- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
The semifinals of the 2020-21 Champions League are upon us, and there will be a new name on the trophy with holders Bayern Munich eliminated in the quarterfinals. Those games seem like a lifetime ago: first came the ill-fated Super League breakaway, then came confirmation of the reconfigured Champions League format for next season, then news of the Super League dissolving as quickly as it launched.
But after the most turbulent of weeks, we can focus again on the Champions League. The schedule starts in Spain on Tuesday with Real Madrid hosting Chelsea, and then on Wednesday attention shifts to France where Paris Saint-Germain face Manchester City.
Here’s the state of play ahead of this week’s Champions League semifinals.
Real Madrid vs. Chelsea | Tuesday, 3:00 p.m. ET
Narrative: While the on-field matters will be fascinating, keep your eyes on the socially distanced stands. It could get spikey.
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You’ve got Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who was seemingly the chief architect of the breakaway Super League, sat in close proximity with his Chelsea counterparts, the suits who kick-started the fall of the house of cards when they got cold feet over the concept due to the very public fan backlash. Perez said he thought the protests outside Stamford Bridge last week were orchestrated and maintains his Real Madrid side are still keen on the Super League concept, despite it looking like it’d be Madrid vs. Juventus for the rest of time. Chelsea have since pleaded mea culpa.
For a team who have thrown plenty of shade at the Champions League last week, it’ll be fascinating to see how Real Madrid and their fans approach Tuesday’s match, or if Perez becomes the only individual in history not to succumb to the irresistible urge of humming along to the always catchy Champions League theme tune.
Zinedine Zidane, the Real Madrid manager, said his team will be “screwed” if they pay any attention to the off-field strife this week. So on the pitch you have the fascinating subplot of Eden Hazard up against his former side Chelsea, operating under the ever-pragmatic Thomas Tuchel.
Why Real Madrid will win: Real Madrid are sweating on the fitness of a number of key figures ahead of Tuesday’s match. Ferland Mendy has been ruled out, and they are unlikely to have Lucas Vazquez, Sergio Ramos and Federico Valverde available, who all missed their 0-0 draw with Real Betis on Saturday. Toni Kroos also sat out that match, but will be fit for Tuesday, they also have Hazard back after his slow start to life in Spain through injury. Zidane said the Belgian international came through the Betis draw unscathed, but you imagine they’ll be keeping him in bubble wrap in the build-up to Tuesday’s game.
With La Liga now out of their hands (second place, two points behind Atletico Madrid), the pressure is on Zidane to deliver this piece of silverware — although whether Perez still rates it, is another thing. But the challenge for Real Madrid is to score goals. They’ve had three 0-0 draws in their past four games, and are reliant on Karim Benzema to get the goals.
The good news for Madrid is while they are perhaps profligate up front, they are sturdy at the back. Despite having Ramos out injured, Eder Militao has done a wonderful job partnering Raphael Varane — who has been linked with a move away from the club given that his contract expires in 2022 — and they have conceded just two goals in six games. Thibaut Courtois and Hazard will love coming up against their old side, but Zidane knows what it takes to get his team through these matches and will relish the chance play in another Champions League final.
Why Chelsea will win: Bar their remarkable defeat to West Bromwich Albion, Chelsea’s Tuchel is a team built on defensive stability and transitions. Come Tuesday, they will look to suffocate Real Madrid, starving them of possession and space before hitting them on the counter.
First the attacking side: they have one of the best midfielders in Europe at the moment in Mason Mount, and Timo Werner should feel a huge weight lifted off his shoulders following his winner against West Ham United on Saturday. Factor in the ridiculously talented Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech, along with the double pivot of N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic and you have a settled attacking unit that can trouble the best. But what’s key to Tuchel’s Chelsea is their ability to stifle opponents. They operate with a five-man defence, which then transitions into a 3-4-3. Taking out the anomaly of that 5-2 defeat to WBA, they have conceded just three goals in 21 games since Tuchel took over.
They managed to hop over the tricky FC Porto hurdle in the quarterfinals, and dispatched Atletico Madrid 3-0 on aggregate in the round of 16. Citing their wins in Europe and the semifinals of the FA Cup, Tuchel hopes they’ll take that “inner belief” to Madrid on Tuesday where they’ll look to play “adventurous football.” Tuchel also has the Champions League acumen to guide Chelsea through this tricky tie, having led PSG to the final last season.
Key players: For Real Madrid, it’s all about Benzema and his ruthless finishing. The French striker has 12 goals in 13 games across all competitions, and has scored more than a third of Real’s goals this season. Kante will be key for Chelsea on Tuesday; he’s the pivot for the rest of the team, and will be essential in shutting down Madrid’s attack, as he did in the second leg against Atletico.
Key stats: Zidane has managed Real Madrid in three Champions League semifinals and he’s won all three: 2016 over Manchester City 1-0, 2017 over Atletico Madrid 4-2 and 2018 over Bayern Munich 4-3. Tuchel is unbeaten against Spanish clubs in the Champions League as manager; his record reads three wins and three draws (2016-17: two 2-2 draws against Real Madrid with Borussia Dortmund; 2019-20: a 3-0 win and 2-2 draw with Real Madrid as PSG boss; 2020-21: 1-0 and 2-0 wins as Chelsea boss over Atletico Madrid).
Who will actually win: Real Madrid will edge the first leg 1-0 and just do enough to reach the final. It will be a nervy one on Tuesday and despite a Chelsea fightback in the second leg, Madrid will go through on away goals.
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Manchester City | Wednesday, 3:00 p.m. ET
Narrative: It’s been an interesting week for both teams off the field. PSG have emerged from the Super League fandango as the good guys, having turned their back on an offer to join the cabal. They were meant to be one of the 15 “founder” teams, but instead joined the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in reaffirming their love (on the face of it) for UEFA and the Champions League.
Manchester City were the first to officially backtrack on joining the Super League, dropping out on Tuesday evening once reports of Chelsea’s withdrawal emerged. While fans of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have made their anger clear towards their respective owners, City’s supporters have seemingly kept a lower profile.
On Sunday at Wembley, City’s fans were basking in the glow of further domestic success, with Pep Guardiola steering them to their fourth League Cup on the trot. It’s a strange cup for City to have such a strong affinity with, but Guardiola has traditionally tried to use it as a springboard for further success in a season. With the FA Cup gone, Guardiola wants to tie up the Premier League as quickly as possible, before turning attention to the one trophy that has eluded him as City boss: the Champions League.
Mauricio Pochettino knocked Guardiola’s City out of Europe back in his Tottenham days and the expectations are huge at PSG, having beaten Bayern in the quarterfinals to avenge last season’s defeat in the final. But this will be a tantalising battle between two teams who so desperately want to add a Champions League to their overflowing trophy cabinets.
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Why Paris Saint-Germain will win: Expect PSG fans to be keeping everything crossed on Kylian Mbappe’s fitness. The brilliant forward limped off against Metz at the weekend, but Pochettino says they “think he’s OK” and should be ready for Wednesday. But PSG are far more than just Mbappe. With Neymar, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria all in fine form, they have one of the most potent groups of forwards in the world. Icardi has been a little out of the spotlight recently through injury, but he has five goals in three matches, including a hat-trick in the French Cup against Angers. But such is their ridiculous strength in depth, there’s a good chance Icardi will have to settle for a spot on the bench for Wednesday.
Their prospects of booking a spot in a second final in as many years will greatly increase if Marquinhos is fit. The Brazilian defender has been out with a hip injury since their 3-2 win at Bayern Munich on April 7, and PSG are hopeful he’s fit in time to face City. Yet PSG have proven over the past year that they are more than just a flash in the pan in Europe. They have Champions League pedigree, including knocking out Barcelona and then the imperious Bayern in the quarterfinals. This was no fluke, either; it was a victory built on defensive stability and counterattacking ability of Mbappe, Neymar and Di Maria all seamlessly slotting into Pochettino’s preferred 4-2-3-1. Both legs against Bayern were true Champions League epics, and we’re hoping for more of the same this week.
For PSG to beat City, though, they have to play as a unit rather than a team of individuals and in that regard, Pochettino’s PSG remain unpredictable. Their Champions League form has been superb, but their Ligue 1 run has been patchy (they’ve lost to Nantes, Lorient, AS Monaco and Lille). If the “good” PSG rock up on Wednesday, then expect this to be a classic.
Why Manchester City will win: Guardiola’s City were magnificent against Tottenham on Sunday in the League Cup final; they completely controlled the match with the 1-0 scoreline a gross disservice to their dominance. But this is like a freshly evolving City. They are playing without a recognised striker, with Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden or Riyad Mahrez all slotting into the false nine role, and the results are impressive. Raheem Sterling, who has struggled in front of goal recently with one goal in his past 11 games, was superb at the weekend, and caused the Spurs wing-backs all sorts of trouble, so he may have forced his way into the starting XI after a magnificent performance.
So they have the threats up front, but a settled group at the back. City’s Achilles’ heel has been their defence in recent times, but the recruitment of Ruben Dias has been a masterstroke. Joao Cancelo’s versatility is remarkable, while Kyle Walker is in superb form. Then you have the midfield generals, Fernandinho, Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan. In short, City’s depth is unrivalled in Europe, and this is how they can juggle a three-pronged attack in 2021.
With City just a couple of wins away from the Premier League title, Guardiola has had one eye on this PSG match for a while. He can juggle his squad accordingly but what’s absolutely essential is City’s ability to keep them all match ready. Rest is key; some of his City players looked leggy towards the end of the League Cup final and after an exhausting season, Guardiola’s man management will be essential if they are to navigate this tricky tie.
Key players: PSG’s attacking lineup is the envy of most teams in Europe, with Di Maria, Neymar, Mbappe and Icardi in superb form. But it’s Marco Verratti who enables the team to sing. The versatile midfielder can play as a No.10, a No. 8 and a No. 6, and it’s his chameleon-like ability to switch between positions that makes him such an unpredictable quantity. While City will likely play with their preferred false nine formation, it’s down to Dias to keep the defence resolute and impenetrable. The Portuguese defender is one of the signings of the season and is their rock at the back. With City’s attacking riches rightly attracting plenty of praise, it is Dias who ensures they have firm foundations to allow the forwards to flourish.
Key stats: Pochettino and Guardiola have faced each other 18 times as managers. The record is lopsided in Guardiola’s favour, partly because of the calibre of club. In those 18 matches — with Pochettino in charge of Espanyol and Tottenham, while Guardiola was managing Barcelona and City — Pochettino has won just three, with Guardiola taking 10. But one key victory was Tottenham’s 1-0 quarterfinal first-leg win in 2019, which led to them knocking Guardiola’s City out on away goals.
Mbappe’s stats are ridiculous: He has 19 goals in his past 14 PSG appearances, and is third on their all-time goal-scorer list in Ligue 1, despite being just 22 years old. He is on 89 Ligue 1 goals, with Edison Cavani on 138, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on 113. He has eight in this season’s Champions League, including that hat-trick against Barcelona in the round of 16.
Who will actually win: It’s finally time for Guardiola’s City to book a spot in their first Champions League final. We expect a 2-2 draw on Wednesday, and for City to edge through in the return leg with Guardiola’s team going on to win the trophy.
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