Champions League Quarterfinals

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The Hard Truth of Football

The quarterfinal of this year’s condensed Champions League, hosted in Lisbon last week, was nothing short of extraordinary. It seems likely that the combination of single-match elimination and empty stadiums has led to a much more consistently open and entertaining tournament, the need to win in one game and the reduction of fan-induced anxiety producing a round of free-flowing, two-sided games.

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Atalanta 1 – Paris Saint-Germain 2. It was a game of two halves, and then a gut-wrenching injury time. The first half was dominated by Neymar’s poor finishing and Atalanta’s effective pressing against a more talented side. Neymar had a hat trick of misses, but remained the straw that stirred the drink in an unexpected false nine role. That pushed Mauro Icardi out to the right flank where he proved ineffective, isolated from the leftward-drifting Neymar and on a different page when opportunities to combine did occur. Instead, Atalanta’s Mario Pašalić scored on a counter after PSG had actually begun to establish more control in a previously open game.

In a more physical second half, PSG’s squad depth (and possibly their time off) wore Atalanta down. At the hour mark, Kylian Mbappé replaced Pablo Sarabia on the left, while Atalanta dropped from 3-4-1-2 to 3-4-2-1 in an effort to hold on. Mbappé’s impact was immediate, and the game became focused on that flank. An exhausted Duván Zapata struggled to provide effective hold-up play for Atalanta, and logical replacement Josip Iličić, currently on personal leave, was sorely missed. Zapata was eventually withdrawn with 10′ left, the same time that Eric Maxin Choupo-Moting replaced Icardi.

In the final minute of regulation, Choupo-Moting put in a cross that was ultimately bundled in by Marquinhos; and 2′ later he scored the game-winner, assisted by Mbappé off a key pass from Neymar. An equalizer to take the game to extra time had been coming, but a regulation winner had something of the cruelty of a golden goal (as COVID viewers of ITV’s Euro 96 Relived were reminded). In the final action of the game, Marten de Roon (whose turnover had led to the game winning attack) stripped Mbappé and launched the ball from one box to the other for substitute Luis Muriel, but Marquinhos was able to recover and snuff out the chance. In a remarkably Dutch post-match interview, de Roon said of his side’s reversal, “this is the beauty of football and, for us, the hard truth of football.”

Tactical Tidbit: Defender Rafael Tolói’s decision to join Atalanta’s attack played a critical role in their goal. In addition to making the entry pass that started the attacking move, his run into the box drew Juan Bernat’s attention, creating the space for Pašalić to receive the ball and score.

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RB Leipzig 2 – Atlético Madrid 1. Despite having lost striker Timo Werner to Chelsea before the restart of the Champions League, Leipzig were the better side in the first half, particularly in the early- and late-going. They got their reward shortly after the with a team attack that ended in a Dani Olmo header in. At that point, Leipzig began to sit back, while Atlético brought on João Felix with 30′ left. Though playing as Diego Costa’s strike partner, Felix dropped into midfield and generally made things more interesting on the left flank, most notably by masterfully creating and scoring a penalty to bring Atlético level.

Leipzig returned to a more attacking stance, even if their changes were mostly like-for-like switches. Striker Patrik Schick did replace midfielder Olmo, but he was by that point playing as a 2nd striker alongside Yussef Poulsen. It was a defensive substitute, holding midfielder and wingback Tyler Adams, who scored their winner–his first ever for the club–from a trailing run and beneficial deflection. Deep into overtime, a free kick ran through to Atlético keeper, Jan Oblak. He launched the ball forward to Felix out left, who lobbed it to the top of the box for Felipe to head on for Álvaro Morata, an attack involving three of Atlético’s subs. Péter Gulásci was out to punch the ball off Morata’s foot in the final action of the game. A deserved win for Leipzig, if one of fine margins.

Tactical Tidbit: Both Roberto Martínez, commentating for CBS, and tactical guru Michael Cox highlighted Leipzig’s interesting shape, which transitioned from a 4-2-3-1 in defense to a 3-5-1-1 (and, eventually, a 3-5-2) in attack. The key figure in this transition was Konrad Laimer, who was playing both as right defensive midfielder and right wing back. Tyler Adams replicated this dual role, though he more frequently found himself in the midfield than on the wing as Leipzig favored the 4-2-3-1 in the second half.

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Barcelona 2 – Bayern Munich 8. The scoreline is immediately suggestive of Bayern’s 7-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the group stage, and of Germany’s 7-1 win over Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. But in the early going, Bayern’s high defensive line looked decidedly vulnerable and suggested the possibility of an exciting two-way game. Despite Bayern’s early goal off a brilliant interchange between Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski, Barcelona struck back immediately with a long outlet to Jordi Alba on the left flank. His cross that forced an own goal out of a recovering David Alaba. On the other flank, Lionel Messi was working as the “wall” to send his wall-passing teammates–Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo–in behind, and Sergio Busquets nearly scored a header off a resulting corner (Messi’s cross itself hit the far post, but bounced out).

But at 21′, Ivan Perišić scored off a Barcelona turnover and the floodgates opened. Within 10′, Serge Gnabry and Müller had added goals, while Lewandowski had had two chances narrowly thwarted. In hopes of change, Antoine Griezmann came on to start the second half, and Luis Suárez did score a fantastic individual goal to pull Barcelona back within two. But just after the hour mark, Alphonso Davies isolated Semedo on the left flank and blew by him to set up a Joshua Kimmich goal that re-opened the floodgates. Barcelona brought on teen-phenom Ansu Fati, but it was Bayern’s introduction of Barcelona loanee Philippe Coutinho that shaped the game’s conclusion, as he assisted their 6th goal before scoring their 7th and 8th, all from the left.

In addition to being the first time a team has conceded 8 goals in the knockout stages (the lack of a second leg to keep Barcelona focused on damage control probably played a role here), this marks the first time in 15 years that neither Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo will play in the semifinals. The end of an era?

Tactical Tidbit: In a game that transcended tactical minutiae, it’s worth noting the degree to which Barcelona were hoisted on their own petard. Bayern’s 1st two goals resulted from turnovers as Barcelona tried to dribble out from the back, fruits of the pressing game introduced when Pep Guardiola was their manager. The 3rd and 8th goals (and arguably the 7th) were set up by penetrating passes from Thiago Alcântara, the presumptive heir of Xavi Hernández who had followed Guardiola to Germany. And while Coutinho only played an unsuccessful half season at Barcelona, his assist on the 6th goal came after 2 full minutes of tiki-taka possession, culminating in what looked like a La Masia training rondeau between Coutinho, Müller, and Alaba in the top left corner of Barcelona’s box at 82′.

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Manchester City 1 – Olympique Lyonnais 3. Having managed to earn only one point against Lyon in last season’s group stage, Manchester City were prepared for a challenge, Pep Guardiola fielding a more defensive line-up than the one that dispatched Real Madrid in the previous round. Lyon, for their part, were unintimidated, playing with a high line and restricting space. Before the half hour mark, they had taken the lead off a collective defensive lapse (notwithstanding Eric García’s recovery) and a brilliant finish by Maxwel Cornet. Unrattled, a patient City had the better chances as the half progressed, the best of them an injury time effort from Raheem Sterling at the right post that he couldn’t lift over a slide-tackling Cornet.

Pep Guardiola made City’s first change just before the hour mark, right winger Riyad Mahrez replacing ersatz center-back Fernandinho in a shift to a 4-2-3-1. When De Bruyne scored a magisterial goal off a cut-back from Sterling, Guardiola’s patience seemed justified. In response, Rudi García first shifted from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3, moving Cornet into a more attacking role, and then introduced Moussa Dembélé on the right. Not long after that, Aymeric Laporte dribbled into Lyon’s half and turned the ball over, spurring a counter-attack that produced both a VAR controversy and a game-winning goal for Dembélé. Guardiola brought on David Silva for a final 5′ (10′ with injury time), and Sterling should have scored off a set up from Gabriel Jesus that he side-footed wide of an empty net. Instead, it was Dembélé who poached a late goal off a rebound to seal Lyon’s upset.

Tactical Tidbit: Michael Cox wrote a fascinating piece for The Athletic emphasizing the defensive nature of Guardiola’s gameplay. While Fernandinho did start in place of other, more conventional center-backs, he was part of a back three that saw creative midfielder Phil Foden make way for the additional defender, García, in a starting eleven that still boasted two defensive midfielders in Rodri Cascante and İlkay Gündoğan. Though adding Mahrez was undeniably an offensive change, Guardiola waited until the final minutes of regulation to move De Bruyne into one of the holding roles in order to make way for another creative midfielder. Guardiola’s shift away from the relentless pursuit of greater on-pitch creativity, should it prove more than a one-off aberration, may come to seem as much the end of an era as the absence of Messi and Ronaldo.

One response to “Champions League Quarterfinals

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