Champions League 2019-20: Semifinals and quarterfinals

The Champions League, like other leagues across sports, had to adjust its season following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Bayern Munich's Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry.   -  AFP

The Champions League, like other leagues across sports, had to adjust its season following the COVID-19 outbreak. With the home and away format not feasible and UEFA reluctant to call off the campaign, the governing body settled on a 12-day mini-tournament in Lisbon, Portugal. From the quarterfinals onwards, teams compete in knockout games at two venues: the Estádio da Luz and the Estádio José Alvalade, the former also hosting the final.

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Five-star Bayern eyes sixth title

Bayern Munich’s hoodoo came to an end at the Estádio José Alvalade in Lisbon as the German giant, after failing to progress from each of its last four semifinals following its title win in 2012-13, booked a mouthwatering showdown with French champion Paris Saint-Germain in the final.

Bayern, with a 3-0 win over Olympique Lyonnais, has now also managed to equal the longest winning run of 10 games in the competition’s history, set by itself in 2013 and Real Madrid in 2014-15.

It is quite the achievement for Hansi Flick, who took over as manager at Bayern Munich, replacing Niko Kovač, last November. This was the former Germany assistant coach’s 32nd victory with the Bavarian powerhouse in just 35 games! What’s all the more striking is that the 55-year-old had never managed a top-flight club prior to this!

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In the opening quarter of the semifinal game, Bayern almost found itself in a spot of bother on as many as three occasions after a lackadaisical defence left it adrift even as Lyon continued to make inroads. The closest les Gones came to scoring was when Karl Toko Ekambi struck the upright from close quarters after cutting in from the right. However, less than a minute later, the Bundesliga champion’s Serge Gnabry drew first blood, the former Arsenal midfielder unleashing a fierce effort from nearly 20 yards out to find the top-left corner of the net.

The first goal was enough to shatter the Frenchmen’s nerves and it showed when Marcelo, attempting to clear an Ivan Perišić cross in the 25th minute, headed it straight to Gnabry, who almost added a second then if not for goalkeeper Anthony Lopes’ effort.

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Gnabry, however, couldn’t be denied another time. Less than 10 minutes later, he struck home a rebound off Lopes, and the 25-year-old from Stuttgart became one of only four players [Robert Lewandowski (19), Erling Haaland (11), Kylian Mbappe (10)] to have been directly involved in more than 10 goals this season. He also became only the second German player to net a brace in a Champions League semifinal after teammate Thomas Müller, who accomplished the feat in 2012-13 against Barcelona.

Although it wasn’t a typical Lewandowski night, the Polish star still managed to get on the score sheet, sealing the deal with a header in the 88th minute. It was his 55th goal of the season at club level and 15th in the 2019-20 Champions League season. The striker not only became only the second player to score upward of 15 goals in a single Champions League campaign after Cristiano Ronaldo (17 in 2013-14, 16 in 2015-16 and 15 in 2017-18), he also has scored in the last 16 matches he has featured in.

– Santadeep Dey

PSG into first final

After spending more than a billion dollars over the last decade in its quest for European glory, Paris-Saint Germain is finally one game away from meeting its long-set expectations. It breezed past RB Leipzig in the Champions League semifinals to book a place in the final for the first time.

Ever since PSG was bought by the richest family in Qatar in 2011, the end goal has always been the Champions League. It has established itself in domestic competitions, winning league and cup titles with little effort. And for long periods in the game against Leipzig, it felt like this was PSG playing in a league or a domestic competition — such was its dominance.

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While the German side fought well against Atlético Madrid and stuck to its usual game plan of high pressing and quick passes, it showed PSG a lot of respect by allowing it to play from the back and dictate the tempo.

While all eyes were on Kylian Mbappe, who recovered from an injury to start the semifinal, it was Ángel Di Maria who stole the show from the Frenchman and Neymar. Having been suspended for the game against Atalanta, Di Maria was keen to make up for the lost minutes.

Di Maria played between the lines, moved across the pitch and acted as the link between PSG’s two star forwards and the rest of the team. If not for some wasteful finishing, the win would’ve been filed under “drubbing.”

PSG’s Ángel Di Maria and Neymar celebrate after the win against Leipzig. Di Maria played between the lines, moved across the pitch and acted as the link between PSG’s forwards and the rest of the team.   -  AFP

 

A wonderfully floated ball from a free kick was headed in by Marquinhos in the 13th minute, making it six assists for the Argentine in the competition this season — more than any other player.

Marquinhos put his name on the score sheet right before half-time when Leipzig goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi, trying to build play from the back, misplaced his pass. Neymar flicked the ball to Di Maria, who made no mistake in finding the corner.

Despite bringing on several substitutes and changing tactics at half-time, Leipzig could not claw its way back in the game. Every time it went forward on an attack, it ended with PSG countering with pace.

Ten minutes into the second half, PSG ended any chance of a Leipzig comeback with a third goal. As many as five players went forward in search of a goal. Di Maria was left to pick Juan Bernat with a delicious through ball. While Gulácsi came out, closed the angles and saved his effort, Leipzig opted to pass its way out of trouble. But Nordi Mukiele slipped, Di Maria found Bernat free in the penalty area and the left-back headed home to seal a place in the final for a French team for the first time since AS Monaco finished runner-up in 2004.

– Anirudh Velamuri

Lyon roars into semis!

Manchester City was dumped out of the Champions League at the quarterfinals stage by Olympique Lyonnais, which stunned Pep Guardiola’s side in a 3-1 win at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon. Lyon forward Maxwel Cornet’s opening goal in the 24th minute was cancelled by Kevin De Bruyne’s 69th minute strike before substitute Moussa Dembele scored in the 79th and 87th minutes to seal an emphatic win for Rudi Garcia’s men.

Despite bossing possession, City struggled to break down a stubborn Lyon defence that shut out the central spaces and looked lethal on the counterattack.

Lyon’s striking pair of Memphis Depay and Karl Toko Ekambi ran riot on the wings, often targeting the space left by right-back Kyle Walker. The defender was out of position in the 24th minute when Ekambi chased a long pass to set up a one-on-one with Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson. Teenage centre-back Eric Garcia tracked back to make a good tackle, but the spillover fell to Cornet, who finished from a tight angle to put Lyon ahead. The second half was a similar story of struggle for Guardiola’s men, who came close through De Bruyne’s dipping free kick but failed to breach Lyon’s defence. Guardiola introduced winger Riyad Mahrez and reverted to the 4-3-3 formation, which led to the equaliser. In the 69th minute, Raheem Sterling latched on to a chipped pass from João Cancelo and reached the near post before laying the ball in the path for De Bruyne to smash into the net.

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Dembele, who came on for Depay in the 75th minute, landed the knockout punch when he got hold of a through pass from Houssem Aouar and applied a neat finish past Ederson in the 79th minute. Sterling spurned a glorious chance for City in the 84th minute when he blazed over an open goal from Gabriel Jesus’s squared pass.

Dembele sealed Lyon’s second Champions League appearance in the 88th minute when he pounced on a tame save from Ederson and finished with a simple tap-in.

– Samarnath Soory

Bayern blasts Barca

The much-awaited battle of former champions Bayern Munich and Barcelona got off to an eventful start with two goals in the first seven minutes. Thomas Muller combined with Robert Lewandowski to get Bayern off the mark in the fourth minute, and then three minutes later David Alaba scored a comical own goal while trying to intercept a cross.

Barcelona then bottled two chances to score and was made to pay heavily. Ivan Perisic and Serge Gnabry scored a goal each to put Bayern 3-1 up after 27 minutes. Four minutes later, Muller added his second as the German champion went into the break leading 4-1.

Barca loanee Philippe Coutinho was brought on in the 75th minute and he played a role in Bayern’s three goals. After assisting Robert Lewandowski in the 82nd minute, he scored two goals in four minutes as Barcelona slumped to its worst defeat in Europe since 1946.   -  Reuters

 

Quique Setien’s Barca looked clueless while defending as the backline was stretched and breached very easily.

Bayern’s high pressing resulted in a flurry of goals and the story was no different in the second half.

Despite Luis Suarez pulling a goal back for Barcelona after the restart, Hansi Flick’s Bayern always looked in command by creating one chance after another. Left-back Alphonso Davies’ incredible run yielded another goal as Joshua Kimmich finished from close range and put the game to bed.

WATCH

But the Bavarians were far from done. Barca loanee Philippe Coutinho was brought on in the 75th minute and he played a role in the remaining three goals. After assisting Lewandowski in the 82nd minute, he scored two goals in four minutes as Barcelona slumped to its worst defeat in Europe since 1946.

– Shivansh Gupta

Leipzig among Europe’s elite

RB Leipzig boss Julian Nagelsmann turned 33 in July, and less than a month later he became the youngest manager to lead a club into the UEFA Champions League semifinals.

The German team, which was formed in 2009 by Red Bull GmbH, beat Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid 2-1 at the Estadio Jose Alvalade in Lisbon to set up a last-four fixture with French champion Paris Saint-Germain.

Goals from Dani Olmo and Tyler Adams on either side of a Joao Felix penalty guided Leipzig to a famous quarterfinal victory over a Spanish team that hardly concedes. Thus Die Roten Bullen made it to its first-ever European semifinal.

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Playing without their best player Timo Werner, Nagelsmann’s men surprisingly dominated possession early on against Atlético. However, both clubs struggled to create clear-cut chances throughout the first half.

A brilliant team move from Leipzig broke the deadlock in the 50th minute as a Marcel Sabitzer cross was headed across Los Rojiblancos keeper Jan Oblak into the goal by Olmo. Exactly 20 minutes later, Atlético’s super-sub Felix won a penalty and converted it himself to level the scores. After the equaliser, it looked as though the match was heading into extra time.

But another substitute, Adams, had other ideas. During Leipzig’s counterattack in the 88th minute, he received a pass from Angelino and took a shot from just outside the box. The ball found the back of the net after being deflected off Atlético defender Stefan Savic, taking Adams and his side to the next stage.

Leipzig made the move up from the German fifth division to the top-tier Bundesliga in just seven seasons, and it now finds itself among the continent’s elite.

– L. Dominic Richard

Joy in Paris

For les Parisiens, making the final four of the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 1995 surely calls for joyous celebration. The fact that Paris Saint-Germain’s (PSG) victory came in a thriller of a contest against a free-scoring Atalanta on the momentous occasion of the French giant’s 50th anniversary was the icing on the cake.

PSG manager Thomas Tuchel screamed like a madman on the sidelines after the referee blew the final whistle, the scoreboard reading 2-1 in his side’s favour. And why wouldn’t he? After all, he had just become the only PSG manager in history to beat an Italian opponent in the Champions League. But that wasn’t the only reason for his elation. Till less than five minutes before time, it seemed his team would have to book their tickets for home.

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Atalanta, in its very first campaign in Europe’s biggest club competition, went ahead in the 26th minute with a curling left-footed effort from Mario Pašalić. On the PSG front, the first half was all about Neymar Jr, the Brazilian star enjoying what was arguably his best night in the tournament. By the end of play, the former Barcelona striker had completed 16 take-ons and had won nine fouls, each the most by a player in a single Champions League game thus far this season. However, he failed to find the back of the net despite having four brilliant opportunities in the first 45 minutes.

PSG’s Eric Choupo-Moting and Neymar celebrate after the win over Atalanta.   -  Reuters

 

Kylian Mbappe, subbed in at the Estádio da Luz only moments before the one-hour mark, lifted PSG spirits. As the French champion continued to make inroads, Atalanta became desperate to hold on to the lead, and the Italian club ended with six yellow cards.

The game turned in PSG’s favour when defender Marquinhos equalised in the 90th minute. With five minutes added on, Atalanta continued to wilt as Mbappe squared one off to substitute Eric Choupo-Moting, who hammered the final nail into the Italians’ coffin in the third minute of stoppage time.

A Champions League semifinals appearance proved a step too far for Atalanta. The team from Bergamo was visibly exhausted in what was its 14th match since football restarted after the coronavirus-induced lockdown, while its Ligue 1 opponent was playing just its sixth, of which three were friendly games.

– Santadeep Dey