Alex Keble takes a look at the midweek Champions League semi-final ties and predicts Man City and PSG will both be scoring goals on Wednesday…
“On Wednesday, Mbappe will be expected to sit behind Neymar and cut off the passing lines through midfield, inviting City up the pitch and making them vulnerable to quick vertical counters via Marco Verratti.”
Real Madrid v Chelsea
Live on BT Sport 2
Cautious shapes suggest low-scoring game
This one probably won’t be the most exciting Champions League semi-final. Chelsea’s cautious and highly-structured 3-4-2-1 seems to be getting tighter, not looser: there have been just three goals in the last four Chelsea matches. Thomas Tuchel’s desire to play cautious possession football creates a slow tempo that severely limits the opposition’s ability to counter-attack, but it also means Chelsea aren’t moving quickly enough to pull a defence apart.
Real Madrid have not conceded in each of their last four games in all competitions, a record that owes to the conservatism of Zinedine Zidane’s model and the ease with which his experienced midfield can control proceedings.
The similarity between the two teams points to some rather stodgy football defined by sideways passing and carefully shimmying formations. Neither manager will want to risk conceding a goal, and both will likely see a 0-0 as a decent result.
Vinicius in behind could win the game
If the game is to spark into life, then it may be via long balls over the top of Chelsea’s defensive line towards left winger Vinicius Junior. Zidane deliberately targeted Liverpool’s high line in the previous round, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos playing early long balls to set the Brazilian away. Chelsea’s back three is notably more secure than Liverpool’s, although with Reece James pushing forward it is plausible that Vinicius will beat Cesar Azpilicueta for pace.
For Chelsea, their only real hope of breaking through such a well-organised and experienced side is through Mason Mount, whose understanding of space is crucial to unlocking tight defences. He will quickly work out the need to get out of a congested midfield, moving wide to avoid Casemiro, and he could be too sharp for Modric and Kroos.
However, on balance Chelsea don’t have the firepower in a 3-4-2-1 to trouble Real; Dani Carvajal‘s return from injury is a huge boost for Zidane, limiting the chance of Chelsea’s inside forwards creating goalscoring opportunities from out wide.
Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester City
Live on BT Sport 2
PSG’s counters to hit City’s high line
Mauricio Pochettino has not attempted to install his usual tactical philosophy in Champions League games, instead adopting a counter-attacking model that ensures PSG remain defensively solid even with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in the team. The hosts will sit in a hunched 4-4-2 formation that happily concedes possession and lures Manchester City forward, with the aim of then releasing the two forwards on the break.
This strategy worked particularly well against Bayern Munich, when Pochettino’s side averaged 40% possession across the two legs. On Wednesday, Mbappe will be expected to sit behind Neymar and cut off the passing lines through midfield, inviting City up the pitch and making them vulnerable to quick vertical counters via Marco Verratti. This is City’s Achilles heel, as Chelsea showed in their recent FA Cup win, and it ought to be fruitful.
However, in the 3-2 win over Bayern, PSG’s shape only really worked for the first hour or so – at which point Neymar and Mbappe gave up their defensive work as the two lines of four dropped deeper and deeper. This opened an enormous gap 30 yards from goal, in which Bayern’s playmakers could create chances. Kevin de Bruyne will surely profit if this happens on Wednesday.
Foden versus Florenzi is City’s best route
Each of the last four goals PSG have conceded have come down their right wing, as opposition players are continually given far too much time and space to cross the ball into the box. This gets to the heart of the problem with Pochettino’s deep defensive line; PSG don’t really have the players to engage in a backs-to-the-wall approach, and they tend to become passive once on the retreat.
Right-back Alessandro Florenzi is the player for Man City to target, and it does feel likely that Pep Guardiola’s high-tempo possession football will force PSG onto the back foot and create that passivity in the wide areas. City don’t tend to swing crosses into the box, but they do have a player in Phil Foden who will take full advantage of any space afforded on the corner of the penalty area.
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