Champions League: What We’ve Learnt: April 3, 2014

Just four teams remain in the UEFA Champions League, and after a quartet of exceptional quarter-final ties, this tournament seems intent on getting better and better. At this juncture, each of the four sides left in the competition know they’re a mere three games away from winning the biggest prize of them all. And after getting to this stage, all will be bristling with confidence.

In this week’s quarter-final games, we saw the teams who have that winning mentality and ability to perform under pressure engrained into their make-up. Those qualities come to the fore in the high-pressure atmosphere of the last-eight, and as we’ve seen, these attributes are often just as crucial star quality or individual brilliance.

Chelsea showed their mental fortitude on Tuesday, as Jose Mourinho’s men won 2-0 to progress on away goals against Paris Saint-Germain. A late goal from forgotten man Demba Ba sent Stamford Bridge wild, and the Londoners look the most defensively sound of all the sides remaining.

In Dortmund, Real Madrid just managed to scrape through against a revitalised Borussia side. After Angel Di Maria missed a penalty for the visitors early on, the home side were 2-0 up before half time. But Jurgen Klopp’s men spurned a cacophony of second half chances, meaning Real Madrid progress to their third consecutive semi-final appearance.

On Wednesday, Manchester United were swept aside 3-1 by Bayern Munich after taking a shock 1-0 lead. And in Tuesday’s other tie, Atletico Madrid put in a marvellous performance to triumph 1-0 over Barcelona on the night, winning 2-1 on aggregate in front of a raucous Calderon crowd.

Let’s take a look at all the games played this week and see what we can ascertain ahead of what promises to be a thrilling semi-final stage:


Madrid Lost Without Ronaldo, Reus Shows Class

Carlo Ancelotti left his talisman on the bench for the second consecutive game, and it looked like his gamble was going to pay off as Realwere awarded an early penalty. But Angel Di Maria slipped, Roman Weidenfeller saved and that early miss seemed to galvanize the Westfalenstadion and its players.

Inspired by a rampant Marco Reus, last season’s runners-up stormed into a 2-0 lead before the break and a remarkable comeback looked on the cards. But they—most notably Henrikh Mkhitaryan—spurned a host of chances in the second half and Madrid were off the hook.

Los Blancos looked all at sea without Ronaldo. There was no focal point in their attacking play and no incisiveness as they tried to hit Dortmund on the break. Leaving him out very nearly made Ancelotti look a little silly, but his side managed to scrape through in the end.

As for Dortmund, they will surely face a battle to keep hold of Marco Reus this summer. The former Monchengladbach man was magnificent against Madrid, and his pace, trickery, vision and cool head in front of goal makes him a complete forward player. Hopefully Dortmund can keep hold of him, but the most illustrious sides on the continent will be circling.


Mental Strength Makes It Impossible To Write Off Mourinho’s Men

Write off Chelsea at your peril. Say what you want about this side, but they all seem to find a way of pulling through. They weren’t particularly impressive in their 2-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain, but they displayed unwavering concentration and supreme patience under pressure.

They were so intense off the ball and eventually wore down their Parisian opponents, a team who were clearly not suited to opposition playing such a high-octane brand of football. The French champions just couldn’t cope with Chelsea’s aggression and were noticeably off the pace as the game went into the latter stages.

Whatever you think of Mourinho and his touchline antics, the man is a genius when it comes to this competition. He constantly fashions teams that are incredibly difficult to beat and that always means they have an excellent chance of progressing into the latter stages, as Chelsea showcased with conviction here.

Whether this Chelsea side has the raw firepower to compete with the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid remains to be seen, but they look the most defensively capable side remaining in the competition. They’re certainly a much stronger outfit than the side that won the competition back in 2012 and in Mourinho they have a manager who has proven himself to be a winner time and time again. Their supporters have every right to dream.


Bayern An Increasingly Reactive Outfit In The Champions League

Despite their obvious quality and unshakeable winning mentality, it sometimes seems like this Bayern Munich side need a kick up the backside to get going. There have been plenty of examples in this tournament when they’ve been a little casual in their play, before something going against them has sparked a reaction.

In the last-16 first-leg Arsenal they only really got going when they missed a penalty. In the first-leg against United in the quarter-final they played with greater impetus after Nemanja Vidic put the Red Devils in front. And again in the second-leg, they only seemed to move through the gears once United had scored.

After winning the German Bundesliga so easily, this could be a case of Bayern taking their foot of the gas somewhat. They were a little ponderous against United and only seemed to attain full focus in the last 30 minutes of the game. Guardiola will be keen to eradicate this complacency in the last-four.

United only really have themselves to blame for not progressing here. The Bavarians were not at their best in either leg of the tie and after the Red Devils took the lead in both games, conceding very quickly to the holders straight afterwards proved to be their downfall. Well off the pace in the Premier League, this is the last we’ll see of United in amongst Europe’s elite for at least one campaign.

Atletico Madrid Are The Real Deal

No Diego Costa, no problem for the Champions League’s surprise package.

If there were any doubts about Atletico Madrid’s staying power, surely they were banished here on a marvellous night at the Vicente Calderon. Koke’s early goal saw Atleti progress through to the last-four at the expense of Barcelona, and it means the Catalan giants have now failed to beat Diego Simeone’s side in five attempts this season.

In the first 30 minutes of this one, the La Liga leaders were simply unplayable. They showcased an unfathomable amount of energy and industry in all areas of the pitch, and they could have put the tie to bed had they not hit the woodwork three times in the first half.

Naturally, Barcelona bossed possession as they game wore on, but clear-cut chances were at a premium, as Cholo Simeone’s team defended diligently. The supporters were magnificent throughout this contest and suddenly, a league and European Cup double is in touching distance for Atletico.

With Costa to come back for the semi-final games, they have a great chance of making it to the final. Although they will be hoping to avoid Chelsea, as a draw against the Stamford Bridge outfit could see Thibaut Courtois miss out; the Belgian stopper is on loan from the Londoners.


Second-Leg Complacency Continues To Creep In 

There seems to be a lot of teams that have relaxed after a dominant first-leg showing. PSG let slip a two-goal lead against Chelsea, Bayern Munich only came to life after Manchester United went ahead in the tie and Real Madrid were perilously close to letting a three-goal lead slip against Dortmund.

It’s brilliant to watch, of course. But for managers of those respective teams, it must be incredibly frustrating. As we go even further into the competition, they will demand a stratospheric level of focus and concentration from their players.

In a semi-final, a solitary lapse in concentration or even a slither of underestimating an opponent could prove to be seriously costly.


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