The Champions League quarterfinals got underway this week with four enticing first-leg matchups. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from the week’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.
Boehly must learn from chaotic campaign
Chelsea’s trip to Real Madrid wasn’t supposed to be much of a contest.
Frank Lampard was staggering toward relegation with Everton before he was axed in January and his first match after his surprising re-hire as Chelsea’s interim boss was a dismal 1-0 loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers. The squad the underqualified Englishman has inherited at Stamford Bridge is also close to unmanageable: It’s bloated, unbalanced, and has scored 29 Premier League goals all season, which is 11 fewer than second-from-bottom Leicester City and one shy of Erling Haaland’s monstrous individual tally in England’s top flight.
The Blues legend and Chelsea’s second marriage is one of convenience rather than anything remotely romantic. It’s something to tie them over until the end of the season. A win or draw at the Santiago Bernabeu wasn’t expected – so Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat simply followed the script.
But what this season write-off does, after an expenditure of over £500 million in around 10 months under Chelsea owner Todd Boehly, is raise expectations for what happens next at Chelsea. A genuine long-term plan – something that the club prioritized when Graham Potter was hired last September – must be recognizable through each important boardroom decision. Actions speak louder than words, so rather than make laughable pre-game score predictions to the media, Boehly needs to zip it and get to work.
Spending needs to be less manic and address weak parts of the squad; signing Joao Felix – yet another attacking player – on a permanent basis certainly shouldn’t be among the club’s priorities. Obviously, lots of players need to leave. The new manager, like Potter, should be hired with plenty of consideration for the future and the kind of football the club should play but, unlike Potter, have the pedigree that demands respect from the squad. Assurances should be made to supporters that the club’s hugely successful academy and improving the stadium remain priorities because the nature of Boehly’s stewardship has currently screamed reckless vanity project, not systematic growth.
The supporters haven’t turned on Boehly just yet, but any repeats of the crass and capricious behavior that effectively wasted this season won’t be tolerated for much longer. It was hard to believe that the midweek tilt was between the last two winners of the Champions League – Chelsea are a long way off that quality now.
Unsung heroes step up for Milan
Rafael Leao is the talk of the town these days. Before most matches, AC Milan directors Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara have to find new ways to answer the same question about the Portuguese winger’s future. Even Theo Hernandez, Milan’s star left-back, was asked about Leao before the first leg of the club’s first Champions League quarterfinal in 11 years.
While he was certainly a threat Wednesday against Napoli, he wasn’t the reason the Rossoneri walked away with a 1-0 aggregate lead. Credit must go to Leao’s supporting cast, including, but not limited to, goalkeeper Mike Maignan, defender Davide Calabria, and midfielders Ismael Bennacer and Brahim Diaz. Each played a sizable role in Milan’s second victory over Napoli in 10 days.
Maignan may have had the biggest impact on the game. Reaching out to deny Giovanni Di Lorenzo from point-blank range, the French goalkeeper kept Napoli quite literally at arm’s length just as they threatened to equalize. He’s made a tremendous habit of making game-altering saves in the latter stages of matches – think of the spectacular stop he made at full stretch toward the end of France’s win over the Republic of Ireland on March 27 – and shot-stopping is just one of his many talents. Maignan’s presence alone gives defenders confidence, and his ability to play out from the back and keep possession serves as a release valve against opponents that press as high as Napoli do.
Calabria also turned in an exceptional performance at San Siro, sticking right to Khvicha Kvaratskhelia any time he pounced on the ball. Calabria timed so many of his tackles perfectly, never biting when Kvaratskhelia dipped his shoulder or teased one move over another. Calabria maintained his footing and waited for the Georgian to make his move.
Of course, without the enterprising play of Bennacer and Diaz, who combined with Leao to score the game’s only goal, Milan wouldn’t have had a lead to protect in the first place. Diaz dribbled through three players before releasing Leao, and Bennacer, playing in a more advanced role, whacked the ball home. Bennacer and Diaz gave Milan another dimension, not only by creating chances, but by closing down passing lanes when they didn’t have the ball. Napoli often had to rethink the play they were making when those two came clipping at their heels.
It all came together to produce not just a win, but a clean sheet against the highest-scoring team in Serie A and the Champions League.
Tuchel didn’t lose this one, his team did
Thomas Tuchel’s main frustration with Bayern Munich’s 3-0 defeat at Manchester City will stem from the fact that such a scoreline was avoidable. The hosts found it hard to pass it out of the back in the first half while Rodri and John Stones were habitually crowded out by red shirts – usually Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala – and Erling Haaland wasn’t given many opportunities to run at goal and grapple with defenders.
There was little fault with Bayern’s shape and their organization – but there wasn’t anything Tuchel could do about the brief positional lapses and defensive jitters that resulted in the Bavarians’ disintegration at the Etihad Stadium.
Tuchel was furious when Rodri opened the scoring in resplendent fashion. From a City perspective, the Spaniard’s first Champions League goal required evasive footwork and a superb strike (with his weaker foot) to send the ball curling out of Yann Sommer’s reach. However, Tuchel was furious on the touchline after it went in, presumably directing his ire at Musiala for his tardy attempt to plug the area in front of the back four and ineffectual challenge on Rodri. Musiala was admittedly given a lengthy job list in Manchester – but it was one he should’ve conquered. He’s already set himself those high standards in his young career.
Bayern weren’t out of the game, though, and could’ve taken the lead soon after halftime. Ederson was forced to save three Sane shots within the first eight minutes of the second period, Nathan Ake blocked a Matthijs de Ligt header, and Benjamin Pavard’s deflected shot looped onto the roof of the net.
But, for no clear reason, the visitors’ composure was fraying deeper in the lineup. Miscommunication between Dayot Upamecano and goalkeeper Sommer triggered a calamitous chain of events that eventually ended with Joshua Kimmich heroically blocking a Haaland shot.
City’s second goal unsurprisingly followed another Bayern gaffe. Upamecano received the ball under no pressure but seemed to try to dribble it around Grealish before the City winger was anywhere near him. It was too easy. Grealish swiped the ball, backheeled it through for Haaland’s overlapping run, and Bernardo Silva met the Norwegian’s subsequent cross with an emphatic header.
Now, it was officially a capitulation. Haaland was left completely unmarked for his goal, and as the match neared 90 minutes, the extent of some of the Bayern players’ panic was summed up by, of course, Upamecano. The center-back, who has seldom looked convincing since he moved to Bayern from RB Leipzig for around €42.5 million in 2021, vaguely hit the ball toward Sommer, sending it rolling across Bayern’s goal and out of play for a City corner.
It wasn’t the kind of performance you’d usually associate with Bayern Munich. But it was exactly the display that City have been offering in recent weeks: professional, clinical, and with an ability to quickly move through the gears.
Bayern were poor but make no mistake: Manchester City were excellent.
Dias leads solid City backline
Few would’ve predicted Guardiola settling on a quartet of center-backs this season.
The goals have flowed during City’s run of nine consecutive victories across all competitions, but they’ve only conceded three goals over that span. It seems Guardiola has accepted his squad’s shortcomings at left-back – both in numbers and quality – and the difficulties in achieving balance when fielding one full-back in the lineup on the right, so he’s stripped them away altogether. Ake goes forward but his primary focus is on his defensive responsibilities. Manuel Akanji moved inside from right-back against Bayern, letting center-back Stones step up into midfield. There’s no full-back streaming ahead with little thought to what’s going on behind him, like Joao Cancelo before he moved on loan from City to the German champions.
The fresh approach has given City a solidity and some sleeves-up drudgery, while also allowing the team to regularly string five players along the attack.
Dias was his side’s standout player in Beswick. He timed his tackles and blocks to perfection, most notably spreading his legs to deny a Musiala shot and whipping the ball off Sane’s toes shortly before Rodri’s opener. But in truth, Dias, Ake, and Akanji all excellently kept Bayern at bay.
“The key for me today was the defensive side, it was great, and we understood how to punish them,” Rodri told BT Sport post-match, according to BBC Sport.
Inter’s cautious approach works in Europe
The Champions League is all about results. It’s not a popularity contest, or else Inter Milan wouldn’t be in such a great position to reach the semifinals.
No one would rate Inter as a particularly attractive team to watch, and yet here they are, up 2-0 on aggregate after a professional performance away to Benfica on Tuesday in the first leg of their quarterfinal. As they’ve been all season in the Champions League, Inter were solid at the back, dangerous on the counterattack, and clinical enough to get the goals they needed to win. They didn’t play much better than Benfica – one could argue the Portuguese side was better with the ball – but they managed to get the most important details right.
While Benfica controlled possession and waited a virtual eternity to slip in each and every final pass, Inter struck swiftly. Alessandro Bastoni emerged from central defense to curl in an accurate cross that Nicolo Barella headed into the far post. Then, substitute Romelu Lukaku dispatched a penalty kick to seal the victory. Benfica did all the huffing and puffing, but Inter were the ones who actually blew the door down.
In the end, Benfica’s slick passing moves counted for nothing. They outshot Inter 12-9 but managed just two on target. With Matteo Darmian and Bastoni covering so much ground as the most mobile defenders in Inter’s back three, the Nerazzurri boxed out the hosts on most occasions, forcing them to take pot shots from distance. The majority of Benfica’s chances came on the edges of the penalty area, and the one time they penetrated Inter’s force field, deep into second-half stoppage time, Andre Onana was there to make the save.
Now the Italian outfit has an incredible advantage ahead of next week’s second leg in Milan – and it hasn’t even had to play that well to get there. Tuesday’s win was just its second on the road in the Champions League, and it had scored the fewest goals of any team heading into the quarterfinals.
They’ve also had luck on their side. The penalty Inter won was tenuous at best – Denzel Dumfries’ cross appeared to hit Benfica’s Joao Mario in the head before striking him in the arm – and Goncalo Ramos was seemingly denied a spot-kick of his own when Bastoni slid into his backside. But every team that goes on a run in Europe has some kind of helping hand.
They’ve also earned it. One doesn’t record three clean sheets in a row in the Champions League without doing something right.
No contest: Europe’s best attacking duo
Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior should be cemented as the most feared attacking duo in European football regardless of whether it’s Federico Valverde, Rodrygo, or somebody else accompanying them in Real Madrid’s three-man strikeforce. Benzema’s last 11 Champions League goals have come against English sides – which is rather ominous ahead of a likely semifinal scuffle with Manchester City – while Vinicius has recorded three more assists in Europe’s top competition than anyone else since the start of last season (10 overall). The pair’s understanding is almost telepathic, and each player’s skillset excellently complements the other. Vinicius made 19 touches in Chelsea’s box (while Chelsea made merely 10 in Real Madrid’s box) and many were made possible by a Benzema pass or the experienced Frenchman’s wise off-the-ball movement prying open space.
Napoli’s aura disappears at worst possible time
“You see, he’s not a machine. He’s a man.” That line, one of the most famous from the endlessly quotable “Rocky” franchise of films, applies almost too perfectly to Napoli right now. Prior to their 4-0 shellacking at the hands of Milan earlier this month in the league, the runaway Serie A leaders seemed damn near invincible. They were scoring for fun and steamrolling almost everything in their path. There was an inevitability about Luciano Spalletti’s team, a mental edge that was almost as critical to their dominance as their slick passing and devastating scoring ability. Milan, much like the titular Rocky Balboa did with Ivan Drago, shattered that mystique. To reach the semifinals of the Champions League for the first time, Napoli need to quickly rediscover it. Victor Osimhen’s potential return from injury would go a long way in making that happen, but relying exclusively on the Nigerian star won’t be enough. Milan, now with two wins over Napoli in just 10 days following Wednesday’s 1-0 triumph, are riding a wave, justified in their belief that they have the Partenopei’s number. Can Napoli pick themselves up off the canvas?
Stat of the week
Haaland set foot on a football pitch this week, so, naturally, he set another scoring record.
Tweet of the week
Wednesday’s loss to Real Madrid was simply the next phase of James Corden’s long-term plan to take the Chelsea job for himself.