of the tie this week and book their passage back to Seville, where their knockout stage journey began. Who then would doubt West Ham’s sheer will to win this competition would not prevail?