Champions League Talking Points: Is Benzema the MVP?
The first legs of the Champions League quarterfinals featured contrasting fortunes for the Madrid clubs, wins for Premier League title chasers Manchester City and Liverpool, a chastening loss for defending champions Chelsea and a shock for Bayern Munich.
Rob Dawson, Bill Connelly and Derek Rae give their views on the big questions from the midweek action.
Is anyone more important to his team than Karim Benzema?
Dawson: No. Benzema is in the form of his life, and there isn’t a team left in the Champions League who would fancy their chances of stopping him when he’s playing like this. Real Madrid are still a team full of top players, but when you’ve got a striker who looks like scoring from every half-chance, it takes the team to a different level. His two headers in the first half of Wednesday’s 3-1 win at Chelsea were works of art. He’s the best player left in the competition.
Connelly: I could spin that around and say that Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku is even more important at this point — as in, any chance Chelsea has of coming back in this tie likely hinges desperately on him finding the goal-scoring form that has evaded him for large portions of this season. But yes, Benzema’s Champions League form this season (11 goals in eight matches and two hat tricks in three knockout matches) has been otherworldly. While Liverpool and Manchester City in particular are the favorites because of overall team strength, Real Madrid’s No. 9 gives them a fighting chance against anyone.
Rae: There is no individual more important to his team than Benzema among the sides left in the competition. On the few occasions when he has been missing for Los Blancos, there just isn’t a comparable replacement. The range of goals he has scored this season has been quite staggering, and the first of his finishes at Stamford Bridge will live long in the memory: an art piece that leaves us wondering how he got that much power on the header. Robert Lewandowski comes close on this question but I think Bayern could still find a way without him in a one-off game. I’m not sure the same applies to Real Madrid.
Jan Aage Fjortoft sees Karim Benzema’s Champions League performance as nearly perfect.
What else caught your attention from the quarterfinal first legs?
Connelly: Liverpool just has so, so many ways to attack you. Diogo Jota saved them against Watford over the weekend, and he didn’t even start Tuesday’s 3-1 win at Benfica. Neither did Roberto Firmino. Or Jordan Henderson! Instead, Luis Diaz and Naby Keita combined for a goal, an assist, eight shots worth 1.6 xG and completed passes worth 0.7 xA, and Liverpool handily won a Champions League quarterfinal match away from home. Yes, Benfica is the weakest team remaining in the field, but the depth of Liverpool’s attacking options is absurd.
Rae: You have to go back a while for the last time Bayern looked as frazzled in the Champions League as they did in their 1-0 defeat at Villarreal. Perhaps the last such off-key performance was as far back as 2019, against Liverpool. Frankly, no one really gets pass marks, maybe with the exception of Kingsley Coman. One wonders if coach Julian Nagelsmann made the wrong decision in risking Alphonso Davies from the start after such a long injury layoff. It was all very frantic and the damage inflicted by Villarreal could have been even greater. That’s one crumb of comfort Bayern can cling to. Another is that they have 90 minutes, or perhaps even 120, in front of their own fans to turn the tables.
Dawson: Pep Guardiola deserves a lot of credit for the way he managed the game in Manchester City’s 1-0 win against Atletico Madrid. It was a surprise that he left both Phil Foden and Jack Grealish on the bench, but when they both came on midway through the second half it looked like a planned move and if it was, it worked a treat. Foden, in particular, changed the game with the way he picked up the ball in tight spaces and Guardiola said afterward the 21-year-old had been able to take advantage of some tired Atletico legs. The City coach has taken a lot of criticism in the past for getting it wrong in the Champions League, so it’s only fair that he gets credit when he gets it right.
Alejandro Moreno praises Luis Diaz’s contributions in Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Benfica.
Would Atletico benefit from a more attacking style of play?
Rae: The funny thing about watching Atletico regularly this season is that they have been searching for a new identity and have regularly shown us their wilder side. That hasn’t always paid dividends though, and so it’s understandable that in Manchester — against a very accomplished team — coach Diego Simeone reverted to the approach most fans around the world associate with him and Atleti. In this case, playing the way they did, gives the defending Spanish champions a chance. It wasn’t pretty but, it was never going to be.
Dawson: I don’t think so. Simeone has created a way of playing that has been very successful, so why would he consider suddenly becoming more expansive? Atletico’s good attacking players — Joao Felix and Antoine Griezmann — take advantage of the situations they create, that’s a big part of Simeone’s plan that is just as important as the way his team defend. Ultimately, Atletico under Simeone have won a lot of matches (59.2% of them over more than a decade with him at the helm) and you can’t do that without scoring goals, so he must be doing something right.
Connelly: What Simeone did in the first leg at Manchester City, the most possession-hungry of all possession teams, made perfect sense. Atleti deployed a literal 5-5-0 for much of the first half and rendered City completely aimless in possession, and you could make the case that they should have kept that up for the entire match. Alas, they have to score now in the return leg, and it will be interesting to see what Simeone feels comfortable doing and when he does it. They score plenty of goals in LaLiga, obviously: only Real Madrid and Barcelona have scored more this season.
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What makes Unai Emery such a good coach in knockout rounds?
Dawson: It’s not that he’s a good coach in the knockout rounds — he’s just a good coach, full stop. Some Arsenal fans will probably disagree, but you can’t argue with his CV. When a good coach finds a squad that fits his style and also buys into what he’s trying to do, anything is possible and that’s what’s happening at Villarreal now. Juventus and Bayern Munich have better players, but when you have a tactically astute coach, the gap in quality can close very quickly.
Connelly: His teams are just so dang sound. They create better looks for themselves than they give you, and they’re really good at forcing you to play left-handed. Bayern’s Lewandowski averages 39.7 touches per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga and 34.0 in the Champions League, but he had only 29 against Villarreal and managed only two shots (and only one of particular quality). Villarreal forced others like Coman or Davies to create something from the perimeter, and they couldn’t do it. They still might in the second leg, of course, but Villarreal brilliantly forces you away from Plan A.
Rae: Emery is the type of coach who’s almost happier preparing a match plan that involves letting the opposition have more of the ball. The trick is keeping the opposition off balance and forcing them into select areas of the pitch. Sometimes it’s about shifting just one player and the excellent Giovani Lo Celso was the key figure, going from an attacker on the right in a 4-3-3 with the ball, to a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2 without it. Emery deserves more respect than he sometimes gets.