Pep is plotting the route to Utopia, while Tuchel’s remarkable transformation of Chelsea continues in the Champions League. Viva the Prem!
This was a tie as routine as they come in the knockout stages of the Champions League but City still managed to enhance their overall credentials, even if the only test was to keep complacency at bay. In between slogs to Budapest, Pep Guardiola relentlessness would have seen to that, ramming the message home deeper still after Oleksandr Zinchenko had dared to suggest that the prospect of the Quadruple might not be as ridiculous as the manager would try have you believe.
Pep’s stance is predictable, perhaps the only thing about this City that is, and even outside the Etihad – where Guardiola cannot control the narrative – talk of them winning the lot has been quite sparse. But now, having reached the Champions League last 16 for the fourth consecutive season, ahead of the FA Cup quarter-final, with a Carabao Cup final place already secured and a Premier League title lying in wait, is anyone really willing to dismiss City as possibly Utopia-bound?
While taking care of business in Budapest, City clocked up their 11th hour without conceding in the Champions League while also notching their 100th and 101st goals of the season. That’s eight seasons in a row that City have hit the century and 12 in succession for Pep’s teams.
Guardiola certainly seems to have his ducks in a row. Their form is sensational, with 24 wins in 25 matches; their domestic duties almost take care of themselves to allow City to focus on the title Pep was hired to deliver; and as the manager put it: “We now have everybody fit.” Which this season is a remarkable achievement in itself.
He’s not be prepared to admit it just yet and he likely won’t until he’s juggling four trophies on an open-top bus at the end of May. But the Quadruple looms large.
Only four Under-21s throughout Europe’s big five leagues – and only two beyond Borussia Dortmund – have had a hand in more goals this season, with Foden the fifth to hit 20 goal involvements with a glorious assist for Ilkay Gundogan that began with a sumptuous touch on the half-turn and ended with a perfectly timed, precisely weighted no-look pass.
Foden is only the 19th player to reach 20 Champions League appearances before his 20th birthday and only the fourth English player, after Theo Walcott, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jadon Sancho.
So Guardiola knew what he was doing. Funny, that. Part of the Pep plan for Foden this season has been to slow the England midfielder down at the appropriate times, to vary the tempo of his play, to mix up the short passes in midfield with driving runs from deep. There was plenty of evidence in Budapest that this latest message is getting through.
Another class Man City goal! 💥💥
Phil Foden with an exquisite turn, driving run and no-look pass 🔥
İlkay Gündoğan finishes the move off with composure and Pep Guardiola's side are on the rampage! pic.twitter.com/cDde81A4cA
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 16, 2021
Two of the last three managers Chelsea appointed in mid-season won a European trophy by the end of their first campaign.
— Football365 (@F365) March 17, 2021
And one of those was Roberto Di Matteo. It’s on.
It really could be if Chelsea’s performance against Atletico is any indication. Over both legs, Tuchel’s plan, carried out to the letter by his players, worked a treat.
The German’s impact since Frank Lampard was relieved of his pompoms has been remarkable. He took a listless squad and has produced a run of 13 games unbeaten, including 11 clean sheets, with only two goals conceded.
‘Precision’ at the back has been easier to come by than in attack but the all-important opener at Stamford Bridge to put Chelsea 2-0 up will have had the German purring. Between Timo Werner’s sliding block to stop Kieran Trippier’s cross threatening the Chelsea box, and Hakim Ziyech applying the finishing touch to his first Stamford Bridge goal, only 12 seconds elapsed. Atletico retreated as fast as Diego Simeone could reasonably expect, but amid N’Golo Kante’s header, Kai Havertz’s run and pass, and Werner’s composed delivery, the Spaniards were struggling to keep up with their hosts’ shadows.
It won’t go unnoticed that the key moment came courtesy of three summer signings, who the new manager was recruited to inspire, and Kante (we’ll come to him).
Nor will the scenes at the final whistle, and the jubilant celebrations among Thiago Silva, Mason Mount and Jorginho in the stands after Emerson added a flourish at the finish. Tuchel has unified one of football’s most delicate dressing rooms and though he’s hardly the first to do so in the short term, the difference is that this form and this mood appears sustainable.
A Champions League place for next term was the aim when Tuchel arrived but he could go way and above by winning it this season. To whomever warms the balls at UEFA: a reunion with PSG in the quarter-finals is all that we ask.
The Chelsea midfielder turns 30 before the month is out and there were fears that Kante’s batteries were starting to run down. But Tuchel appears to have recharged the midfielder and his smothering of Atletico highlighted that Kante still has plenty more to give.
13 – N'Golo Kanté recovered possession of the ball 13 times last night against Atlético Madrid, the most ball recoveries by a Chelsea player in a Champions League match since N'Golo Kanté's 13 against Barcelona in February 2018. Omnipresent. pic.twitter.com/RQkmGT1fxj
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 18, 2021
And even after all that, Kante still had the energy and, crucially, the desire to make a lung-bursting, box-to-box sprint in added time to create the space for Emerson to drill home Chelsea’s second on the night. Koke and Mario Hermoso woke up this morning still coughing up Kante’s dust.
That was not a player on the wane. Tuchel has acknowledged the need to manage Kante’s minutes but the manager recognises how crucial the midfielder, in his preferred position, can be: “If you play with him, you play with half a man more because he gives intensity and volume that is outstanding and is unique.”
It was a night simply for turning up after Bayern put in the hard yards in Rome three weeks ago, but we can’t have a winners column without the champions of Everything and the competition’s most regular quarter-finalist after they reached the last eight for the 19th time. Nineteen is also the number of Champions League games Hansi Flick’s side is unbeaten.
Is the circus leaving town?
Real’s goalscorers included Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos – the only Real players to have bagged more than once in this year’s competition – while Luka Modric took home the Man of the Match award. But Zidane will have been most encouraged by the performance of a player 13 years younger than any of those old-stagers…
Vincius Jr still has plenty doubters to win over, including his coach and team-mates at times, but the 20-year-old is slowly building a track record of making an impact in the big games. His contributions against Barca and Atletico down the final stretch last season helped Real secure the title, while against Atalanta on Tuesday, the flying forward was a threat whenever he was allowed to run with the ball.
His decision-making is often questioned – which 20-year-old’s isn’t? – but it was his finishing that frustrated most, especially when he dribbled his way through the Atalanta defence to position himself perfectly for one of the Champions League goals of the season. But he continued to terrorise the Atalanta defence and it was his run again that led to the penalty which Ramos dispatched to kill off the Italians.
Vincius still has plenty of edges that require refinement but Real knew what they were getting when they paid almost £40million for a raw teenager. He will frustrate some more, but while he continues to drag Real’s old men up the pitch and maintains his influence on big occasions, Vinicius will retain Zidane’s patience and faith.
Vinicius Jr did everything right, and was so close to an all-time great #UCL goal, until…
Sergio Ramos' reaction says it all 😭 pic.twitter.com/eHti1Ws9W7
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 16, 2021
The failure of Atalanta and Gladbach to do something astonishing on Tuesday leaves the make up of the last eight almost as ‘pure’ as the European Club Association chairman could wish. Which makes Juventus’s exit even funnier. Still, Agnelli can join the rest of us hyperactive plebs in tuning in for the last 15 minutes of four potential Gazprom classics in the quarter-finals.
Atletico and La Liga
Joe Cole compared the La Liga leaders to “a top Championship side or a team at the bottom of the Premier League like a Fulham or a West Brom” which is, of course, ridiculous. But the former England midfielder was right to highlight the surprising gulf between his former side and Atletico.
It was a weirdly tepid display from Diego Simeone’s men. The expectation was that Atletico, with Luis Suarez and Joao Felix in their frontline, would be dangerous opponents while taking the game to Chelsea in a way they never managed in the first leg. But again, they failed to land a blow on the Blues. Simone’s tactics were neutered by Tuchel and his players out-thought and outfought by the hosts.
Which Simeone duly acknowledged. “We tried to go and press them, but they were able to get out of it, and we could not keep up with them,” he said after the game. “You have to congratulate your opponents when they are the better team. We tried to press them up the field, worked hard. We couldn’t attack the way we like.”
So Atletico, with domestic matters on their minds, surrender without a whimper leaving only Real to fly the flag for La Liga in the last eight, despite four Spanish representatives entering the last 16.
Error-ridden Italian teams
They lost 2-1 and 6-2 on aggregate to leave Italy without representation in the quarter-finals but Lazio were rather satisfied with their night’s work. Though it was a low bar after they rolled over to have their bellies tickled by Bayern in Rome.
“The players did well to never switch off,” said Simone Inzaghi. “A good performance was necessary, and we bow out of the competition with a positive game. Some teams are unplayable – Bayern are one of them.”
Inzhagi’s battle now is to secure a Europa League place for next season. Lazio were in the Champions League spots before the first leg but having lost two of their three Serie A matches since, they sit seventh, four points off Roma above them.
Lazio gifted Bayern their first leg lead and Atalanta were similarly accommodating to Real over two legs. A needless red card ruined their prospects at home three weeks ago, but that deficit could have been wiped out inside three minutes in Madrid had Robin Gosens not wasted a sitter.
Still, the gift-giving continued from Gian Piero Gasperini’s side who, in contrast to Lazio, had won all four of their away matches in Europe this season. Gasperini opted for Marco Sporteillo in goal over Pierluigi Gollini and the replacement scuffed the ball straight to Modric to set up Benzema for the opener.
More indiscipline handed Real a penalty but the tie had already been given away by the time Ramos swept in the spot-kick.
Last season’s quarter-finalists still found a way to leave a mark on the competition with a unique set-piece that saw a moving wall distract Thibaut Courtois while Luis Muriel curled one into the top corner. Which was splendid, but rendered inconsequential by stupid mistakes.
Atalanta tried out something different for their free-kick routine vs. Real Madrid.
They built their own moving wall, too! 😂
It worked, as Luis Muriel found the back of the net with a dipping effort 💥 pic.twitter.com/VJQXkyXJfJ
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 16, 2021
‘No me pasan la pelota’
— City Xtra (@City_Xtra) March 16, 2021
In fairness, when it’s Riyad Mahrez, it’s not just you Serge. But it’s lovely to see City’s greatest goalscorer getting a dose of what the fat kid (okay, nine-year-old me) deals with every day in the playground.
Aguero was joined by Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling on the bench. It is quite possible that Guardiola’s best XI right now does not include that trio.
Gladbach, wilting with Rose
We can’t discuss City without noting the context of their opposition. ‘Gladbach’s form has been the complete contrast to the Premier League leaders, having lost eight and drawn one in their last nine games. Since it was announced just over a month ago that Marco Rose was heading to Dortmund at the end of the season, Die Foalen have lost all seven games. In the last five league games, only Dijon from the big five nations have earned fewer points.
For the rest of the season, Rose and Gladbach are stuck in a loveless marriage. They hadn’t won in three games before his exit plan was announced but even then they remained firmly in the hunt for another European place next term. Since the split became common knowledge, Gladbach have tanked and dropped to tenth, seven points off the pace.
It is all very awkward for Rose and ‘Gladbach. Without that £4million exit clause, the club admit they would not have been able to tempt the coach from RB Salzburg at the start of last season before he delivered Champions League football in his maiden campaign. The clause was reportedly not due to expire until the end of May, but with Dortmund seeking clarity over their coaching position, neither they nor Rose can be blamed for the timing. Once the deal was agreed, keeping it under wraps was never a realistic option. So, in the meantime, Gladbach and Rose will go through the motions.
Still, at least it’s Schalke at the weekend.
Oh no… 😮
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) March 17, 2021