Friday, May 24, 2024

All to play for in Champions League QF


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London, April 14: Eighteen goals. Talking points aplenty. And, crucially, all four matchups are still very much alive.
The Champions League quarterfinals are certainly living up to their billing heading into the second legs.
If the drama wasn’t enough on Tuesday when Real Madrid drew 3-3 at home to defending champion Manchester City and Bayern Munich was held 2-2 at Arsenal, there was even more on Wednesday as Barcelona won 3-2 at Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid conceded late in its 2-1 home win over Borussia Dortmund.
It sets up some intriguing plotlines.
Is this the end of Kylian Mbappe’s hopes of finally winning a Champions League title in his last season at PSG, or can he rediscover his best form to spark a turnaround at Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys? After all, he scored a hat trick in his last visit to Barcelona, in 2021.
Can Madrid, the record 14-time European champion, lean on its mythical status in this competition to end City’s title defence? Remember, City thrashed Madrid 4-0 in the second leg of the semifinals last season after a first-leg draw in Spain.
Will Bayern keep going in Europe in a season when Germany’s top club has abjectly surrendered its Bundesliga title?
And, can Atletico hold out in front of Dortmund’s storied “Yellow Wall” and get back to the semifinals for the first time since 2017?
Here’s a closer look at the four matches:
Barça’s run
When Xavi Hernández stunned Barcelona in January by saying he’d had enough of his team’s inexplicable losses, he added he hoped his players would respond to his shock therapy by playing better before his summer exit.
That ploy appears to have worked – Barcelona has yet to lose in 13 games since Xavi said he was renouncing the final year of his contract.
Reaching the Champions League semi-finals would be a step forward for a team that hasn’t reached that stage since 2018-19. It would also boost the debt-ridden club’s finances with an additional 12.5 million euros in prize money.
While Xavi has rejuvenated his team by giving bigger roles to teenagers Lamine Yamal and, especially, defender Pau Cubarsí in recent weeks, he will again turn to the established players Barca signed at considerable expense two seasons ago after they led the team in Paris.
Like Raphinha, who scored twice in the first leg, and Robert Lewandowski, who will be well-rested after serving a suspension over the weekend.
PSG will need an improved performance from Mbappe, who failed to hit the target from three shots, lost the ball 13 times and was caught offside three times.
Thriving in diversity
Adversity seems to be bringing the best out of Dortmund this season, so a one-goal deficit to Atlético Madrid from the first leg might be just the challenge needed to motivate Edin Terzic’s team.
Dortmund beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-1 in the Bundesliga on Saturday despite Karim Adeyemi’s sending-off, but the win came at the expense of injuries to forwards Sébastien Haller and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens.
Dortmund’s league campaign has been disappointing after almost winning the Bundesliga last season, but the team has shone in the Champions League, finishing top of a group containing PSG, AC Milan and Saudi-owned Newcastle United and then finishing the job against PSV Eindhoven at home to reach the quarterfinals.
Atletico is reviving memories of that spell from 2014-17 when it got to the final twice – losing both times to Real Madrid – and the semi-finals once under current coach Diego Simeone.
Tough task for Real
Madrid might be the king of European football, but the team has a tough task heading to Etihad Stadium.
City hasn’t lost any of its last 27 matches in all competitions and is unbeaten in the Champions League in 22 matches – since a 3-1 loss at Madrid in the semifinals in 2021-22.
Indeed, the defending champions have scored exactly three goals in each of their nine matches in the competition this season – an unprecedented achievement. Most of the spotlight is on Erling Haaland, whose performances aren’t matching those of last season – despite being the top scorer in the Premier League with 20 goals and tied for the second most in the Champions League with six.
Haaland failed to score in either of the games against Madrid last year and was well-shackled by Antonio Rudiger again last week. With Aurelien Tchouaméni suspended, Nacho is likely to partner Rudiger at centre-back.
Kane a pain
Put simply, Harry Kane loves playing against Arsenal. After converting a penalty at Emirates Stadium in the first leg, made it 15 goals in 18 games against the team that was his biggest foe when the England captain played in the Premier League with Tottenham. He was part of a Bayern attack that was a menace on the counterattack last week, causing Arsenal’s defence more problems than it has had in any game this season.
The second leg might be different, though, with Bayern expected to have more of the ball and Arsenal playing on the counterattack, hitting Bayern’s often-fragile defence through the pace of wingers Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka.
Arsenal has only reached the semi-finals once (in 2009) since getting to the final in 2006 and losing to Barcelona.
Bayern, a six-time European champion, has lost in the quarterfinals in each of the past three seasons. (AP)


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