Key thoughts and analysis as Champions League last 16 concludes
The Champions League round of 16 came to an end this week, with the last four quarterfinal berths being decided. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from the week’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.
Napoli are genuine Champions League contenders
Napoli proved for the umpteenth time Wednesday they’re no fluke.
Feeding off their success in Serie A, the Partenopei tore Eintracht Frankfurt to pieces in the second leg of their already-lopsided last-16 tie. They outclassed the reigning Europa League champions with their intricate passing plays and on-ball confidence. Napoli had no intention of just sitting on their 2-0 lead from the first leg; they wanted to add to it. That’s what they did, and Frankfurt couldn’t do anything about it.
Winning any tie 5-0 is extraordinary. However, doing it with ease is something else entirely. Napoli aren’t just winning; they’re doing it with absolute class. The way they play from the back, string passes together, and hold onto the ball is just sublime. In possession, Napoli never look like they’re in a rush. But out of possession, they hunt the ball like wolves, jumping into the fray as soon as possible.
They have all the ingredients that make up a Champions League-winning side. In Victor Osimhen, they have a physically gifted and technically sound center-forward with 21 goals in his last 22 matches. In Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, they have a winger with a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks. In Stanislav Lobotka, they have one of the most responsible midfielders in the game. And in Kim Min-jae, they have an aggressive defender who can win any ball and force turnovers in midfield.
Head coach Luciano Spalletti has fit these players into a sophisticated system that runs on collective spirit. They press as well as any team in Europe, and they have such a clinical edge. Napoli don’t really have any weaknesses; they’re solid from top to bottom.
Who’s to say they can’t win a historic double? Armed with an 18-point lead in Serie A and on their way to a first league title in three decades, the southerners have now reached the quarterfinal stage for the first time in club history.
Klopp gives up on midfield skirmish
The complaint has been played on repeat. Liverpool acquired Luis Diaz, Fabio Carvalho, Darwin Nunez, and Cody Gakpo over the past three transfer windows, while the only senior midfielder added over the past five windows was Arthur Melo last summer.
It’s safe to say that Arthur won’t live long in Scousers’ memories once he departs Merseyside in June.
Such is the staleness of Liverpool’s midfield; Klopp gave up on it altogether for almost an hour of his side’s 1-0 loss at Real Madrid. In some ways, the German manager’s hands were tied: Thiago Alcantara, Stefan Bajcetic, and Jordan Henderson were unavailable for the matchday squad, and Liverpool needed to attack while they were losing 5-2 on aggregate. But with Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain watching from the bench, Klopp deployed a midfield duo consisting of Fabinho and 37-year-old James Milner.
And that was it.
The two players were expected to cover ground. They were expected to tackle. They were expected to shift the ball quickly toward Liverpool’s attackers. But Fabinho and Milner weren’t seriously expected to compete with Eduardo Camavinga, Toni Kroos, and Luka Modric.
The result of this game plan was entirely predictable. Kroos was authoritative yet serene as he moved through the middle, Modric harried and hovered, and Camavinga – who’s still just 20 – maturely conducted play. Within the first 21 minutes, each midfielder had sauntered through space and attempted a shot from outside the area. It was far too easy.
It was only after the introduction of Elliott in the 57th minute that Liverpool tried to participate in this part of the pitch.
Liverpool exited Europe with a whimper – a 6-2 aggregate defeat will sting a club so proud of its continental pedigree. There’s plenty of hard work ahead. Signing Jude Bellingham from under the noses of many interested clubs would prove a spectacular piece of business, but he can’t be the answer on his own.
With the slump in form and the advancing years of so many in Liverpool’s midfield, the club needs to perform open-heart surgery in the summer.
By the numbers: Trying to make sense of Haaland
Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Alan Shearer, and every other striker who’s lit up English and European football throughout history, look away now. Erling Haaland has his eyes on your scoring records.
The Manchester City superstar netted five times in his team’s 7-0 obliteration of RB Leipzig, showcasing levels of anticipation and narrow-mindedness that only the best players in his position have possessed.
Sometimes, only numbers can paint the full picture. Here are the best stats and facts to surface after an iconic outing from Haaland:
1 – The Norwegian scored five goals in a game for the first time in his senior career.
2 – Haaland now has two Champions League hat-tricks to his name. Brazilian great Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, and Wayne Rooney managed only one apiece.
3 – Haaland became just the third player to notch five goals in a Champions League fixture. Messi was the first to achieve the feat when he spearheaded Barcelona’s 7-1 rout of Bayer Leverkusen in 2012. Luiz Adriano matched Messi’s outburst in Shakhtar Donetsk’s 7-0 triumph at BATE Borisov in 2014.
5 – The former Borussia Dortmund marksman has scored three or more goals in five matches for Manchester City this season. That’s three more than any other player hailing from one of Europe’s top five leagues.
25 – Haaland is only 25 matches into his Champions League career. The competition’s records appear to be at the mercy of Haaland and Paris Saint-Germain forward Kylian Mbappe.
30 – The second goal of Haaland’s evening made him the youngest and fastest player to reach 30 Champions League goals.
33 – The 22-year-old’s total Champions League haul of 33 is three more than both Samuel Eto’o and Wayne Rooney mustered during their glittering careers.
94 – Tommy Johnson’s 38 goals during the 1928-29 campaign stood as the single-season scoring record by a Manchester City player for 94 years. Haaland has beaten that tally in March, and he could still play in 19 more matches this campaign.
100% – Each of Haaland’s eight efforts at Leipzig’s goal was on target. He’s unerringly accurate, and he won’t stop trying to score. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” reads the famous quote often attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
Guardiola ensured City took control
Pep Guardiola previously stressed the importance of his side controlling the matches against Leipzig. “We don’t have the team to compete with them in the transitions, they are better than us, they are faster and quicker, except Kyle (Walker) and Erling (Haaland),” he said after the first leg, according to The Athletic’s Sam Lee.
Guardiola’s brave modifications for the relentless win over Leipzig helped his team take control. City’s goalscorer from the 1-1 first-leg draw, Riyad Mahrez, was on the bench alongside Walker, whose advanced position on the right flank was a key element of City’s tactics in the opening fixture. Phil Foden was surprisingly among the substitutes after averaging almost seven key passes per game since his reintroduction to the lineup two weeks earlier. An off-color Kevin De Bruyne started in Foden’s place.
The four center-backs protected City from counter-attacks at the Etihad Stadium. Rodri intelligently slotted between Ruben Dias and Manuel Akanji when extra protection was required or to assist with build-up play from the back. John Stones split his duties between right-back and defensive midfield, and Nathan Ake was solid defensively. Some of Ake’s play down the left proved how much he’s growing from an attacking perspective under Guardiola.
Ahead of this versatile yet solid defensive setup, the risky play of Mahrez – one of City’s best Champions League performers in recent seasons – was sacrificed to ensure the team lost the ball less frequently. It worked: City had 49% possession in the second half of the first leg, but that rose to over 66% for the full 90 minutes of the second leg.
When Guardiola makes unexpected changes to his lineup or approach and Manchester City don’t get a result, he’s accused of overthinking his tactics. It must irritate the Spaniard when similarly imaginative tweaks lead to a victory and don’t offset that negativity with widespread critical acclaim. His selection and subsequent in-game management in last month’s trip to Arsenal, and his lineup for Leipzig’s visit, are recent examples of Guardiola’s risks paying off handsomely.
Inter’s foot soldiers pave the way to quarterfinals
Inter certainly needed luck to reach the Champions League quarterfinals. Porto had a shot cleared off the goal line and hit the post twice in second-half stoppage time Tuesday, falling just a goal short of forcing extra time in this nerve-racking last-16 tie. Had they played an additional half-hour at the Estadio do Dragao, Porto, not Inter, would’ve had the momentum, and few would’ve bet against them to advance.
But that didn’t happen. Porto waited too long to create such excellent chances. They spent most of the 90 minutes patiently plotting a path through Inter’s back line. But a pathway never emerged. Porto were too casual for too long.
Inter, on the other hand, were all too happy to absorb pressure, knowing they could rest on their 1-0 aggregate lead from the first leg. Head coach Simone Inzaghi, who watched his team lose against relegation-threatened Spezia last Friday, didn’t need to take much of a risk anyway. Without Otavio – the Portuguese forward who was sent off in Milan and suspended for Tuesday’s decisive clash – Porto lacked any sort of cutting edge up front.
So the Nerazzurri simply held their line. Matteo Darmian, Inter’s unsung hero this season, was excellent on the right of Inter’s three-man defense. His tackle on Galeno in the closing stages was one of several impressive plays by the Italian defender. Federico Dimarco’s block on Evanilson also prevented Porto from gaining a lifeline earlier in the second half. And when Porto fired crosses into the penalty area, Francesco Acerbi and Alessandro Bastoni cleared the lines. Henrikh Mkhitaryan led all players with three tackles and three interceptions, and Hakan Calhanoglu, as industrious as ever in his newly acquired deep-lying role, remained calm amid all the chaos around him.
So maybe they earned their luck. They played like a team that was desperate to progress. And now they’re through to the quarterfinals for the first time in 12 years.
Serie A is roaring back to relevance
Three Italian clubs will feature in the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time since 2006. That alone may not mean much to people outside of Serie A, but to the league’s teams, coaches, and executives, it’s an important milestone, one that could signal its return to consciousness. Important hurdles remain – Serie A is still struggling financially, and its stadiums are mostly outdated – but its best teams are showing they can compete with the best around. Right now, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Napoli are flying the flag in the Champions League, and each has demonstrated an ability to manage these big nights. Milan and Inter defended incredibly well in the round of 16, and on Wednesday, Napoli entertained onlookers who may otherwise have overlooked their excellence in Serie A. They are, in their own way, showcasing the renewed strength of the league.
Wrap Benzema in cotton wool
When Karim Benzema is on the pitch, he scores. Simple as that. The biggest problem for Real Madrid this season, though, is that their talismanic French striker has spent plenty of time on the sidelines dealing with myriad injuries; Benzema has missed 14 matches across all competitions this season. He returned from his latest ailment, an ankle issue, to start – and score – against Liverpool on Wednesday, bringing his tally to 19 goals in 28 games on the campaign. Real Madrid will be hoping it wasn’t a Pyrrhic goal after Benzema took an apparent knock on the play before finding the net; he was substituted shortly after. With Barcelona in a commanding position atop La Liga, it might behoove Carlo Ancelotti to give Benzema more rest than he otherwise would to mitigate injury risk and ensure the veteran is fit for the stretch run of the Champions League as Real Madrid look to retain their crown.
Alisson doesn’t dwell on first-leg error
The sight of Thibaut Courtois’ casual, clunky touches gifting a goal to Mohamed Salah was peculiar, but Alisson balancing the number of goalkeeping gaffes at the other end of the park – when he bounced a clearance off Vinicius Junior and into his own net – was arguably the oddest aspect of the first leg between Liverpool and Real Madrid. Although the Reds bowed out of the tournament at the Bernabeu on Wednesday, the usually impeccable Alisson made amends with some miraculous saves in the reverse fixture. His strong right arm denied Vinicius from point-blank range, he tipped Camavinga’s long-range effort onto the bar, and he also blocked a Federico Valverde effort after the versatile Uruguayan raced clear. Liverpool could’ve been on the end of another one-sided scoreline without the excellence of their goalkeeper.
Is a Milan derby possible in the quarterfinals?
It certainly is. Unlike in previous rounds, UEFA allows teams from the same country to face each other in the quarterfinals. That means AC Milan, who dispatched Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the round of 16, could meet crosstown rivals Inter in the next phase of the competition. They last met in the Champions League in 2005 when Milan ousted Inter 5-0 on aggregate in a tie marred by a flare-throwing incident involving former Milan goalkeeper Dida. Milan and Inter also squared off in the semifinals in 2003, with the Rossoneri advancing on away goals despite playing at the San Siro on both occasions. However, the Nerazzurri have form on their side. They’ve won three of the last five derbies, including a 3-0 shellacking in the Italian Super Cup in January.
KDB back to his best
De Bruyne’s below-par performances were a talking point before the return fixture with Leipzig, and he answered his doubters in spectacular fashion. Haaland demands most of the attention after his five goals against Leipzig, but De Bruyne’s determined display featured four key passes, 75 touches, and 14 crosses. His sublime, swerving finish in the dying embers of the game was the least he deserved. His emphatic return to form should sound a warning to Premier League title rivals Arsenal and the teams battling for Champions League glory.
What, exactly, did VAR see?
It was ultimately moot because of Haaland’s otherworldly scoring exploits – and it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of City advancing – but the decision to award the home side a penalty for what looked, on multiple replays, like a non-existent handball by Benjamin Henrichs deserves scrutiny, if for no other reason than to hold officials accountable. Players will almost always remonstrate with referees when there’s even a sniff of winning a penalty in their team’s favor. For none of the City contingent to react in the moment was a telltale sign that this was a questionable call, at best. The crowd didn’t protest the play, either. Replays on the broadcast weren’t even conclusive that Rodri’s header inside the box even deflected off the Leipzig player’s arm. The VAR, Alejandro Hernandez, must have seen an angle that wasn’t shared publicly for him to urge colleague Slavko Vincic to check the monitor. Henrichs said after the crushing 7-0 defeat that talking about VAR was pointless and that Leipzig “need to talk about our own performance” instead. In the grand scheme of the match, he’s right, but this is another in an ever-growing list of debatable VAR-aided decisions.
Stat of the week
Trent Alexander-Arnold must be sick of seeing Vinicius by this point.
Tweet of the week
Finally, something Erling Haaland seemingly can’t do …
Key thoughts and analysis from riveting draw between Real Madrid, Man City
Real Madrid and Manchester City treated everyone to a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes of football Tuesday, playing out an absorbing 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal tie. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from the contest at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Man City channel their inner Madrid
About halfway through Tuesday’s semifinal first leg, Manchester City’s focus turned to survival. Real Madrid’s confidence was surging, and so was their time on the ball. Before City could get back into the tie, they had to make sure they could stay in it.
The first half was all about City’s dominance. And yet they stared at a 1-0 halftime hole. It paid little to have the ball for 70% of the opening stanza. Madrid needed just one chance to score. If City hadn’t learned their lesson last year – when Los Blancos flipped a two-goal deficit with a pair of last-minute goals from Rodrygo – they must’ve understood now that the only thing that matters in the Champions League is surviving long enough to lift the trophy.
Just like that, City went from poetic to pragmatic in the second half. They managed the game well enough after Kevin De Bruyne’s piledriver of a finish to see out a 1-1 draw. Like Vinicius Junior’s opener, De Bruyne’s equalizer came against the run of play, punishing Eduardo Camavinga for a giveaway in midfield. Suddenly, Madrid were the ones toiling in possession and City the ones defending resolutely. Suddenly, Madrid were showing all the emotion, the players flailing their arms at every missed call and Carlo Ancelotti, usually the coolest manager on Earth, collecting a yellow card for a rare outburst of frustration.
The role reversal was quite extraordinary. But then, so are Pep Guardiola’s City. Despite falling short of winning the Champions League on more than one occasion, Guardiola has always had the capacity to adapt. He hasn’t imposed the same style of play on every team he’s coached. He learned quickly after a first trophyless year in England that his usual pass-first, metronomic football would have to accommodate more dynamic and direct sequences of play.
He changed tactics and approach here, too. Guardiola made no substitutions Tuesday – and not for the first time in this competition. He did the same thing against RB Leipzig in the round of 16. That game finished 1-1 as well, and Guardiola’s priority then was the same: to avoid making a tricky situation even worse. City were under tons of pressure in the first leg. They hammered Leipzig 7-0 in the second.
Had City pushed for a comeback here and left space in an aggressive pursuit of goals, Madrid would’ve had even more of a chance to hurt them on the counterattack. The tie may have been over by then. Instead, Guardiola turned cautious and relied on one of his best players to produce a moment of astonishing technique.
City did to Madrid what they so often do to other teams. They have life because of it.
Camavinga making left-back role his own
Camavinga is a manager’s dream.
The pliable Frenchman, still only 20, continues to excel in an unorthodox left-back role, filling a big hole in Carlo Ancelotti’s squad with aplomb. He was, yet again, one of the standout performers for Real Madrid on Tuesday. Camavinga showed both his continued defensive growth and the ball-carrying instincts that make him such a unique and difficult matchup for the opposition when he lines up in the ostensibly defensive position, something he’s doing with increased frequency since the World Cup.
Camavinga, a natural midfielder, was a force in both directions against City; he had the most touches, final-third entries, chances created, and fouls won of any Real Madrid player on the pitch. He also recorded the most tackles and successful duels for his side.
He already has many of the qualities needed to thrive at the full-back position. His elasticity allows him to make a variety of tackles – something Bernardo Silva learned Tuesday – and his instincts are solid, deciding when to vacate his position to pounce on a loose pass and when to be more conservative and drop in line with his fellow defenders.
His comfort on the ball in tight spaces was crucial to helping Madrid play out of pressure when City pressed them deep in their own end, and he often tucked inside into familiar midfield spaces to give his teammates a passing lane during the buildup phase. His dribbling ability and top-flight speed came into focus, too, when his bursting run created Vinicius’ goal. Silva was simply a spectator as Camavinga raced forward from inside his own half and forced the City defenders to retreat, thus creating space for Vinicius to uncork the opener from outside the box.
And all this from someone who’s admitted, on multiple occasions, that he doesn’t particularly enjoy playing the position. Imagine if he did. There’ll be some growing pains along the way – his wayward pass that ceded possession to City ultimately led to De Bruyne’s goal – but with Ferland Mendy constantly sidelined by various injuries, Madrid need Camavinga just as much as they need Vinicius, Benzema, or any of their celebrated veteran midfielders. It’s no coincidence he’s appeared in more matches than any Real Madrid player this season across all competitions. Ancelotti trusts him fully.
“I’m so happy with him, whether he plays at left-back or in midfield,” the Italian coach said earlier this year. How could he not be?
De Bruyne is Man City’s true MVP
As prolific as Erling Haaland has been this season, Manchester City’s most important and valuable player remains De Bruyne. On top of scoring the tie-saving equalizer Tuesday, the Belgian midfielder showed incredible fight off the ball, conducting City’s press and contributing to it when he saw fit.
“I think Kevin’s brain is the best I’ve seen,” Thierry Henry said on CBS Sports Golazo. “We’re talking about the way he sees the game. I don’t know what he thinks about sometimes. You look at him, and it’s almost like he’s not with us. That can sometimes be a problem because you’re not at his level. I think he’s the most clever player I’ve seen.”
Guardiola has recently offered De Bruyne the license to roam around the pitch, and he’s been responsible with that freedom, stepping into space his teammates create with brilliant runs of the ball. He’s also been unpredictable when he has the ball. His shot from distance seemed to surprise Thibaut Courtois in goal, and that’s because he’s so tough to read.
Individual quality through the roof
Football was the biggest winner today.
So many times, matches of this magnitude fail to deliver. This one didn’t. Even though only two goals were scored, Tuesday’s affair was totally captivating. The finesse from both teams stood out, especially as they each took turns playing out from the back, coping with intense pressure by knocking the ball around quickly, smoothly, and with supreme confidence. Kyle Walker, with a smile beaming across his face, saluted Vinicius after the final whistle to commemorate their intense battle over the 90 minutes. The mutual respect was evident. Both sets of players, and their managers, enjoyed this one.
With no disrespect to either AC Milan or Inter, the two combatants in the other semifinal, this matchup was befitting of the tournament’s showpiece match. Maybe it’s better that it wasn’t, though. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get to see them do it all over again in the second leg next week.
Rudiger, Alaba neutralize Haaland
You wouldn’t know that Real Madrid were without their first-choice central defender Tuesday based on the way they largely kept Haaland quiet. In the absence of Eder Militao through suspension, Antonio Rudiger and David Alaba were outstanding against the prolific Norwegian. The German embraced the physical battle with the imposing striker, trying to make his presence known early and often, while the Austrian was always there in support to sweep up whenever Haaland was able to break free.
He had some looks on goal – of course he did – but his best chance was erased by a superb diving block from Alaba. Overall, Madrid defended deeper to ensure there was no space behind the backline for Haaland to exploit, an approach that helped limit Manchester City’s record-breaking forward to just 21 touches all game, fewer than even Ederson.
“Defensively we were good. Rudiger against Haaland did really well. The midfield covered well the position in front of the defense,” Ancelotti explained. “We are satisfied. Sometimes the result doesn’t give you credit, but the performance was really good.”
Carvajal knows every trick in the book
Dani Carvajal learned from the very best. For years, Sergio Ramos and Casemiro’s unrivaled mastery of the dark arts gave Real Madrid an edge over their opposition. Since the decorated duo’s departure, Carvajal has assumed the mantle as Madrid’s chief instigator of commotion, using whatever nefarious means are necessary to rankle his foes.
He subtly knocked Haaland over inside the penalty box early in the match and had Jack Grealish fuming after some persistent fouling. Then, rather blatantly, he sent the Englishman flying into the advertising boards before trying to bamboozle the referee into thinking he was the wounded party in the altercation. That Carvajal wasn’t booked on Tuesday was a minor miracle. He got away with all of it. Ramos and Casemiro would be proud.
Carvajal’s been viewed as the weak link in this Madrid side, and there’s some merit to that – the Spaniard, now 31, isn’t the indefatigable presence down the flank that he once was. But Tuesday was a reminder of the intangibles he brings to the table, and why the coaching staff and club still trust him to perform in the biggest matches and moments.
Stat of the day
De Bruyne is absolutely lethal from long range.
Tweet of the day
Remember when there were critics of the Vinicius signing? That feels like a lifetime ago now.
Key thoughts and analysis from Tuesday's Champions League action
The Champions League quarterfinal stage concludes this week, with the semifinal berths being decided. Below, we dissect the biggest talking points from Tuesday’s action in Europe’s premier club competition.
Milan’s dominance over Napoli is some feat
Getting the better of Napoli, Serie A’s runaway leaders, three times in less than a month is incredible in its own right. Holding one of the most prolific teams in Europe to just a single goal over that span is masterful. AC Milan fielded the same starting lineup in all three matches – including two daunting fixtures in front of 60,000 at the Stadio Diego Maradona, the most intimidating stadium in Italy – and not once could the Partenopei crack the code.
Milan relied on a cohort of unsung heroes in their 1-0 first-leg victory last week and required a similar collective effort Tuesday to keep Napoli from mounting a comeback. Mike Maignan saved a pivotal penalty kick in the final 10 minutes, and Milan’s back four dealt with a seemingly unending barrage of crosses into the area. Not so long ago, Milan struggled mightily on corner kicks, conceding more times than not. During Tuesday’s 1-1 draw – which gave Milan a 2-1 win on aggregate – the Rossoneri came away from 16 of them unscathed.
Milan continued to keep Napoli on the perimeter of the penalty area, forcing them to take pot shots and shuttling them into less dangerous scoring positions. The few times Napoli broke through the lines, they lacked the composure to finish. In the end, Italy’s champions-elect could only land four of their 23 shots on target. One of those was from the penalty spot.
Milan also suffocated standout winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who, when left alone, can dribble circles around his opponents. Two men covered Kvaratskhelia whenever he was on the ball and severely limited his options, with Milan captain Davide Calabria cutting off the inside, while Rade Krunic, Brahim Diaz, and Junior Messias combined to push Kvaratskhelia outside of his usual dribbling lane. All the Georgian sensation could do was send hopeful crosses into the area.
But Milan wouldn’t have progressed without their breathtaking counterattack. They couldn’t possibly outpass Napoli, a team with wizardly control of the ball and absolute maniacal pressing, so every touch counted. Milan were under incredible pressure in the first half and sometimes couldn’t keep the ball for more than three seconds at a time. The difference is they didn’t need a lot of it. They were ruthless with the few chances they created. Rafael Leao’s authoritative run down the gut of the pitch drew instant parallels with Ruud Gullit’s solo effort on the same ground in 1988.
Milan’s marathon with Napoli was fought like Barcelona’s four-match, 18-day slugfest with Real Madrid in 2011. It will live long in the memory of Italy.
Napoli’s celebrations will still go on
The people in Naples have been counting down the days until they finally clinch their first Serie A title in three decades. If Napoli can win each of their next three games, their celebrations will begin and run long into the summer.
That should make their Champions League exit a little easier to digest. This season has been historic in so many ways – Napoli hadn’t even reached the Champions League quarterfinals before – and it’s happening with a cast of players no one expected to compete for trophies. Preseason protests over the club’s apparent lack of transfer activity seem sillier by the day.
As harsh as it appears right now, Tuesday’s defeat on aggregate should encourage the Partenopei to keep building. That’s how Milan recovered from their humiliating group-stage exit last season. The Rossoneri entered the campaign with the intention of improving on their 2021-22 performance, and they’ve done so by finishing second to Chelsea in their quartet before beating Tottenham Hotspur and Napoli in the knockout round.
Napoli didn’t even play that badly Tuesday. They just missed certain details. Victor Osimhen’s absence from the first leg robbed them of a clear threat up front, and suspensions to key players Kim Min-jae and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa prevented Luciano Spalletti from again fielding his best team in the second. These aren’t necessarily excuses but mitigating factors Napoli hadn’t faced earlier in the season. Spalletti relied on a very short squad to reach the Serie A summit, but things changed when he had to dig into his roster. He hasn’t gotten as many reliable performances out of players he’s left on the periphery for large parts of the campaign. It’s one possible indication why Tanguy Ndombele, who’s made just six league starts, was at fault for Milan’s only goal of the game.
There are lessons to learn here. Instead of berating the coach for his choices and rueing a wasted opportunity, Napoli can find information in their sorrow. Maybe it’ll inspire the likes of Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia to stay put in the summer and have another go at the trophy that got away. Perhaps club president Aurelio De Laurentiis will double down on his investment in the squad. This doesn’t have to be a point of arrival. It can be a point of departure.
Unique opportunity arises for Lampard
Look, things have been glum for Chelsea under Frank Lampard.
The club icon hasn’t provided any boost upon taking over on an interim basis. Tuesday’s quarterfinal defeat against Real Madrid, a second successive 2-0 setback versus the Champions League holders, was Chelsea’s fourth loss in as many matches since Lampard replaced Graham Potter at the helm. The Blues have scored just one goal in that time.
If nothing else, though, there were some positive building blocks Tuesday. That’s all there is left for Chelsea at this point. Now eliminated from the Champions League and playing out the final weeks of the Premier League season while languishing in the bottom half of the table, the team has nothing tangible left to compete for. Lampard’s primary focus should be on trying new things and seeing what, if anything, sticks and becomes viable for whoever succeeds him as the permanent boss.
Tuesday was a perfect example.
Lampard opted to use N’Golo Kante and Conor Gallagher, two tireless pressing midfielders, in ostensible – and highly unusual – dual No. 10 roles behind a solitary striker (who isn’t really a striker, but that’s a whole other issue the club will surely throw more money at this summer). The approach, extremely defensive at face value, actually caused problems for Real Madrid, generating turnovers in dangerous areas and creating scoring chances. For the umpteenth time in the campaign, Chelsea wasted their best opportunities before being punished at the other end. Kante himself could – and perhaps should – have found the net twice at Stamford Bridge.
“I feel like we played well and had a lot of chances, definitely more and better chances than they did,” Gallagher said after the defeat that effectively ended Chelsea’s season. “But football is all about taking your chances, and we didn’t do that today.”
All else being equal, that’s true. But Chelsea are now in a weird purgatory, with nothing but pride to play for. It’s the perfect time for Lampard and his staff to experiment with bold tactical wrinkles and see if they can uncover something that will serve the club well in the future. Under normal circumstances, a manager in this situation would focus on self-preservation. But with Chelsea publicly courting other coaches and informing Lampard that his tenure is only a brief interim stint until the end of the season, he has an opportunity to help guide the rebuild for the club he loves so dearly. In an otherwise lost season, that’s all that’s left.
Real Madrid play possum for fun
Real Madrid are the masters of giving the opposition false hope in the Champions League. For large portions of Tuesday’s match, Chelsea were the better, more threatening side. Stamford Bridge roared each time the Blues tested Thibaut Courtois, and the fans raised their voices in excitement and anticipation whenever the Premier League club raced forward looking for an opening. You could sense a little bit of optimism creeping into the home crowd. Real Madrid were unbothered. They bided their time, as they often do in this competition, before deciding that it was the right moment, quite literally for Rodrygo, to kick into high gear and quash any glimmers of hope for Chelsea and the partisan crowd. It’s a tale as old as time. And it always seems to work. Maybe their rope-a-dope approach will backfire one day. The other teams remaining in the competition can only hope.
Stat of the day
Real Madrid own this competition …
Tweet of the day
… and they’re ready to keep that dominance going.
Introducing Gift Orban, the Nigerian 'phenomenon' scoring goals like Haaland
Gift Orban was different from anyone else Patrick Metcalfe had encountered in his career.
“He would literally kill someone to score a goal,” Metcalfe, who played with the burgeoning Nigerian striker while at Norwegian club Stabaek, told theScore. “Even if it was in training and someone could play him the ball, and they didn’t, and he was in a position where he could score, he would almost be trying to fight the player.”
Metcalfe admits Orban’s desire to win and score goals could go “over the limit” but believes that’s a key reason why the 20-year-old will earn a transfer to the Premier League within a year. While Metcalfe moved on to another Norwegian side in Fredrikstad, Orban took his breathtaking form at Stabaek – where he crammed 20 goals into just 21 starts for the club – and replicated it with Gent in Belgian and European football.
Orban is one of the few players on the globe who’s challenging Erling Haaland’s punishing scoring rate for Manchester City. The world is starting to take notice.
Orban’s record at Gent
|Belgian Pro League||8||9||2|
|Europa Conference League||4||5||0|
For a relative latecomer to professional football, Orban’s training-ground tenacity could be viewed as surprising, as many young players deal with timidness following a sudden leap into the senior ranks or a new team. He was discovered in Nigeria at 19 during one of Stabaek sporting director Torgeir Bjarmann’s regular trips to Africa in search of talent. Within a few months, he had forced himself into the club’s starting XI.
Orban’s determined and perhaps aggressive ascent to first-team consideration didn’t lose him many friends. It was quite the opposite. Metcalfe credits Orban for being able to “flip the switch” and be a “really nice guy” when he’s off the pitch. The pair still talk regularly today.
Stefan Smet, a journalist who’s covered Gent with Belgian publications Het Nieuwsblad and De Gentenaar for 13 years, describes Orban as “a constant ray of light shining in the club.” Unlike other foreign players who’ve joined Gent over the years – like Jonathan David, who Smet still counts as the “most special” footballer he’s seen represent the Buffalos – Orban didn’t withhold elements of his personality while he acclimated to his new surroundings and got to know his new colleagues.
“He’s not only speaking to one or two people,” Smet said of Orban’s earliest days with Gent, “he’s speaking and making jokes with everybody. He’s a phenomenon, even off the pitch.”
Metcalfe remembers Orban’s fondness for Grammy-winning Nigerian singer Burna Boy. “It’s like a trigger for him. (It) doesn’t matter where he is or what time it is, if he hears Burna Boy come on, he’ll start dancing.”
Music is an ongoing theme at Gent.
“People sometimes get crazy about the way he starts playing music very loud in the early morning,” Smet revealed about Orban’s behavior at Gent’s training ground. “The more experienced guys have told him, ‘No worries, Gift, but a little less loud would be nice.'”
It’s not just his own inexperience that could’ve eroded Orban’s ebullience as he strived to make an impact at Gent following his January transfer from Stabaek. There was also the fee. Smet says Gent spent over €3 million – a considerable sum in Belgian football – for a player who had only scored goals in Norway’s second division. That level of football was several rungs below the standard Orban was set to encounter in Belgium’s top tier and the Europa Conference League.
But any concerns harbored by the local media and Gent supporters were soon dispelled. In his debut, he scored an unorthodox, slingshot-esque volley and grabbed another goal when he ruthlessly rifled the ball into the top corner. He also won a penalty.
And now, just two months into his Gent career, he’s already their second-highest scorer of the 2022-23 season with 14 goals across all competitions. Orban fired Gent into the Europa Conference League quarterfinals with a hat-trick in 205 seconds at Istanbul Basaksehir – the fastest treble ever recorded in a UEFA club competition.
Naturally, former players have tried to compare Orban to other footballers past and present. Eighty-six-time Belgian international Franky Van der Elst, who won the country’s title five times with Club Brugge, suggested French icon Jean-Pierre Papin as a comparison, but Smet believes that does Orban a disservice. Smet is too young to have appreciated watching the 1991 Ballon d’Or winner live but said old videos indicated Papin was similarly clinical in front of goal while perhaps lacking Orban’s creativity.
“At one moment, you think he’s a real striker who lives on scoring goals, but then a few days later, he demonstrates that he’s also very gifted – no pun intended – at delivering assists,” Smet explained.
“It’s not like he only waits for an opportunity to come along. He tries to build attacks.”
Canadian forward David, Smet’s favorite former Gent player, became the most expensive outgoing transfer in the club’s history when he joined French side Lille for around €30 million in 2020. The Belgian journalist thinks it’s “almost impossible” that Orban doesn’t break that record.
A big test lies ahead for Orban in the Europa Conference League. Gent face two meetings with West Ham United in the quarterfinals starting Thursday, offering Orban an opportunity to pit himself against Premier League opposition. Playing in England’s top division isn’t just what former teammate Metcalfe is forecasting for Orban – the striker himself described it as a “dream” just two days after he joined Gent.
Orban might not be competing with Haaland’s scoring feats from afar for much longer.
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