Chelsea take on Real Madrid, the England women’s team play a World Cup warm-up match and Marcus Edwards may wish to serve another reminder of who he is.
Champions League game to watch – Chelsea vs Real Madrid
The history of Chelsea in the Champions League invites us to suspend our disbelief. At the end of a patchy 2011/12 season in which they finished sixth in the Premier League table, five points adrift of fourth-placed Spurs, they lifted the European Cup for the first time under the somewhat surprising managerial presence of Roberto Di Matteo.
Nine years later, in front of banks of empty seats brought about by the pandemic, they won the trophy again by upsetting Manchester City in the final, even though they’d only sneaked into fourth spot in the Premier League by a point from Leicester City.
Everything we know about their quarter-final against Real Madrid suggests that getting into the last four of the competition this time around has to be a stretch too far. This is, after all, Real Madrid: the team that swaggers through this competition with an arrogance that only comes when you’ve won it 10 times already. And furthermore, this isn’t just any old Real Madrid team. This is Real Madrid as coached by Carlo Ancelotti, a man who’s been a domestic champions in five different countries as a manager, as well as having won the Champions League four times himself.
No part of this match-up should hint in any way that Chelsea have a chance, but their escapades in 2012 and 2021 do leave the door to a surprise result tantalisingly open. It can hardly be said that they don’t need it. Even with a quarter of it still to play, their abysmal season in the Premier League already means that winning the Champions League represents Chelsea’s only realistic chance of qualifying for next year’s iteration of this competition, and if things don’t perk up a little in the league soon they could yet be missing out on European football next season altogether.
Their first game under Frank Lampard didn’t suggest that a substantial wind of change is blowing through Stamford Bridge. They managed one unthreatening shot on target all afternoon at Molineux against Wolves, continuing a theme that has been ongoing all season of struggling in front of goal. Only Kai Havertz and Raheem Sterling have scored more than three goals for them this season in all competitions, a dismal record all the more accentuated by the fact that they’ve spent so much money on new players.
If there is hope, it probably comes with their defence. During his previous spell as their manager, Lampard’s biggest single issue with regard to the team’s performances on the pitch was defensive, but Chelsea’s backline this season has been one of the few silver linings fans have been able to take from the absolute state of everything there – though it should be added that Real have four players who’ve already scored more than the nine that top scorer Havertz has, and seven who’ve scored more than three goals.
It’s a daunting prospect, but if Chelsea can keep their first leg tight and scrape a result in Madrid, they may even generate belief that their Champions League history might be gearing up to repeat itself again. It’s a long shot – again, this isn’t just Real Madrid, this is Real Madrid Carlo Ancelotti – but it’s a hope, all the more so because their opponents will go into the match off the back of a surprising 3-2 home defeat at the hands of Villarreal. Snatch a 1-0 win at the Bernabeu and then grind out a result of some form or other in the return match, and they’ll have done it. It’s not a huge amount to cling to, but it’s something.
Team to watch – Napoli
Napoli’s recent 4-0 home defeat at the hands of Milan in Serie A proved, if nothing else, that they are human after all. The last few weeks have seen them show the first signs of Serie A yips; a month earlier, they were also beaten at home by Lazio. But they remain 16 points clear at the top of the league table, and such has been their strength and consistency throughout the whole of this season, questions have been asked about their Champions League too.
In European competition, they passed serenely through the group stage, winning their first five matches with no less than 20 goals scored, and only losing their 100% record in their final group match against Liverpool in their final game, with qualification already long assured. In the first knockout round they eased past Eintracht Frankfurt with an extremely comfortable 5-0 aggregate win.
Those little signs of a wobble in Serie A will almost certainly have no impact upon their prospects of lifting that trophy for the first time in 33 years. But things are now about to get markedly more difficult in the Champions League, starting with a quarter-final match against… Milan, the team who rained fire down upon them at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona just a couple of weeks ago.
And as Milan proved in the last round by easing past Spurs without having to break into too much of a sweat, even with a relatively moderate team this season they still have the muscle memory of seven-time European champions, as they also more than amply proved in Naples. It may well be that Napoli still have refinement work to do if they’re to become the champions of Europe, but if they ever want to ascend to the rarefied air in which Milan have lived for so long, well, these are sort of matches upon which that sort of reputation is built.
Europa League game to watch – Manchester United vs Sevilla
Meanwhile on Thursday night, Manchester United continue their quest for a treble with a home quarter-final first leg against Sevilla at Old Trafford. Consecutive comfortable home wins against Brentford and Everton have provided a little balm after their horrendous afternoon at Anfield and the couple of games that followed that little disaster, and the return of Casemiro and Christian Eriksen should add a little steel to a team that really did look as though it missed both of them, Scott McTominay’s goal against Everton notwithstanding.
The question that will define the rest of their season is that of whether they can hold off the obvious wear and tear of a season during which they’ve been battling on so many fronts. This will be their 50th game of the campaign, and with an FA Cup semi-final against Brighton coming up and the chase still on to snatch one of those precious top four Premier League places, they’ve still got a lot to play for, even with the EFL Cup already safely delivered to Old Trafford.
But Marcus Rashford limped out of their win against Everton, and his resurgent form has been critical to their improvement. At the time of writing, it’s not even known whether he’ll be available for selection on Thursday night. If he isn’t, then Anthony Martial will be expected to step up and provide the goals. He did it at the weekend, and with the other main option being Wout Weghorst, Erik ten Hag will be relieved to see Casemiro and Eriksen, two players who can bring goals from midfield, getting back into the team.
It might be easy to wince a little at the previous record of six-times Europa League winners Sevilla, but in truth their presence at this stage of this competition has been a symptom of a season that hasn’t gone according to plan rather than anything else. Sevilla were eliminated from the Champions League in the group stages, winning just one match from six, but they swept through the knockout stages of the Europa with comfortable wins against PSV and Fenerbahce, although the latte made their lives somewhat difficult in the second leg of their round of 16 tie.
In the league, meanwhile, they’ve stalled completely and sit 13th in La Liga, with their hopes of European qualification for next season already entirely dependent upon their progress in the Europa League, having also been knocked out of the Copa del Rey at the quarter-final stages by Osasuna. The Europa League specialists haven’t won this trophy since pipping Manchester United themselves in 2020, but if experience does count for much then Ten Hag’s side should be wary of a club that made this very competition their very own for much of the last decade or so.
Manager to watch – David Moyes
In amongst their numerous travails in the Premier League this season, there seems little question that the Europa Conference League has been West Ham United’s happy place. The opposition so far may not have been the most testing, but they’ve won eight out of eight to reach the quarter-finals, the sort of form that manager David Moyes would surely have given his gold teeth for in the Premier League.
The pressure on Moyes appeared to be reaching critical mass after their 5-1 home defeat against Newcastle United a couple of weeks ago, but in a Premier League season brought to you by the word ‘inconsistency’, it almost wasn’t that much of a surprise to see them bounce back from that with an away win against Fulham, even if it did take an own goal to get them over the line.
There has been considerable speculation that Moyes is surely destined to leave The London Stadium come the end of this season, but the Europa Conference League is the one place in which West Ham can live in the present rather than having one eye on a slightly uncertain future. A quarter-final match against Gent, who are currently fourth in the Belgian Jupiler Pro League and sufficiently short of the top three for this to be their big trophy target, awaits.
West Ham’s issue in the weeks building up to this game has been inconsistency. They’ve won four, drawn three and lost three of their last 10 Premier League games, and if the West Ham who’ve turned up so far in the Europa Conference League can turn up again for their quarter-final they could yet end this season with a somewhat unexpected piece of silverware.
Player to watch – Marcus Edwards
Could there be anything more satisfying than scoring a goal against the team who sold you? Well, that’s what Sporting CP’s Marcus Edwards managed against Spurs in September in the Champions League group stages, and viewers have another opportunity to see him in action when Sporting travel to Turin to play Juventus in their Europa League quarter-final.
Edwards returned to London in the last round of this competition, playing a part as his team knocked Arsenal out on penalties, inspiring another brief round of covetous lusting from supporters of some Premier League clubs.
Following their points deduction earlier this season Juventus are eight points off a return to next year’s Champions League, so the Europa League is likely their best means of returning to that, but Edwards may well feel as though he still has a point to prove at the highest levels of the club game, if for no other reason than to boost his possibility of breaking into the England squad – or picking Cyprus instead.
International match to watch – England vs Australia
Talking of England, it’s not all about European men’s competitions this week. The England women’s team continue their preparations for this summer’s World Cup finals with a friendly match against Australia at Brentford. They come into this match with their confidence further enhanced by beating Brazil on penalty kicks to win the Finalissima at Wembley last week, a shootout that was only necessary after a last-gasp Brazil equaliser. It’s certainly a tough test for Sarina Wiegman’s team – Australia are currently ranked at number 10 in the world, while England are fourth – but should they win they will complete three years since their last defeat.