Key thoughts and analysis from Champions League quarterfinals
The Champions League quarterfinal stage came to an end this week, with the semifinal berths being decided. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from the week’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.
Bayern’s Lewandowski-shaped hole
There was clearly some clamor to get Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting back into the lineup. The 34-year-old was substituted midway through the second half of Bayern Munich’s shock DFB-Pokal elimination to Freiburg on April 4 and subsequently missed three matches with a knee injury. However, he was rushed back into the lineup for Wednesday’s second-leg elimination to Manchester City.
Then, all of his teammates simply rushed past him.
Kingsley Coman, Leroy Sane, and Jamal Musiala were dangerous. Coman’s runs were partly responsible for plucking at Nathan Ake’s hamstrings, resulting in the makeshift left-back’s second-half withdrawal. Sane was often the desired target for Bayern’s final balls and should’ve scored when he stroked the ball past Ederson’s post in the 16th minute. Musiala was much sharper than he was in the opening leg.
The Cameroonian international, meanwhile, was a bystander. Passes rolled past him to other Bayern players. The game was quite physical, but Choupo-Moting’s individual battles with City’s defenders were almost nonexistent; Bayern’s opportunities to create passing triangles during attacks dwindled while the striker rarely jostled and demanded the ball with his back to goal.
Rather than being the focal point Bayern needed, Choupo-Moting was little more than a decoy.
Choupo-Moting has performed above expectations this season – he’s scored 14 goals in the Bundesliga and Champions League despite starting just 19 matches across both competitions – but his elevated status at Bayern is mainly due to the failings of others. The club has been blindsided by Sadio Mane’s disappointing form since joining from Liverpool last summer, meaning the effort to replace Robert Lewandowski has fallen flat. Choupo-Moting was meant to be the backup, but he’s instead assumed more attacking responsibility than he should at the Allianz Arena.
Addressing Bayern’s frontline could be Thomas Tuchel’s most important job in the summer transfer window. The German tactician has won only two of his first six matches at the club’s helm, making him the first Bayern head coach with that unwanted record since Soren Lerby in 1991. Plus, the goals aren’t flowing while the team leans on flighty wingers instead of clinical strikers for firepower.
Martinez can make the difference vs. Milan
Lautaro Martinez entered Wednesday’s quarterfinal second leg against Benfica without a goal in his previous eight matches.
He certainly didn’t play like it.
Martinez broke one of the longest droughts of his career with a well-struck goal from close range that helped Inter reach the Champions League semifinals. But it’s what he did out of possession that ignited the crowd at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. The 25-year-old cut down passing lanes and hunted down Benfica ‘keeper Odysseas Vlachodimos even when Inter were sitting pretty with a multi-goal advantage. He never seemed satisfied.
Martinez plays at his best when he’s charging like a bull, and it’s why he works well with another center-forward beside him. Edin Dzeko does all the things one would expect a typical No. 9 to do – win headers, clear corner kicks, occupy central defenders – while Martinez runs into channels and chases opportunities.
But he’s not consistent. Inter don’t always get the same swashbuckling player who can turn matches on a dime. Martinez doesn’t always bring the kind of energy he showed Wednesday. He’s either scoring a ton or not interested at all. And when he isn’t particularly bothered, he goes on a long and embarrassing search for a penalty.
That’s got to stop if Inter are to pose a credible threat against AC Milan’s accomplished back line in the Champions League semifinals. The Nerazzurri can’t just fire in crosses and expect Martinez or Dzeko to win headers against a defender with Simon Kjaer’s aerial ability. They need Martinez to expose Kjaer’s lack of pace and run right at Milan’s defenders.
That’s how Romelu Lukaku tormented Milan during his first spell with Inter, and it’s how Martinez can unlock their defense this time around.
Milan’s dominance over Napoli is some feat
Getting the better of Napoli, Serie A’s runaway leaders, three times in less than a month is incredible in its own right. Holding one of the most prolific teams in Europe to just a single goal over that span is masterful. AC Milan fielded the same starting lineup in all three matches – including two daunting fixtures in front of 60,000 at the Stadio Diego Maradona, the most intimidating stadium in Italy – and not once could the Partenopei crack the code.
Milan relied on a cohort of unsung heroes in their 1-0 first-leg victory last week and required a similar collective effort Tuesday to keep Napoli from mounting a comeback. Mike Maignan saved a pivotal penalty kick in the final 10 minutes, and Milan’s back four dealt with a seemingly unending barrage of crosses into the area. Not so long ago, Milan struggled mightily on corner kicks, conceding more times than not. During Tuesday’s 1-1 draw – which gave Milan a 2-1 win on aggregate – the Rossoneri came away from 16 of them unscathed.
Milan continued to keep Napoli on the perimeter of the penalty area, forcing them to take pot shots and shuttling them into less dangerous scoring positions. The few times Napoli broke through the lines, they lacked the composure to finish. In the end, Italy’s champions-elect could only land four of their 23 shots on target. One of those was from the penalty spot.
Milan also suffocated standout winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who, when left alone, can dribble circles around his opponents. Two men covered Kvaratskhelia whenever he was on the ball and severely limited his options, with Milan captain Davide Calabria cutting off the inside, while Rade Krunic, Brahim Diaz, and Junior Messias combined to push Kvaratskhelia outside of his usual dribbling lane. All the Georgian sensation could do was send hopeful crosses into the area.
But Milan wouldn’t have progressed without their breathtaking counterattack. They couldn’t possibly outpass Napoli, a team with wizardly control of the ball and absolute maniacal pressing, so every touch counted. Milan were under incredible pressure in the first half and sometimes couldn’t keep the ball for more than three seconds at a time. The difference is they didn’t need a lot of it. They were ruthless with the few chances they created. Rafael Leao’s authoritative run down the gut of the pitch drew instant parallels with Ruud Gullit’s solo effort on the same ground in 1988.
Milan’s marathon with Napoli was fought like Barcelona’s four-match, 18-day slugfest with Real Madrid in 2011. It will live long in the memory of Italy.
Napoli’s celebrations will still go on
The people in Naples have been counting down the days until they finally clinch their first Serie A title in three decades. If Napoli can win each of their next three games, their celebrations will begin and run long into the summer.
That should make their Champions League exit a little easier to digest. This season has been historic in so many ways – Napoli hadn’t even reached the Champions League quarterfinals before – and it’s happening with a cast of players no one expected to compete for trophies. Preseason protests over the club’s apparent lack of transfer activity seem sillier by the day.
As harsh as it appears right now, Tuesday’s defeat on aggregate should encourage the Partenopei to keep building. That’s how Milan recovered from their humiliating group-stage exit last season. The Rossoneri entered the campaign with the intention of improving on their 2021-22 performance, and they’ve done so by finishing second to Chelsea in their quartet before beating Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli in the knockout round.
Napoli didn’t even play that badly Tuesday. They just missed certain details. Victor Osimhen’s absence from the first leg robbed them of a clear threat up front, and suspensions to key players Kim Min-jae and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa prevented Luciano Spalletti from again fielding his best team in the second. These aren’t necessarily excuses but mitigating factors Napoli hadn’t faced earlier in the season. Spalletti relied on a very short squad to reach the Serie A summit, but things changed when he had to dig into his roster. He hasn’t gotten as many reliable performances out of players he’s left on the periphery for large parts of the campaign. It’s one possible indication why Tanguy Ndombele, who’s made just six league starts, was at fault for Milan’s only goal of the game.
There are lessons to learn here. Instead of berating the coach for his choices and rueing a wasted opportunity, Napoli can find information in their sorrow. Maybe it’ll inspire the likes of Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia to stay put in the summer and have another go at the trophy that got away. Perhaps club president Aurelio De Laurentiis will double down on his investment in the squad. This doesn’t have to be a point of arrival. It can be a point of departure.
Unique opportunity arises for Lampard
Look, things have been glum for Chelsea under Frank Lampard.
The club icon hasn’t provided any boost upon taking over on an interim basis. Tuesday’s quarterfinal defeat against Real Madrid, a second successive 2-0 setback versus the Champions League holders, was Chelsea’s fourth loss in as many matches since Lampard replaced Graham Potter at the helm. The Blues have scored just one goal in that time.
If nothing else, though, there were some positive building blocks Tuesday. That’s all there is left for Chelsea at this point. Now eliminated from the Champions League and playing out the final weeks of the Premier League season while languishing in the bottom half of the table, the team has nothing tangible left to compete for. Lampard’s primary focus should be on trying new things and seeing what, if anything, sticks and becomes viable for whoever succeeds him as the permanent boss.
Tuesday was a perfect example.
Lampard opted to use N’Golo Kante and Conor Gallagher, two tireless pressing midfielders, in ostensible – and highly unusual – dual No. 10 roles behind a solitary striker (who isn’t really a striker, but that’s a whole other issue the club will surely throw more money at this summer). The approach, extremely defensive at face value, actually caused problems for Real Madrid, generating turnovers in dangerous areas and creating scoring chances. For the umpteenth time in the campaign, Chelsea wasted their best opportunities before being punished at the other end. Kante himself could – and perhaps should – have found the net twice at Stamford Bridge.
“I feel like we played well and had a lot of chances, definitely more and better chances than they did,” Gallagher said after the defeat that effectively ended Chelsea’s season. “But football is all about taking your chances, and we didn’t do that today.”
All else being equal, that’s true. But Chelsea are now in a weird purgatory, with nothing but pride to play for. It’s the perfect time for Lampard and his staff to experiment with bold tactical wrinkles and see if they can uncover something that will serve the club well in the future. Under normal circumstances, a manager in this situation would focus on self-preservation. But with Chelsea publicly courting other coaches and informing Lampard that his tenure is only a brief interim stint until the end of the season, he has an opportunity to help guide the rebuild for the club he loves so dearly. In an otherwise lost season, that’s all that’s left.
Upamecano’s reputation takes serious hit
Dayot Upamecano’s occasional erratic play and tendency to make mistakes weren’t common knowledge; they were more like secrets whispered between regular Bundesliga viewers. But then he broadcasted his shortcomings to a worldwide audience. Following his nervy, error-strewn first-leg display, Upamecano was once again the antagonist in the reverse fixture. He was fortunate to have a red card rescinded after his unwieldy challenge denied a goal-scoring opportunity for Erling Haaland, who was proven to be narrowly offside following video review. But his luck didn’t last when the imposing frontman collected a Kevin De Bruyne pass in the second half. It took just one touch and Upamecano slipped onto his backside, making Haaland’s route much easier before he confidently bashed the ball home. Upamecano will want to shake off this wretched double-header as quickly as possible, but many Champions League viewers won’t let him forget it.
City must protect penalty-takers
Sometimes, even the tension gets to Haaland. Bayern Munich players did everything they could to delay his penalty, and the home fans behind the goal were an agitated mass, their bodies rumbling and mouths roaring as they tried to unsettle the Norwegian from 12 yards. It worked. Haaland missed a spot-kick for the first time in his last 16 attempts, getting his technique all wrong as his effort flew over the bar. This could be a timely reminder for Manchester City before the semifinals: Getting someone else to stand on the spot while the actual taker composes himself away from the mind games and jeers, and then swapping positions just before the referee’s whistle, is a common pre-penalty tactic among many teams. It’s something the reigning Premier League champions should adopt from this moment onward.
Benfica deserved better
Benfica fans are probably wondering what could’ve been. Had the Portuguese side played a savvier game in the first leg and converted its superior possession into goals, it wouldn’t have had to chase Inter as much in the second or take the kind of risks that can lead to goals against. Inter feasted, scoring three goals Wednesday, but so too did Benfica. It just wasn’t enough to undo the damage caused during last week’s 2-0 loss in Lisbon. Roger Schmidt’s side played good football, stringing together some extraordinary passing sequences. His team should’ve had two penalties as well. Where was the video assistant referee when Alessandro Bastoni caught Goncalo Ramos in the area and when Martinez slid into the back of Fredrik Aursnes? Incidentally, Benfica lost the tie by two goals.
Real Madrid play possum for fun
Real Madrid are the masters of giving the opposition false hope in the Champions League. For large portions of Tuesday’s match, Chelsea were the better, more threatening side. Stamford Bridge roared each time the Blues tested Thibaut Courtois, and the fans raised their voices in excitement and anticipation whenever the Premier League club raced forward looking for an opening. You could sense a little bit of optimism creeping into the home crowd. Real Madrid were unbothered. They bided their time, as they often do in this competition, before deciding that it was the right moment, quite literally for Rodrygo, to kick into high gear and quash any glimmers of hope for Chelsea and the partisan crowd. It’s a tale as old as time. And it always seems to work. Maybe their rope-a-dope approach will backfire one day. The other teams remaining in the competition can only hope.
Semifinals promise much-needed drama
The Champions League has been uncharacteristically flat this season. Perhaps that’s partly a product of the in-season World Cup draining teams and players. But whatever the reason, this usually intoxicating competition hasn’t delivered the same level of drama as we’ve grown accustomed to witnessing in recent seasons. Even the marquee knockout-stage matchups up to this point have fizzled out. Manchester City’s utterly comfortable triumph over Bayern Munich was a good example. But the semifinals have a chance to rectify that in two fell swoops. Perhaps Real Madrid, who used an astonishing late comeback to beat City in last season’s semifinals, have been saving up all their tournament magic for their impending rematch with Guardiola’s team. Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, fireworks are almost guaranteed in some form – maybe even literally – when bitter city rivals AC Milan and Inter lock horns. For the sake of this season’s tournament, let’s hope so.
Stat of the week
A penny for Julian Nagelsmann’s thoughts right now.
Tweet of the week
Real Madrid are ready to keep their Champions League dominance going.