UEFA Champions League semi-finals are upon us! This week will see the first legs of two finely poised matches played out. Let’s take a look.
Real Madrid vs Chelsea
In the first half of the season, both Real Madrid and Chelsea were prone to average performances that eventually lead them to make a managerial decision. One stuck with theirs, the other twisted, but both calls resulted in the same strength that has carried the two teams to this point – defensive solidity.
Chelsea’s turnaround under Thomas Tuchel has been remarkable. Not wedded to any one style of play, the 47-year-old came in and quickly went about sorting Chelsea’s defence, implementing a three-man centre-back line the team were already familiar with from their time under Antonio Conte. While this new system has rendered Chelsea somewhat tacit in front of goal, their relentless effort throughout 90 minutes and a very reliable backline means Chelsea will take their chances against anyone going into the business end of the season. With the Blues also in the FA Cup final, this might just turn out to be one of their most successful seasons in recent years.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, have reverted to efficiency mode, as they’re wont to do during this stage of the season. Zinedine Zidane had been touted for the chop on multiple occasions, but has managed to get a winning run going just at the right time. With their uber-professional performance against Liverpool at Anfield, Los Blancos have declared firmly that they are coming for their European crown once again.
Real’s midfield trio of Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos has proved once again that they’re still more than capable of turning any team inside out. Coming to their aid in the recent weeks have been youngsters Éder Militão, Vinícius Júnior and Federico Valverde. Militão has raised his game in recent weeks to make sure Real’s defence did not miss Sergio Ramos as much as they have in recent seasons. Vinícius had always been a tricky operator but has now also shown an affinity for scoring, shining particularly against Liverpool in their quarter-final’s first leg, which is helpful for Karim Benzema who, otherwise, has been the sole source for his side’s goals. Valverde has been a key man in helping Zizou do what he does best – set out his team in a bespoke system for an opponent. He has been deployed as a right-mid, a right wing-back, right-sided centre back, and occasionally also as an auxiliary midfielder to support the Casemiro-Modrić-Kroos trio. Real are also fighting in a rare four-team title race in La Liga, but given their history in the Champions League, it’s hard not to anticipate them to turn on the afterburners for the final stages.
All things considered, this one is set to be a very cagey affair over two legs. Most of the tie will be contested in the midfield, with both sides looking for tiny gaping holes in the other’s system to just get that one goal they could then sit on. It might not be pretty to look at, but it will certainly be the type of game tactical analysts love to pick apart.
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Manchester City vs Paris Saint-Germain
Two teams backed by seemingly infinitely rich Gulf states vying for the European crown to establish themselves, for once and for all, a historically big club. Obvious moral dilemma aside, this one’s set to be a cracker.
Manchester City have once again been a juggernaut this season. They’ve already won the EFL cup (yet again) and they’re two wins away from winning the Premier League for the third time under Pep Guardiola. But more importantly, they’ve finally made it past the quarter-finals – the first time under Pep.
As PSG’s former coach prepares his Chelsea side to possibly meet them in the final, their current coach Mauricio Pochettino has made sure his side continues to be on the same trajectory they attained last season. He has already won the Trophée des Champions with Les Parisiens and while they are too in a four-way title race in Ligue 1 – otherwise considered an easy picking – all will be forgiven if he leads them to the much-coveted Big Ears.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City love keeping the ball to themselves and choke their oppositions with quick passing movements. PSG, on the other hand, have seen off onslaughts from the likes of Barça and Bayern Munich to make it to this stage – a slightly tougher route than City’s. Having made it to the final last time, the PSG players have confidence and belief in their veins – that they have the capacity to hold off any side come what may. Moreover, with their counterattacks boasting the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Neymar in their front line, City will be wise to be a little more cautious than usual.
Here we have two matches with strong narratives. On one side, two former winners locking horns to salvage their season with the ultimate prize; on the other, two heavyweights who long yearn for the said prize, one of whom will be delaying the other’s search for yet another year. One will be a cagey affair, while the other box office entertainment.
Either way, watch this space as the Champions League drama resumes unfolding this Wednesday (12.30AM IST) with Real Madrid v Chelsea.