Rafa Benitez; The Cup King
Kevin De Bruyne is in the form of his life and is one of the best attacking midfielders in Europe at this very moment. Bas Dost up until three weeks ago was scoring goals for fun. Dieter Hecking’s Wolfsburg have been on a roll with one defeat in their last 23 games and were clearly the team to beat heading into the quarter finals of the UEFA Europa League. Rafa Benitez is most likely on his way out of Naples this summer and with how poorly Napoli have been this season no one expected much from them. The narrative was turned on its head. Napoli were perfect right from the first kick. Gonzalo Higuain put in a performance to remind critics that he is still one of the most dangerous forwards in the game. Rafa already has a cabinet that consists of one Champions League winners medal, two Europa League medals, one Club World Cup, one UEFA Super Cup and five domestic cups in Italy, Spain and England. Don’t be surprised if the knock-out king adds another to his collection with performances like this.
Still Too Conservative
Pep Guardiola is one of the greatest managers but sometimes even the greats repeat their horrible mistakes. In his spells as Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager, he has played 17 away Champions League games; won four of them and lost five. Quite clearly the overly conservative approach is to blame? The Bavarians did go into the game missing a good amount of key players, a situation that has led to the resignation of team doctor Hans-Wilhelm Mueller-Wohlfarht but that is no excuse for their tepid display. The Germans were completely out of their depth struggling to carve out any meaningful chances at the Estadio Dragao. Mario Gotze who was supposed to be the creative spark was completely shut out, Xabi Alonso – one of the calmest midfielders in the game- was guilty of a calamitous error. Dante who has looked on the edge since the World Cup Semi Final once again folded under pressure and Jerome Boateng who’s been ever so solid this season was responsible for possibly throwing this tie away with a missed header leading to Porto’s third goal. A lot of criticism has been handed out to Bayern without acknowledging the valiant effort of the Portuguese side. Bayern’s bad days are few and far between but it is still a monumental feat to get a result against them on these bad days. The high press implemented by Porto worked to a T and their full backs put in an absolute shift. 3-1 is not exactly a secure scoreline to take to the Allianz Arena but Porto should be able to walk into the second leg with a new found swagger.
Sidenote: Who would have imagined Ricardo Quaresma netting a brace in the quarter finals of the Champions League in the 2015?
£75 million > £50 million
Paris Saint Germain faced Barcelona in the knockout stages for the second time in three seasons and once again they were guilty of being too naïve. Going into the game missing their best players Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was always going to be tough but they possessed a squad capable of posing a sizeable threat to the Catalan side. The team from the French capital were guilty of horrendous decision making both in defence and attack. Cavani once again failed to deliver in a big game, Cabaye positioned at the base of the midfield was a passenger offering nothing in defence and attack. Matuidi as usual managed to avoid criticism with another strong performance solidifying his claim as one of the best box to box midfielders in the game around. The real story of the night was the million dollar battle between Luis Suarez and half-fit David Luiz. The Brazilian defender should never have been thrown right into the deep end just a week and half after tweaking his hamstring. He was however and was promptly disgraced by two nutmegs -that led to goals- from Luis Suarez that will definitely make rounds on Vine and Youtube. 3-1 heading to the Camp Nou and the tie seems all but done for PSG.
The Missing Formula
With the heated atmosphere in the stands and on the pitch of the Vicente Calderon there was no mistaking that it was derby day in Madrid once again. The tension was palpable with elbows flying and alleged biting. Surprisingly no red cards were handed out due to the benevolence of the referee and unfortunately no goals. That makes it seven games since Real last defeated their local rivals, not a nice statistic for Carlo Ancelotti’s men. There was definitely a marked improvement in their performance as compared to the six other meetings. There were no silly mistakes in defence with both Varane and Ramos bringing their A game. It is not unusual for Real to win the possession and territorial battles in these ties but it was a surprise to see them edge the physical and psychological advantage. Modric was always the first man to the second ball and Real happened to unleash a flurry of attempts on Atleti’s goal, one of which Gareth Bale should definitely have converted. El Cholo and his team must be grateful to keeper Jan Oblak for keeping them in the tie and if they play with the same mindset as earlier meetings in the Bernabeu the semi finals will be looming large.
Sidenote: Raphael Varane’s breakaway run to set up the counter was truly an incredible feat for a centre back.
Smarts and Patience
Massimiliano Allegri was hounded out of Milan, he ended up in Juventus and can really do no wrong right now. The Old Lady alongside Bayern and Barcelona are the only teams still in the hunt for a trinity of titles this season. Juventus adapted their 3-5-2 style of play for the rigours of the Champions League and it has bore fruits. With Allegri’s revamped 4-3-1-2 they are silently waltzing through the tournament on the back on of the Tevez-Morata axis. The game against Monaco on Tuesday was a very tight encounter considering how defensive both teams can be at times. Juve clearly missed the dynamisn of Paul Pogba but their smart and patient build up eventually led to the penalty that Arturo Vidal graciously converted. Monaco opted against starting Dimitar Berbatov and played a counter attacking style with really pacey forwards but the Juventus defence was equal to everything thrown at them. With the scoreline just 1-0 expect the return leg at the Stade Louis II to be another cagey affair.