The finish line is in sight. In the UEFA Champions League, Europa League and Conference League (catch all the action on CBS and Paramount +) a place in a major final is just 90 minutes away. Villarreal played a stunning first half, going two goals up on Liverpool, before Jurgen Klopp’s men came storming back with three in the second half. Now, let’s look ahead to Real Madrid vs. Manchester City before diving into the Europa League.
Real Madrid vs. Manchester City: Full backs quell the chaos
Featured Game | Real Madrid vs. Manchester City
It was curious that in the aftermath of Manchester City’s 4-3 first leg win Ruben Dias was promising what amounted to a mad team for a mad stadium and a mad occasion. If sanity were to have prevailed in a Champions League knockout tie involving Real Madrid this season they would have been out of the competition. Every one of Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and even a victorious City have been baffled at how the score looks quite how it does when the final whistle blows.
Across the knockout stages of this competition Madrid have allowed the most xG, have the third worst xG difference, and the sixth worst xG difference per game. They also have Karim Benzema. He is this team writ large. Even when they are struggling, the world’s best player produces a moment of magic to turn the game. They relish games that get stretched and play like the apex version of Europe’s most successful team when there is chaos in the air. Last Tuesday the visitors had no answer for City’s sustained possession play but put Fernandinho in front of Vinicius Junior and they could find a devastating moment.
Pep Guardiola will be racking his brains in the pursuit of control. It is in such moments that he can be guilty of overcomplicating matters but on this occasion there does seem to be a simple solution ahead of him. Though Kyle Walker may be out for the season, his full back corps should be greatly strengthened by the return of Joao Cancelo from suspension in the first leg. There are few players quite as capable of keeping the City machine ticking along. Only Rodri and Aymeric Laporte receive more passes per 90 minutes than the Portuguese full back, those two and John Stones are also the only players to carry the ball further than Cancelo.
With the 27 year old in the team, presumably at right back with Oleksandr Zinchenko (though it’s impossible to rule out a Guardiola lineup curveball like, say, Nathan Ake at left fullback) on the other flank after an impressive first leg display, City will be in a position to really assert themselves on the Santiago Bernabeu, to control possession for lengthy spells before applying the finishing touch. Madrid might just allow them to do that. According to Wyscout, Carlo Ancelotti’s team allow opponents to make an average of 14.2 passes per defensive action, one of the highest tallies in the competition and far more than City. Cancelo drifting in midfield will also give his side the midfield superiority to overcome a Madrid side that may not be as shaky at shielding the back four now with a healthy Casemiro back in the anchoring role rather than Toni Kroos. On the opposite flank Zinchenko can do much the same. Though that does run the risk of giving Vinicius space to attack on rapid counters, City have proven throughout recent years that they have the defensive qualities to counteract that, particularly if Ruben Dias is on the pitch.
If City are going to win this tie they will not do so by embracing the chaos, but by playing the game on their terms, something which they clearly have the quality to do. Cancelo will only make it easier for them to express that.
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. West Ham: Set pieces undo Moyes’ side
Featured Game | Eintracht Frankfurt vs. West Ham United
Onto the Europa League, where last week’s suggestion thatin every competition is looking more than a bit dicey. West Ham had the chances to swing the first leg of their semifinal against Eintracht Frankfurt but travel to Germany 2-1 down with work to do. It was notable in the aftermath of that game that David Moyes bemoaned “the worst [set pieces] for two years “, a refrain he would return to when Rob Holding and Gabriel scored off dead balls to earn Arsenal a 2-1 win at the London Stadium on Sunday.
It is no great surprise Moyes puts such a premium on set pieces. West Ham are devastating at them. Nine of their Premier League assists have come from dead balls, the most in the top flight along with Manchester City. They have four in the Europa League. No other team has scored more than two. It could be where they win the tie.
It might also be where they lose it. Eintracht Frankfurt are one of Germany’s better set piece teams with seven goals scored and it is notable that West Ham are not quite the same defensive force off dead balls that they are in offensive terms. Moyes’ side have now conceded 10 such goals in the Premier League this season, firmly in the middle of the pack, with four of them coming since the start of April. Not so coincidentally this has coincided with the period where the Hammers have been forced to chop and change their back line on the fly thanks to a myriad of injuries. Sunday’s brace were put down to West Ham sacrificing some height in their team selection but Arsenal’s second was a somewhat familiar goal for this team to concede.
It is not so much the initial delivery into the box that they have had an issue with but winning the second ball. Bukayo Saka’s ball in is flicked away but there is no one in a West Ham shirt on hand to claim possession as the ball bounces inside the box. Gabriel Martinelli has time to take a touch, get the ball out from under his feet and clip a delivery to the back post for Gabriel to head in.
The same happened when Mason Holgate scored for Everton last month. On this occasion, West Ham have players in position to win the ball when Lukasz Fabianski punches it up in the air, but Said Benrahma does nothing but watch the ball bounce (as was the case in Arsenal’s goal) while Pablo Fornals has precious little chance of winning a 50:50 against Michael Keane. Holgate eventually hits the ball on the volley under very little pressure, the ball skewing through bodies and into the net.
Perhaps the explanation for West Ham’s recent run of set piece struggles defensively is nothing more than Benrahma’s diffident effort in getting rid of the ball, though it should have been apparent for long enough now that he is not reliable enough off the ball to be trusted with such a role. It should also be noted that without Benrahma in the side all three of the corners Filip Kostic took for Frankfurt were only cleared as far as a different player in white.
It might just be that in the Waldstadion Craig Dawson repeats his recent heroics from dead balls, that Tomas Soucek rises highest once more or Michail Antonio imposes himself on the Frankfurt center backs. But if West Ham cannot improve their work in winning second balls of defensive set pieces they may find this particular passage of play to be a cause for adversity as much as opportunity.
Featured Game | Villarreal vs. Liverpool
Villarreal’s first leg tactics were the subject of some degree of consternation in the British media after last week’s 2-0 defeat at Anfield. To which Unai Emery might reasonably ask, “what more did you want from me?” By no stretch of the imagination did they execute their conservative brand of knockout football to perfection, but it is at least true that they made Liverpool work for their win. As Jurgen Klopp said after the game, “It was the challenge – I think how it is for all human beings – you try and you fail, you try and you fail and you try and you fail and at one point you think, ‘Come on, it’s not my day anymore!’ “
Even if Villarreal had brought it on themselves with their caution, they also had to contend with a fair slice of bad luck. Just at the moment when Liverpool looked to be growing frustrated, a crossed ball reared up off Pervis Estupinan’s outstretched left leg, looping over goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli and into the net. A mistake, a freak deflection or the moment of searing quality that brought Sadio Mane his side’s second goal soon after might well have come anyway, that is the nature of flooding your own box with defenders, but at some stage when you are so outmatched you have to pick your poison.
After all, Villarreal are a team that pay their squad only slightly more than Liverpool gave Porto for Luis Diaz in January. Their wage bill sits firmly in La Liga’s mid table while their opponents are one of the biggest spenders in a vastly richer competition. The disparity Anfield saw on the pitch is only representative of that off it. Indeed, one might argue that in dragging Klopp’s side into such a fiddly match for an hour Villarreal achieved more than should be reasonably expected from a team of their means. Though going into their quarterfinal match against Bayern Munich you might have argued the same, and in that instance Emery’s side pulled out a deserved result.
Still, Emery wanted more, and he knows his side will have to adjust their approach for the second leg. That may be their undoing even if home supporters at El Madrigal match the fervor with which visiting fans backed their team at Anfield. This is a team that looked ill at ease chasing the lead at Alaves this weekend. Villarreal will have to attack, leaving the sort of spaces in behind on the flanks that Liverpool already spotted were a weak point.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s rapid switches of play and balls down the line were a key feature of the Reds’ first leg success, how much more successful might they be if he is not having to thread the needle between a full back and the nominal winger who is stationed a few feet ahead of him. The same would be true of Thiago; if play is anymore broken in the second leg he will be able to play more passes that push the tempo. Pushing forward at Alaves, Villarreal had five losses of possession that led to opponent shots, only slightly fewer than in the Liverpool match where they did not even have 30 percent of the ball.
Villarreal are not a team that deals well with the pressure of being behind, indeed in the 20 La Liga and Champions League matches in which they have been losing this season their record reads one win, six draws and 13 defeats. In those games their expected goal (xG) difference is scarcely over one after going behind. In the smaller sample size of European matches it is 0.02 and they had not come up against a team like Liverpool before last week. Tuesday’s game may ultimately prove that all they could have realistically hoped for in the first leg was to keep the score down.
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