The first legs of the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League- the premier continental inter-club competition in Europe- got done with last week and we have some interesting winners on our hands. In the first semifinal, Manchester City defeated Real Madrid by a narrow margin in a game that they dominated throughout. The visiting side, who were playing at the Etihad Stadium (also known as the City of Manchester Stadium) for the second time in one and a half years, were meek in the first half but got away with a lot due to errors from the home team. They rose in the second half and salvaged a little pride for themselves and gave themselves a cushion to fall back upon when the blue team of Manchester travel to the capital city of Spain for the second leg of the same encounter.
In the second semifinal, Liverpool emerged as winners over shock participants Villarreal at Anfield. The visiting side were expected to lay down arms and be party to the thrashing that they were about to get subjected by the Reds, but that did not happen. Although the home team have a safe lead of two goals to nil going into the second leg, they will not take their opponents for granted, especially now that their manager Unai Emery has taken things to heart and has resolved to get a positive result no matter what. Villarreal have always proved that the sum is greater than the individual, and we expect to see a game on similar lines at the Estadio de la Ceramica when the Reds visit them. Emery’s side put up a fair fight in Liverpool despite being the weaker team on paper, and they will be on course to create a big upset if they knock Jurgen Klopp’s men out of the competition they won most recently in 2018/19.
MANCHESTER CITY vs REAL MADRID, 26 APRIL 2022
Manchester City entered this game against Real Madrid as firm favourites. They were playing at the Etihad Stadium, in front of their home supporters and were in fine form. They came into this game on the back of a massive 5–1 win over Premier League stragglers Watford in which striker Gabriel Jesus had nabbed an unprecedented four goals. In the last five matches that they had played before this one, they were unbeaten, apart from the shock 2–3 defeat they were treated to by Liverpool in the semifinal of the English FA Cup.
Their dreams of a treble for this season have gone away, but one for a double are surely on. Unless things change drastically over the next couple of weeks, they are on course to lift the Premier League trophy, and as things stand, might as well have one foot in the final of the UEFA Champions League. Real Madrid, who are now managed by their former boss Carlo Ancelotti (who packed his bags from Everton after spending just one season there and inviting Colombian star James Rodriguez there), have a fairly decent squad and showed that they could stand up to the challenges thrown towards them by the home team.
Manchester City, however, dominated everything that came their way that night. They had sixty percent of the possession and were so forceful in front of goal that they had gone 2–0 up within the first eleven minutes. One thing that did not go in the favour of the home team was the wastefulness of some of their attacking players in front of goal. The likes of Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden were granted some golden opportunities thanks to errors made by the defenders of the visiting side, but they failed to grab them. If they had done so, Manchester City would have surely scored six goals or more in this game.
Central attacking midfielder Kevin de Bruyne was in top form and pushed out of his team’s ranges by constantly making runs that threatened the defence of the visiting side. He bagged the first goal that City scored and was influential in almost all of the buildup that his side made against Real Madrid on that night. His creativity has often been cited as being one of the key reasons behind City’s attacking prowess, and it was on full display against Ancelotti’s men. He set up Gabriel Jesus for the second goal of City’s night, and it was a real beauty. De Bruyne was further helped by the fact that none of Madrid’s defenders had a night to remember, with star signing David Alaba from Bayern Munich being culpable more than once.
Alaba was replaced by Nacho Fernandez in the second half and the visiting side’s showing was only slightly better in that. However, the player who stole the show for Real Madrid was none other than their veteran striker Karim Benzema. After grabbing Madrid’s first goal in the 33rd minute, he followed it up with a stunning panenka penalty after Aymeric Laporte was found guilty of handball inside his own box. Benzema seems to be operating at another level altogether at the moment, and the visiting side will need him to continue scoring goals if they are to overturn this deficit in the second leg. Madrid’s star midfielders Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were not bad, but they did not stand out either. What stood out, however, was the way winger Vinicius Junior made a long solo run by thwarting makeshift City right back Fernandinho and scoring a good goal. Real Madrid need to be on top of their defensive game in the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. They will also have to create more attacking chances and rely less on the shoulders of the ageing Benzema. The likes of Rodrygo, Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale, if given a chance, need to stand up.
LIVERPOOL vs VILLARREAL, 27 APRIL 2022
In the second semifinal, Liverpool, managed by former Borussia Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp, ran amok over Spanish side Villarreal and ended the evening with a handy 2–0 lead going into the second leg. Although it was expected for Liverpool to put up a stellar showing given that they were playing at Anfield in front of their home fans, they were, in fact, not as good as the statistics suggest. Villarreal gave them a tough fight and it was only due to a few missed chances by them that the home team gained advantage and went ahead to make full use of their possession. It will amuse the reader to note that Liverpool had 73 per cent of the possession on the night, with the visiting side satisfying themselves with the remaining 23 per cent.
The home team were clinical in their approach, but they were not helped by the visiting side going into tackles and making heavy challenges from time to time. Although none of the defenders of the visiting side were able to capitalise on the errors made by their counterparts, the attackers of Liverpool had a field day and ran through Villarreal’s defence with much ease and comfort. Their first goal came by a huge deflection off Villarreal left back Pavel Estupinan after midfielder Jordan Henderson’s looping cross did not reach its intended target.
The second goal scored by the home team was a work of pure art, created by the Egyptian maestro Mohamed Salah, and executed by his Senegalese colleague Sadio Mane. The former came through the defences of the visiting side, and rushed along the ground before passing the ball to an already waiting Sane, who waited no time in netting it past goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli. New signing Luis Diaz was on fine form as well, and Liverpool made very few errors on which the visiting side could have capitalised. The latter need to be aware of their strengths and need to make sure that they punish Liverpool when they visit for the second leg of this encounter.
Manager Unai Emery, who has forged a very strong unit under him at Villarreal, will be racking his brains to think of ways to crack the puzzle posed to him by Jurgen Klopp, someone who used to torment him when he was in charge of Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in London as well. What will worry Emery the most is that his star centre-forward Gerard Moreno has been ruled out until the beginning of the month of May with a hamstring injury. Along with the aforementioned player, former Liverpool defender Alberto Moreno too is missing in action with the same injury.
There are few attacking options with Villarreal at the time being, and they might have to fall back upon the tried and tested Paco Alcacer, who has blown hot and cold this season. Arnaut Danjuma and Samuel Chukwueze have flattered to deceive whenever they have found the ball at their feet, and it might be time for Tottenham Hotspur loanee Giovani Lo Celso to step up from attacking midfield and take shots as and when they come his way. That might be the only way to stop Liverpool from crusading on.