With the Champions League semi-finals over, Manchester City and Chelsea advance to the May 29 final, while Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid wonder where it all went wrong. We asked Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden and Julien Laurens to answer some big questions.
Who will win the final and why?
Marcotti: Manchester City are a better team, but obviously Chelsea beat them in the FA Cup semi-finals last month (broadcast the replay on ESPN + in the US). I’ll be really curious to see what happens this weekend when Chelsea visit City in the Premier League. Will any of the managers show their hand? Logic suggests City, but it is not lost on anyone that Pep Guardiola in recent seasons has sometimes overestimated things in big games and paid the price. At the moment, I will look towards City because they have the quality and the pace of work. But it is very close.
Ogden: Chelsea. Much indicates Manchester City in terms of Premier League dominance, an unbeaten Champions League record this season and the sense of fate that appears to have attached to a club initially banned from this year’s competition by UEFA, it cannot be denied that Chelsea have the players, the coach and the self-confidence to win in Istanbul. Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final victory over City last month was more one-sided than the 1-0 margin of victory suggested and coach Thomas Tuchel will know he has devised a game plan in a great game for beat Guardiola. City are vulnerable to teams that break quickly on the counterattack, and Chelsea have that quality in abundance. They also have a great quality goalkeeper at Edouard Mendy, an exceptional midfielder at N’Golo Kante and the emerging talents of Mason Mount and Kai Havertz further afield. I just think Chelsea’s pace and energy in the third striker will decide the final, so this will be Chelsea’s second Champions League title to keep City waiting for their first.
– Ogden: Man City close to finishing the project
– Olley: Tuchel back in the final after fixing Chelsea
Laurens: For starters, I think it will be a super tactical final, which often means quite defensive. However, we should see it differently. This is a tactical battle between two genius tacticians, where position play will be more important than anything else and any small mistake could cost so much that you will play to make sure you don’t slip up. Indeed, both teams are so good at exploiting the mistakes of the opposition, as we saw in the semi-finals. Having said that, I think Chelsea will win it because their five fullbacks are perfect against attacking City. City, as we saw in the FA Cup semi-final, struggled to stop Chelsea’s preparation play from behind. Having Kante in his current form is like playing with 12 players. Tuchel is the first coach to reach the Champions League final two consecutive seasons with two different clubs and this time, like Thiago Silva, he will win the trophy. Silva, moreover, never reached the semi-finals before turning 35, and will now play a second consecutive final at 36! Unbelievable.
Who is your player in the round of 16?
Laurens: Phil Foden was fantastic, especially at 20, and it’s such a shame that Kylian Mbappe wasn’t quite in good shape for the first leg of the semi-final and for the second leg, but Riyad Mahrez was really a clutch player and sometimes unstoppable during the KO phase. However, there can only be one winner here, and that is Kante. He was exceptional against both Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, destroying both midfielders on his own. His performances against Real, in particular, were even more impressive considering he is currently fasting daily for Ramadan.
Marcotti: I think I should pick someone who plays in the final, so I’m going to pick Foden. It seems odd to pick an individual out of Manchester City when he is so collectively based and of course Mahrez or Ruben Dias or Kevin De Bruyne would also be good candidates. But Foden didn’t just play very well, he allowed City to come together and play in a certain way.
Ogden: Foden. He’s now unmistakably a first-team regular at the age of 20 and has come of age in the Champions League, with his two quarter-final goals against Borussia Dortmund underscoring his ability to influence the biggest games. Mahrez, who scored three of City’s four goals in the semi-final win over PSG, also delivered when it matters most, while Christian Pulisic, Mount and Havertz have been outstanding for Chelsea. Honorable mention also for Jude Bellingham, whose performances for Borussia Dortmund at just 17 showed how he will become a huge figure of the game in the years to come.
Craig Burley of ESPN FC was very disappointed with Real Madrid’s display against Chelsea.
Which losing semi-finalists have a bigger job of rebuilding to reach next season’s final?
Ogden: Real Madrid. In many ways, this is a testament to the mentality within Zinedine Zidane’s squad of even reaching the semi-finals given their age and fatigue when they were knocked out by City in the round of 16. from last season. But Real are now a year older and in desperate need of new blood to replace aging stars like Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo. Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos, both in their mid-1930s, have always performed at high levels, but age is also against them. Real therefore have a lot of reconstruction work to do and money is tight at the Santiago Bernabeu. PSG also need to reshape their squad, but they could still keep Mbappe and Neymar, and money is never an issue for them.
Laurens: It must be Real Madrid. PSG have work to do and a lot will depend on the signing of contract extensions by Neymar and Mbappe. But the rebuilding work at Real is huge, and they have money issues in the midst of the pandemic. They have relied heavily – too much – on Benzema, who will be 34 in December, Ramos is about to leave, Modric is 35, Raphael Varane wants to leave, Eden Hazard is struggling, Vinicius Junior is too inconsistent. Overall, there is a lack of talent and depth in the team. On top of all that, it looks like Zinedine Zidane could be leaving this summer, so they also need a new manager. Good luck, Florentino!
Marcotti: We don’t know what the transfer window will look like. But when you look at PSG, you have two superstars, four or five exceptional players and then, frankly, a bunch of interchangeable parts. So if they hang on to Mbappe and Neymar, it’s not much of a rebuild. I will choose Real Madrid just because they are all a year older. And this campaign was made up of five players – Thibaut Courtois, Benzema, Modric, Casemiro and Kroos. And we don’t know if Ramos is going to stay.
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What thing would you change about the Champions League?
Marcotti: I would change the ranking system in the round of 16 to make it meaningful. I would let the seed choose their opponents, and whether they want to face them at home or away first. And then the second seed, and so on. It would add a layer of strategy (and a bit of WWE bluster). And the reality is that some teams are better suited to play at home first, while others might prefer to do so based on the fixture list. Why not let them choose?
Ogden: I would reduce the automatic slots for the top leagues from four to three and ensure that the extra spots go to champions of less powerful nations. The only way to have depth of competition is to allow great talent-producing countries such as Romania, Serbia, Poland and others to be able to keep their best young players with the promise of football in the country. Champions League. Steaua Bucharest (now known as FCSB) and Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup in 1986 and 1991 respectively, so keep the way open for them to have the chance to challenge again.
Laurens: I would create a closed league with the 15 biggest and richest clubs in Europe managing everything themselves … just kidding! If I could change one thing, I would give up the away goals rule. I don’t like it, I never did. UEFA can start by not counting away goals in extra time if they want to, but I think they should be gone altogether.