Champions League talking points: Is Liverpool-Man City final inevitable?
The Champions League semifinals are set after Liverpool, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Villarreal made it through following a set of quarterfinal second legs that featured thrills, upsets, brawls and plenty of goals.
Julien Laurens, Alex Kirkland and Tom Hamilton give their views on the big questions as just four clubs remain on the road to Paris.
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What caught your eye from the quarterfinal second legs?
Laurens: I love how Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann got taught a lesson by Unai Emery and Villarreal, who beat them 2-1 on aggregate in one of the biggest upsets of recent years. Tactically, he was outsmarted by the Spanish manager. Just because you field five forwards doesn’t mean you will inevitably create a lot of chances and score many goals. And if you neglect your defensive transitions because you take the game for granted then you will get punished, and he did. Talking of punishment, Nagelsmann got it totally wrong as well with his comments after the quarterfinal draw was made and again before the match: He disrespected Villarreal and didn’t take them seriously. He is still a young manager, so let’s hope he learns from the mistakes he made this time around.
The other big one for me, of course, is another special moment from Karim Benzema, who scored the decisive goal that sent Real Madrid to the semifinals. It is his 12th goal in nine Champions League games so far this season. At 34 years old.
Kirkland: Two LaLiga teams in the semifinals: not bad for a league that’s supposedly in decline. It could have been three if Atletico Madrid had been a bit more clinical in the last 15 minutes against Manchester City at the Wanda Metropolitano, before the match descended into chaos with Felipe‘s red card. Atletico were on top at that point, and if they’d managed to score and level the tie you would have fancied their chances in extra time. But the brawl that followed the sending off (and reignited after the final whistle) robbed the game of any momentum, allowing City to progress 1-0 on aggregate.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid’s inexplicable run in this competition continues. They were comprehensively outplayed by Chelsea for 75 minutes at the Bernabeu — just as they had been for an hour by Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16 — before digging deep once again to go through 5-4 on aggregate after extra time. There are plenty of things to criticise about this team, but you can’t fault their character and mentality. With the quality of Luka Modric and Benzema, there’s always a chance.
Hamilton: Hands down, the moment of the round was Modric’s assist for Rodrygo‘s goal. The Croatian magician was exceptional against Chelsea and that ball with the outside of his foot to tee up the Brazilian’s volley was an incredible piece of skill.
Liverpool’s strength in depth is also paying dividends. Jurgen Klopp has built a formidable squad, and he was able to rotate for their second leg against Benfica with one eye on their FA Cup semifinal against City at the weekend. Having taken the first leg 3-1 in Lisbon, he was able shuffle his pack for the return leg as they went through with a 3-3 draw at Anfield. The ability to rotate will prove to be absolutely essential as they are still chasing three trophies, but it also reinforced (again) what a brilliant job they’ve done in the recruitment department. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were both rested against Benfica, while Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane were second-half substitutes. Klopp’s judgment on rotation will be key in the run-in.
At the other end of the scale, Bayern Munich’s wastefulness against Villarreal was alarming. Nagelsmann is a wonderful manager, but you feel like one way or another, there will be some change at the Bundesliga champions this summer amid reports Barcelona are keen on their star man Robert Lewandowski. I agree with Juls: They don’t look as settled as they did under Hansi Flick, their midfield was picked apart on Tuesday, and the aggressively high line was a recipe for disaster against Villarreal — the masters of football frugality. Despite having a lethal attack, just four of their 23 shots were on target. Villarreal managed one and scored from it. Under-pressure sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic chuckled when interviewed about the quarterfinal draw on German TV. He’s not laughing now.
Alejandro Moreno says Bayern Munich didn’t look focused in their Champions League loss to Villarreal.
Is it time for Diego Simeone to leave Atletico? If so, which club would suit him?
Kirkland: We’ve often asked this question during Simeone’s decade in charge — in 2016 after a second Champions League final defeat in three seasons, in 2020 when they looked like dropping out of LaLiga’s top four — and the answer is always “no.” This is a manager who won the league last year ahead of Real Madrid and Barcelona, has inspired famous away victories over Liverpool and Manchester United in recent seasons, and had them in this tie with Manchester City — arguably the best team in the world — until the very end. Simeone has become so identified with Atletico now that it’s impossible to picture how one would look without the other. For example: can you begin to imagine how it might have gone for Simeone if he’d taken the Manchester United job in 2016? Simeone is Atletico, and Atletico is Simeone. He should stay as long as he wants to, and leave on his own terms, when he sees fit.
Hamilton: Well they certainly still love him at the Wanda Metropolitano. The last few moments of that second leg were affirmation of how much they still adore Simeone, as he stood on the sideline clapping away with the fans (at least that’s how it looked, much to the bemusement/frustration of the much-maligned officials). But his football does grate on the European stage. The potential is frightening in that squad. While it managed to secure him LaLiga last term, watching Joao Felix chase down blind alleys all evening against Man City was frustrating. But it’s certainly a team built in his own image, and whoever takes over would take several seasons to shift the philosophy to how they’d want the team to play. It is time to shift away from the street-fighting mentality — their loss of discipline was shocking in the final stages, and was a poor look for the club.
Laurens: His time was up a while ago. Atletico are paying him a fortune, they are backing him up hugely on the transfer market and this is how they are rewarded! The two games against Manchester City were embarrassing. Koke & Co. showed they could play if they wanted, and they put City under pressure in the last 30 minutes of the game, but the rest of the time, they were so defensive, so anti-football that it hurt to watch them. Simeone is stuck in the past. With the squad that he has, his team could and should play in a more attacking way, with swagger and class. Instead, it’s street battles, ultra-defensive tactics and the negation of football. He is such a guru at Atletico that they are too scared to sack him. So he will stay until he decides to leave. Where could he go next? I don’t know and I don’t care (although I hope nowhere). The less I see his prehistoric tactics, the better!
Steve Nicol feels Atletico Madrid should have played more attacking football sooner in their Champions League clash vs. Manchester City.
Now that the final four is set, who will reach the final, and who will lift the trophy?
Hamilton: It’s going to be an all-English final, with Pep Guardiola up against Klopp, Salah against Kevin De Bruyne and a repeat of that brilliant 2-2 draw we saw at the weekend. Klopp won’t underestimate Villarreal like Bayern Munich did, while Guardiola has the nous to contain Benzema and knock over Real Madrid. It’s been a long time coming for Guardiola — this will be his second semifinal as City boss, and if he gets through that, then it’ll be his second chance at winning the trophy at this club. Klopp has already won the trophy with Liverpool back in 2019. And I have a feeling that whoever wins the league won’t win the Champions League. So for that reason: It’s Liverpool’s Champions League this year.
Laurens: I know mainland Europe will not like it, but I am betting again on a full English. For the third time in the past four seasons, we will have a final with two English clubs. After Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur in 2019 and Chelsea defeated Manchester City last season, it will be Man City vs. Liverpool on May 28 at the Stade de France. It is the dream final: the two best teams in the world right now, the two best managers, the two best attacks, the two best defences, Salah against Kevin De Bruyne, eight goals in two amazing Premier League matches this season, and surely more when they meet at Wembley in Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal (stream LIVE at 10:30 a.m. ET on ESPN+ in the U.S.). The final between these two might not be as open, but I feel it will be City’s triumph this time. They have learnt a lot from the disappointment of losing to Chelsea last season and will get their first, long-awaited Champions League trophy.
Kirkland: I’d love to make the case for an all-Spanish, Real Madrid vs. Villarreal final … but I don’t think I can. Madrid’s luck will surely run out at some point, and Manchester City are a better, more reliable team than PSG or Chelsea. As for Villarreal, anything is possible — who would have backed them to eliminate Juventus or Bayern Munich, and Unai Emery’s European record is exceptional — but I would worry about their defence up against Liverpool’s stacked forward line. I think we’re in for yet another all-English final, and City to win it.
After Villarreal, a team from a town of 50,000 people, reached the semifinals, what is your favourite Champions League Cinderella story?
Laurens: Monaco reaching the semifinals in 2016-17. What a team, and what a journey! They also won Ligue 1 that season but, maybe more impressively, they defied all the odds in the Champions League. We got to see the making of a new star in Kylian Mbappe who, at only 17, blew away everyone. He scored against Manchester City at the Etihad in the first leg of the round of 16, his first-ever start in the competition. He did it again in the second leg, and in the two quarterfinal matches against Borussia Dortmund, and in the semifinal second leg in Turin against Juventus. Mbappe was on fire alongside Radamel Falcao, Fabinho, Bernardo Silva, Joao Moutinho and Thomas Lemar. It was a golden generation and manager Leonardo Jardim made the most of the incredible talent at his disposal. They were a bit naive and unlucky against Juventus in the semifinals and fell short, but nevertheless it was a beautiful Cinderella story.
Kirkland: How about the last time Villarreal reached the Champions League semifinals? Their 2005-06 team was packed full of gifted, must-watch players — Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan, Marcos Senna — and came within a missed Riquelme penalty of making the final. Staying on the LaLiga theme, the Isco-inspired Malaga of 2012-13 is another personal favourite. They reached the quarterfinals on their debut in the competition and were only eliminated thanks to a baffling double-offside call in added time that went the way of Klopp’s Dortmund. The best, though, has to be 2003-04 semifinalists Deportivo La Coruna. Depor eliminated both of the previous year’s finalists — Juventus and AC Milan — before being cruelly beaten by Jose Mourinho’s Porto (the ugly sister to Depor’s Cinderella, if you will). The win over Milan was one for the ages, following a 4-1 loss at San Siro with a legendary 4-0 second-leg comeback at Riazor.
Hamilton: If I can shoehorn them in as a Cinderella story (perhaps they’re more like Jack and the Beanstalk), then it has to be Ajax’s run to the 2019 semifinals. They were a matter of seconds away from a spot in the final, until Lucas Moura broke Amsterdam hearts with that perfectly placed shot from the edge of the box to seal his hat trick put Tottenham through at the expense of Erik ten Hag’s side. That team was wonderful to watch, playing ambitious football with that young Dutch core of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek. They were brought together on a comparatively tiny budget to their European rivals, but a squad brimming with homegrown talent managed to knock out Real Madrid and Juventus en route to the semifinals. That run then (inevitably) triggered a mass dismantlement of that generation, but they were a joy to watch.