Champions League bold predictions: Haaland vs. Man City’s defense, Liverpool vs. Madrid’s back three and more

The business end of the Champions League begins in earnest on Tuesday night as Europe’s finest sides face off, starting with Real Madrid against Liverpool and Manchester City’s clash with Borussia Dortmund. With Bayern Munich hosting Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday as Porto and Chelsea play the first of their two games in Seville it is set to be a mouthwatering collection of fixtures.

Let’s get into some predictions:

Man City shut down Haaland

Entering their quarterfinal with Borussia Dortmund in relentless winning form, Manchester City are not too far away from carving out a surprising place in Champions League history. There have been 706 minutes of Champions League football played without a goal being scored against Pep Guardiola’s defense, a run that is already good for second best in the history of the competition behind the Arsenal team of 2005-06 who fell just five minutes short of 1000 without conceding. It’s especially surprising given how many questions their were about the club’s back line coming into the season.

The Ruben Dias-John Stones tandem has certainly not flown under the radar and this has been the rare occasion where a soon to be title-winning side has got as much credit for its defensive acumen as its attacking excellence, though of course in City’s case there were never any questions about firepower at that end of the pitch. As such praise has rightly been directed to defenders new — Dias is among the favorites to win individual English awards at the end of his first season in Manchester following a move to Benfica — and old, with an England recall last month capping Stones’ excellent revival under Guardiola.

In Europe, City have certainly benefitted from what appears to be a rather favorable set of opponents. Since Luis Diaz struck on matchday one with Porto, Olympiacos, Marseille and Borussia Monchengladbach were brushed aside with scarcely a sweat broken. In theory Marco Reus, Thorgan Hazard and of course Erling Haaland ought to represent a step up in difficulty for City’s backline though Dortmund’s form has been so woeful recently, culminating in a 2-1 home defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday, that that is up for debate.

Haaland is undoubtedly the best individual striker that City have faced in the Champions League this season, the competition’s top scorer with 10 goals in six games. That he arrives to the Etihad Stadium while the Premier League leaders vie with a host of European giants for his signature adds to the intrigue of this tie but this may not be the stage for him to shine.

The young Norwegian excels at finding positions on the pitch to score high value shots. His movement is exceptional; get him a shooting spot in the box and there is a strong probability he will make the most of the opportunity you give him. Early in his career, Haaland is not the man to fashion chances entirely for himself, more a finisher par excellence. The question that could define this tie is whether the likes of Reus and Hazard can get their star striker the chances he needs when attacking the likes of Joao Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko. 

Manchester City have excelled at taking away the shots Haaland is best with

City are exceptional at stopping the ball from reaching Haaland’s spot. The English giants have only conceded one goal because they have faced a ludicrously small number of shots (35 in eight games) and most of those have been low probability efforts. According to Opta, City’s combined expected goals (xG) conceded tally — a metric that assesses the probability of any shot being scored — is 2.26, a comically low number when the competition’s next best defense is Chelsea with more than double that figure (5.73). 

Haaland is so good that City only need to offer him one half-chance and he could score. His problem might be that Guardiola’s defense are so strong that those opportunities simply will not come his way. 

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Madrid’s back three favors Liverpool

The tie of the round may just be the meeting of Real Madrid and Liverpool, the Spanish and English champions with 19 European titles between them. Even if the absence of Virgil van Dijk and Sergio Ramos means slightly less stardust — and no chance for Mohamed Salah to get revenge on the latter — it adds to the tactical intrigue as both Zinedine Zidane and Jurgen Klopp look to shield what look like being soft underbellies to their side.

Klopp’s approach was simple and effective against Arsenal. If Fabinho and Thiago hoover up possession then no-one gets much of a chance to attack Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips anyway. Zidane, meanwhile, had gravitated towards a three man defense during Ramos’ initial absence earlier in 2021 and Saturday’s 2-0 win over Eibar offered an indication that it may continue into the defining weeks of the season.

It is easy to see why Zidane has come to favor a trio. Neither Marcelo nor Ferland Mendy are entirely convincing at doing everything required by a left-back, the former in particular is a sieve defensively, whilst Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola have struggled with injuries. Equally if none of Raphael Varane, Nacho or Eder Militao look quite as convincing without Ramos next to them it is best to opt for strength in numbers.

Madrid’s problem may be that a back three suits Liverpool to a tee. Traditionally deploying three center backs offers teams a man advantage against strike lines but when Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson bomb forward while Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane drive inside that numerical superiority swiftly evaporates, just as the excellent pressing Klopp’s men deployed at the Emirates Stadium might negate the benefits an extra defender brings in building up play. 

According to Opta, Liverpool average 2.4 points per game playing against teams in a back three or five in the past three years of Premier League and Champions League football as opposed to 2.17 against teams in a four man defense. That the Reds do not score more against those teams with a three or five is perhaps no surprise — their opponents do have an extra defender on the pitch after all — but they also concede just 0.74 goals per games compared to 0.93 when they face a back four.

Real Madrid certainly have a striker who can ensure they get goals in Karim Benzema, and Vinicius Junior could exploit Liverpool’s high line in the same way Timo Werner did if he starts. But, should Zidane opt for the three man defense he may find that he is playing into his opponent’s hands.

Chelsea overcome scoring struggles

Chelsea’s two-legged affair with Porto in Seville ought to be a relatively comfortable stroll to the semifinals. That is not to denigrate the Portuguese side, who performed exceptionally well against Juventus, but Sergio Conceicao’s side do face a significantly greater test from the Blues than from a listing Italian giant struggling to define its on-field identity under Andrea Pirlo.

That critique is not one that could be aimed at Thomas Tuchel, who has his side playing football in such a clearly defined way that an external shock such as Thiago Silva’s red card against West Bromwich Albion can send such shockwaves through the system that Chelsea can ship five goals to the 19th best side in the Premier League. Assuming that they do not contrive to leave themselves a man down again they ought to be able to hold firm against a Porto side that will be lacking Moussa Marega’s usual strike partner Mehdi Taremi.

Porto’s defense is firm but Pepe’s heroics in victory over Juventus might have painted a false picture. Good attacks can get joy against them and whilst their defensive record might be the fourth best among the remaining teams in terms of goals conceded (seven in eight games) opponents have racked up 12.69 xG. A fair chunk of that divergence can be attributed to the penultimate group stage against Manchester City, who turned 2.88 xG into zero goals.

Is Porto’s defense living dangerously in the UCL?

Man City 3-1 Porto



Porto 2-0 Olympiacos



Porto 3-0 Marseille



Marseille 0-2 Porto



Porto 0-0 Man City



Olympiacos 0-2 Porto



Porto 2-1 Juventus



Juventus 3-2 Porto



Meanwhile of goalkeepers left in the competition only Manuel Neuer has prevented more goals than Agustin Marchesin while Chancel Mbemba leads the tournament in shots blocked with nine. All of this is to be admired but when a team is reliant on heroics from your center backs and goalkeepers it does leave them with rather less margin for error. Compare that with Chelsea, whose defensive excellence under Tuchel has been defined by stopping opponents getting near their box, let alone testing Edouard Mendy. Even West Brom needed a string of outstanding finishes to rack up such a heavy tally on Saturday.

The question that will define this tie might be whether Chelsea’s strikers can punish any regression to the mean by the Porto defense. It is tempting to point at Timo Werner’s cavalcade of easy misses, particularly for Germany in defeat to North Macedonia, and laugh him off. That would be unfair because while he has not made the most of the chances provided to him — scoring eight times in domestic leagues and Europe from shots worth 13.55xG — he has offered plenty for those around him, a composed lay off for Mason Mount to tap into a near empty net was his sixth Premier League assist of the season.

Werner might not be the number nine Chelsea thought they were getting but for the time being they have one of them in Olivier Giroud, a striker who is running hot this season just as his fellow forward is running cold. Against Porto’s low block his ability to find a way to crosses from wide should offer the Blues enough to win this tie in much the same fashion they beat Atletico: dominating possession, finding avenues out wide and making the most of the mistakes of a defense-first opponent.

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