Last week, the entire world of football was shaken to the core with the announcement of the European Super League. The backlash from fans and players alike was enough to stunt the project before it even started, much to the delight of football fans.
However, given that three of the four teams in the 2020-21 Champions League semifinals signed off to join the Super League, the idea of ending the Champions League in punishment to those three clubs was floated. Thankfully for us fans, that idea did not go through either, and the clubs will be punished through other methods, likely financial.
As for the rest of the football world, everything is back to normal. After a great weekend of games across Europe’s top five leagues, the Champions League midweek matches have returned as well.
Real Madrid (Spain) 1-1 Chelsea (England)
The first semifinal of the 2020-21 Champions League season featured two teams who have surprisingly never played each other in the Champions League before, despite both sides being regulars in this competition.
While they have never played each other, Real Madrid and Chelsea share much history between them—namely, the players Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, both former Chelsea players who now play for Real Madrid. Courtois left Chelsea on bad terms in 2018, becoming an unpopular figure among Chelsea fans, elevating his career in Madrid and solidifying his place as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Hazard, on the other hand, who is one of the club’s most beloved players. He left on a high note in 2019 but has since had a torrid time with Los Merengues due to repeated injuries.
Throughout the Champions League season, Real Madrid has not played the crushing attacking football of past iterations. Instead, they have relied upon the tremendous tactical awareness of manager Zinedine Zidane and the valuable experience of the squad. With players like Thibaut Courtois, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema, the spine of this team has been phenomenal this season, which is more than enough to win the majority of games.
Chelsea, in comparison, has been very consistent, organized and resolute, conceding only three goals the entire tournament while outplaying most of their opponents this season in the Champions League. However, it can be argued that Chelsea has avoided all the elite teams besides Atletico Madrid, who played very poorly. Chelsea’s significant issue, though, is upfront. Summer signings Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz have yet to settle in the squad, forcing Tuchel to rely on his midfielders or backup strikers for goals.
When Real Madrid welcomed Chelsea to their home stadium, the Alfredo Di Stefano, in pouring rain, many expected a tight and tactical match with very few chances on goal. The opening half was the complete opposite, as Chelsea went right for their opponent’s throat. Amidst their constant pressure, Chelsea had the first real opportunity after a floated header from Christian Pulisic found Timo Werner, whose shot was saved by Courtois at point-blank range.
Shortly after, it would be the American hero himself, Captain America Christian Pulisic, who opened the score after his quick run behind was complimented by a pinpoint ball over the top by Antonio Rudiger. Real Madrid’s defense was caught sleeping as Pulisic settled the ball and dribbled past Courtois in goal before easily slotting the ball into the net. While Chelsea was in the driving seat, Real Madrid was clinical with their chances. Benzema hit the post with a long shot, and a few minutes later, a corner played short saw Benzema capitalize on a loose ball in the box with a beautiful acrobatic finish, equaling the score 1-1.
While the first half was exciting end-to-end football, both teams calmed down for the second half, which was more similar to how the pundits expected the match to be. In the final minutes, Real Madrid was the dominant of the two teams, but they could not find a winner and the match ended 1-1.
Overall, Chelsea comes away with high hopes for the second leg. They played very well against Real Madrid, and Christian Pulisic clocked in with a man of the match performance. However, the problem up top for Chelsea persists and Timo Werner had an abysmal game, botching several great chances on goal.
As for Real Madrid, even though the advantage is with Chelsea with the away goal, this tie is far from over. Benzema is still dangerously ever-present, plus Eder Militao has been a formidable replacement for the injured Sergio Ramos. Not to mention, Real Madrid’s veteran midfield trio, while quiet today, can never be counted out. So as it stands on 1-1, Chelsea go through to the final, but expect that scoreline to change come the second leg.
Paris Saint-Germain (France) 1-2 Manchester City (England)
The next semifinal featured two teams that are actually very similar in their quest for Champions League glory. Both PSG and Manchester City were former mid-table to bottom half teams in their respective leagues before recent big-money buyouts from Gulf-state entrepreneurs saw them rise to unforeseen success.
While both have received much criticism from fans, it also undeniable that both teams have produced some beautiful football as of late. Although these two teams have dominated their domestic league, they have yet to convert that to European glory, with neither ever winning the converted trophy.
PSG was labeled perpetual bottlers after failing to reach the semifinals for seven consecutive seasons in epic fashion. Last season, PSG finally made it all the way to the final but were defeated by Bayern Munich. Man City have a similar record with a sole semifinal appearance in 2016 sandwiched in between eight capitulations in earlier rounds, with that loss to Real Madrid in the 2016 semifinals the farthest they have ever gone. After painful defeats in this competition last season, though, PSG and Man City have been outwardly motivated to silence the haters this time around.
Ever since Mauricio Pochettino came in to replace former manager Thomas Tuchel in January, PSG have adopted Pochettino’s style of play, which is very calculated but not overly defensive like others. After a shaky start in the group stage, PSG proved to be one of the better teams throughout the tournament.
Still, it always helps to have world-class talents like Neymar Jr., Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria, Marquinhos and Keylor Navas among your ranks, who can win games on their own accord. However, PSG’s biggest weakness is that they seemingly rely on their big stars too often, and when they don’t show up, the rest of the team suffers. PSG has played well, but it seems that haven’t reached their full potential yet.
Manchester City is a different story, being arguably the most consistent team throughout the tournament. For a team that is known for their attacking prowess and their defensive frailties, Pep Guardiola completely rewired this team into an impenetrable juggernaut, playing with a strict shape and well-drilled squad, conceding only three goals prior to this stage. While the emphasis has been on tight control and keeping the ball out of the net, they still have not lost their scoring touch. Man City’s issues come in the form of target practice, though, as this team often creates many missed chances. While that was excusable in the past, it is more detrimental now, considering the defensive mindset of the team and the quality of opposition. Inexperience at this stage of the tournament and the trauma of past eliminations may play a factor, too. However, PSG are definitely not immune from that either.
In a stereotypical illusion of the phrase “a game of two halves,” PSG started the match on the front foot. Much like their tactical masterclass last round against Bayern, the Parisians let Man City keep the ball while hitting them on the counter. Yet again, Neymar was the creator, while Mbappe caused many problems on the wing. Ironically, it was the defender, Marquinhos, who opened the score with a glancing header following a corner. The Brazilian captain has made a habit of stepping for this club, scoring yet another vital goal. The half ended with PSG in prime position to score, causing Pep to reevaluate.
What happened in the second half is the cause of much debate. Whether or not PSG became too arrogant and possibly too complacent with their lead or Pep gave his squad a roaring motivational speech, the result was that the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, and PSG found themselves with their backs against the wall. Man City continued holding on to the ball, but PSG could not pull together any meaningful counters this time. Mbappe was suppressed, while Neymar spent most of his time rolling around in the grass.
The constant pressure finally paid off when Kevin De Bruyne sent a curling ball into the box looking for the head of Ruben Dias after the corner was played short. Dias, however, missed the ball and the PSG defenders failed to clear the ball. The confusion in the back meant goalkeeper Keylor Navas didn’t see the ball until it was too late and in the back of the net.
With the score at 1-1, Man City was emboldened to fight for more, yet they too did not seem to fully set into full gear. They would nonetheless cash in their luck after Phil Foden was fouled near the mouth of the 18. Riyad Mahrez stepped up for the free kick and whipped in a powerful shot at mid-height. In a moment of madness, PSG’s wall jumped, opening a perfect gap for the ball to slip right through, leaving Navas no chance before it flew right past him. Ironically, Algerian Riyad Mahrez, who was born in Paris, just scored to put his home club 2-1 down.
From then on, the Citizens froze their lead, restricting PSG to only half chances at goal. The night would go from bad to worse for the home team as frustration saw Idrissa Gueye take out Ilkay Gundogan with a terrible studs-up challenge. Gueye was sent off and will miss the next leg as well. For a team who has been habitually unlucky in this competition in years past, Man City finally had some luck of their own.
Going forward, Manchester City are definitely in the home stretch now with one foot in the final. All they have to do is secure at least a drawback in Manchester for the second leg. It is not completely over for PSG, though, and they will take solstice in the fact that they have actually failed to win the home leg in both their last two matchups before winning the away leg, sending them through. However, on both those occasions, the away leg was played first, meaning they traveled back home already with a lead in hand, unlike now.
Looking ahead to the next set of fixtures, it seems as of now we will have yet another all-English Final, but there are still many matches to play before anything is set in stone.