The first-legs of four stellar quarterfinal ties were played out this week, as the eight remaining teams in the Champions League looked to keep their European dreams alive. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to pick a potential winner from the remaining sides, and some wide open first legs did little to reveal an obvious champion.
But that’s good for us, as the Champions League begins to simmer. Even the very best teams that remain seem to have weaknesses that can be exploited and in this competition perhaps more than any, things don’t always necessarily go to script.
We saw that in earnest on Tuesday evening. Manchester United were expected to be on the end of a beating by the holders Bayern Munich, for one. But the Red Devils took the lead surprise lead through Nemanja Vidic, before Bastian Schweinsteiger’s smart finish levelled things up at 1-1. In the all-Spanish affair, Atletico Madrid also sprung a surprise, taking the lead at the Camp Nou through a stunning Diego strike. But Andres Iniesta’s sublime pass released Neymar, who ensured Barcelona will be on level terms ahead of the second leg.
On Wednesday, Real Madrid disposed of a lackluster Dortmund team 3-0, all but ensuring their place in the last four of the competition. Chelsea will have an uphill task on their hands if they are to qualify though, after they lost 3-1 to French juggernauts Paris Saint-Germain.
With little time to take stock ahead of what are sure to be a sparkling set of second-leg ties, here are a few things we’ve learnt from the first-leg games.
Barcelona Will Fancy Their Chances At The Calderon
Four times these two teams have met this campaign, and they’ve drawn on every occasion. Obviously, something must separate them in the second leg, and whilst Atletico might look the favorites with an away goal secured, you have to fancy Barcelona to progress.
Why? Well, Diego Costa has been a crucial player for Diego Simeone’s team, and he limped off with a hamstring injury last night, the chances are he’ll miss the second leg. Whilst Costa’s namesake did manage to nick an away goal with the forward off the pitch, they lacked a focal point and an aggression to their play in advanced areas. Costa is their talisman and without him, Atleti’s play just looked a little bit flat.
Barca should be able to take advantage of that at the Calderon. Their style differs little regardless of whether they play at home or away, and the manner in which Simeone’s team will look to press in front of their own supporters could leave space for the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and co. to exploit.
The Blaugrana looked much more incisive when Tata Martino introduced Alexis Sanchez in the first-leg, and with the four-time champions needing a goal, it’ll interesting to see whether the Barca boss chooses to go with the dynamism of Sanchez or the playmaking sills of Cesc Fabregas.
A more experienced side would have clung on to their 1-0 lead in the Camp Nou, and you wonder if that lack of know-how might just harm Atletico in the second-leg. This Barcelona side have been in this situation many times over and in Messi, they have a player who always performs in the biggest occasions. Barca have their talisman, Atletico don’t; that could well be what finally separates these two excellent sides.
Suspensions A Blessing In Disguise For Bayern
The reigning champions had to battle for a 1-1 draw against Manchester United, and they’ll be without Javi Martinez and Schweinsteiger for the second-leg, with both players picking up suspensions.
Whilst the aforementioned duo are fine players, their absence could be a blessing in disguise for the German champions. Dante will return at the heart of the defence to offer a much more natural, composed presence, whilst Mario Gotze looks set to replace Schweinsteiger in the heart of the Bayern midfield. Schweinsteiger is obviously a fabulous player and the heartbeat of this Bayern team, but against United, the skill-set of Gotze might make more a more profitable evening.
Of the two, it’s the former Dortmund man who is most likely to find a pocket of space and create a moment of magic. United will head to Munich looking employ similar tactics to the home-leg; they’ll be compact, solid and try to play on the break. Gotze is a player who can breach these lines with subtle lateral movement, a bit of close control or a killer pass between a couple of defenders.
Most of Bayern’s incisive play in the first-leg came from overloading the wide areas and Pep Guardiola will be looking for a little more from his central players in the second leg. Gotze can give them that creative central presence and if he can find space behind the ponderous United midfield duo of Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick, the Red Devils will be in for a tough evening.
PSG Depth Reaffirms Their Championship Credentials
I’ve been making a case for the French Champions as potential winners for the entirety of our Champions League coverage, and their performance against Chelsea was the biggest indicator yet that they can go on and win this trophy.
And it wasn’t that much to much to do with the obvious firepower in their first XI, but with the talent Laurent Blanc was able to call upon from the substitutes bench. Zlatan Ibrahimovic looks likely to miss the second leg of this one through injury, and whilst that’ll be a blow for the Parisians, they have plenty in reserve.
His replacement—Lucas Moura—gave PSG a scintillating, energetic attacking dimension, whilst fellow substitute Javier Pastore also made a huge difference when he came on, slaloming his way through the Chelsea defense to give his side a vital two-goal lead heading into the second leg.
It’s going to be exceptionally tough for Chelsea to overcome this deficit. With Moura and Ezequiel Lavezzi likely to start on the flanks in the return leg, Blanc’s side are going to be a major threat on the break, and Chelsea coming onto them will play into the hands of PSG. It’s going to take something special from Jose Mourinho and his players to turn this one around, the Parisians are big, big favorites to progress to the last four.
Real Madrid Continue To Roll On, Dortmund Depleted
These two played out four incredibly intriguing games in this competition last season, with Dortmund holding a slight edge over Los Blancos all in all. But of the Dortmund side who started against Madrid in that remarkable 4-1 semifinal win last season, only four players took to the field at the Bernabeu last night.
Madrid, who have been outstanding in this season’s Champions League, seized and opportunity and flew out of the blocks. They were 1-0 up inside three minutes and 2-0 up before half time. They notched a third not long after the break, and despite having to withstand some late BVB pressure, Carlo Ancelotti’s side always looked as though they had another gear to move up into if required.
The scoreline means that even a repeat of that remarkable win from last year’s semifinal at the Westfalenstadion wouldn’t be enough for Dortmund. Unfortunately, Jurgen Klopp’s team look done and dusted in this competition. Injuries, player sales and a struggle for consistency has hindered BVB in both their domestic and European exploits this season.
As for Madrid, galvanized by the firepower of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, they are seemingly set for a long run into the latter stages of this tournament. The much coveted decima is most definitely on the cards.
Sensational Second-Legs In Store
Aside from the Real Madrid vs. Dortmund tie, all of these quarterfinals can still realistically go either way. Compare this to the last 16, where plenty of the second-legs looked to be somewhat meaningless, and we should have some top class action to enjoy next week.
The Champions League always conjures up magnificent, dramatic moments and with three ties poised so precariously, we’re surely set for a few more next week.