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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Champions League quarter-finals: tie-by-tie analysis and verdicts | Champions League

Chelsea v Real Madrid

Are Real Madrid any good? They are 10 points clear in La Liga but the sense is that Spanish football is in retreat. They were outplayed for two and a half hours of the last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain and for all the brilliance of Karim Benzema and Luka Modric in those final minutes, it’s also true that the turnaround was as much the result of another PSG collapse as anything they did.

Although Carlo Ancelotti’s substitutions made an impact, with Eduardo Camavinga’s energy a major factor, they remain reliant on an ageing midfield. And the feeling with Spanish sides for some time is that physically they are not comfortable against an aggressive press – which perhaps, as much as the need to deny Kylian Mbappé space to accelerate into, explains their weird timidity in Paris.

Madrid will also be aware that Chelsea’s victory over them in last season’s semi-final was more comfortable than the 3-1 aggregate scoreline may have suggested. Although uncertainty haunts the European champions after the sanctions against Roman Abramovich, performances have remained good and there has always been a sense that Thomas Tuchel’s slightly more conservative model of the pressing game is better suited to European competition than the league.

Prediction Chelsea win

Man City v Atlético Madrid

Atlético are going through one of their periodic crises of identity, as they toy with switching to a more expansive approach before returning to the defensive, deep-lying spoiling and counterattacking that brought victory over Manchester United. This has not been a classic Atlético season. Even with 10 games to go they have let in more goals than ever before under Diego Simeone, a detail only partly to do with an attempt to push higher up the pitch.

Jan Oblak has been one of the best goalkeepers in the world since joining Atlético in 2014, but this season his save percentage has dropped from 75-80% in the previous seven years to 54%. At the other end, João Félix, at 22, looks as though he may be delivering on the expectations that persuaded Atlético to pay £113m for him in 2019.

Jan Oblak dives to save a shot.
Jan Oblak’s save percentage has dropped to 54% this season. Photograph: DPI/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

It was after a slightly freakish Champions League semi-final defeat in 2016 for his Bayern against Atlético that Pep Guardiola started making unexpected tactical switches in European ties in an attempt to head off the threat of potential counters. A repeat is probably a bigger danger to City than the infinitesimal downturn in form that has reopened the Premier League title race.

Prediction City win

Villarreal v Bayern Munich

Whenever Unai Emery coaches outside of Spain, it doesn’t quite seem to work. But with not-quite-superclub Spanish sides he is a master, particularly in knockout ties. Victory over Juventus in the last 16 was meticulously planned and clinically executed, and as Manchester United found repeatedly over the past year, Emery is very good at setting up a side to prevent the opposition playing. The return of Gerard Moreno from injury, coming off the bench with 17 minutes remaining in Turin, means they have a cutting edge. That said, they are seventh in Spain.

Villarreal’s Arnaut Danjuma celebrates his goal against Juventus.
Arnaut Danjuma could cause problems for Bayern. Photograph: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

Bayern, while a formidable attacking force, are vulnerable in two ways. First, their squad is relatively slender and while Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso should return to bolster the midfield options, Alphonso Davies’s heart problems led to Bayern deploying a back three against RB Salzburg. Although the Austrian side were ultimately overwhelmed, there were repeated occasions when they got in behind the wing-backs, which suggests Arnaut Danjuma could be a threat. The other potential weakness is the inexperience of their 34-year-old coach Julian Nagelsmann, who has not got the best record in big European games, although admittedly with teams far less gifted than Bayern.

Prediction Bayern win

Benfica v Liverpool

There is a fine line between a perfectly judged European away performance and just getting lucky and, in the last 16, Benfica were probably on the wrong side of it. They were outplayed at home by Ajax but scrambled a 2-2 draw, and then were outplayed to an even greater degree in Amsterdam, pinching a 1-0 win thanks to a goalkeeping error as their opponents missed a string of chances. Darwin Núñez is a centre-forward of clear ability, Rafa Silva’s surges down the right caused repeated problems for Ajax, and may threaten Andy Robertson, and the goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos made a number of fine saves, but Benfica surely can’t be so fortunate again. Their domestic form is no better than average: Nélson Veríssimo took interim charge when Jorge Jesus was dismissed in December, and his win in Amsterdam was only his seventh in 15 games.

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Liverpool have been in exceptional form, winning 14 of 18 inside 90 minutes this year. Of the other four, two were in two-leg ties they won, one in the Carabao Cup final which they won on penalties and the other a 2-2 against the European champions, Chelsea. With Luis Díaz added to the forward line in January, Jürgen Klopp has described this as the greatest squad he has managed.

Prediction Liverpool win

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