Not since the 16th century days of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake, and the Spanish Armada has there been this much at stake between the nations of England and Spain. The UEFA Champions League (you can catch all the action on CBS and Paramount+) is down to four clubs, two from the Premier League and two from La Liga. Manchester City, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Villarreal will battle for control of the seas and see who can successfully circumnavigate the Champions League.
Have I wrung every last drop out of that historical reference yet? Probably not, but it's best I get on with the rest of this column. The Champions League semifinals begin this week, and while Manchester City and Liverpool are the heavy favorites to move on and give us an all-England final, Real Madrid has been written off a few times in this tournament already, and it's still here. Then there's Villarreal playing the role of Cinderella.
What's going to happen in the first legs? I can't guarantee anything, but I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Of course, given how I've performed with my Champions League picks this season, maybe that's not a good thing. All odds are via Caesars Sportsbook.
Manchester City vs. Real Madrid
Date: Tuesday, April 26 | Time: 3 p.m. ET | Watch: CBS/Paramount+
Like the last round against Chelsea, I want to take the over, but I fear what Carlo Ancelloti did in the Round of 16 against PSG. He sent Real Madrid out there and had them playing like Sean Dyche's Burnley squad. Madrid played in a nearly impenetrable low block with Karim Benzema stranded alone at midfield. It was a plan that likely left Atlético Madrid's Diego Simeone weeping tears of joy. It did not work out for Real Madrid that day, but while they didn't win the battle, they won the war, and thanks to Karim Benzema, they won it against Chelsea too.
I suspect that we'll see that low block again Tuesday. It makes sense against a team like Manchester City, which wants to dominate possession, but while Madrid held PSG to only one late goal the last time, PSG ranked up an expected goal (xG) tally of 2.6 that night. Man City are a more efficient attacking machine than a PSG squad that relies more on individual brilliance than a hivemind. In other words, a pragmatic approach against City might not work out nearly as well as Ancelloti hopes, so I'm betting on City finding the back of the net at least twice. Pick: Manchester City Over 1.5 goals (-185)
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Liverpool vs. Villarreal
Date: Wednesday, April 27 | Time: 3 p.m. ET | Watch: CBS/Paramount+
Villarreal are a great story and an excellent example of what a club can accomplish when the entire organization is in line and follows a vision. The fact they got this far is incredible. Villarreal's problem is that Liverpool are a club very much in the same mold, but with more money and much better players. So it is very likely that we'll see this Cinderella run come to an end over the next week, and probably in crushing fashion.
If we look at Villarreal's defensive performances lately, there isn't much reason to hope that they can stop Liverpool. Their 2-0 win over Valencia last week was the first time they held an opponent under 1.0 xG in seven matches, and they've only done so once in 10 Champions League matches (the 1-1 draw with Juventus in the Round of 16). Maybe Villarreal can pull off the same kind of voodoo they did against Bayern Munich, but I doubt it. The good news is Villarreal are strong enough in attack that I believe they can get at least one goal of their own more often than not. After all, Liverpool did allow four goals in two matches against Benfica and have allowed at least one goal in seven of their 10 Champions League matches this season. Pick: Both Teams to Score (+105)
Europa League Parlay
Date: Thursday, April 28 | Time: 3 p.m. ET | Watch: Paramount+
I don't bet on the Europa League often because it can be a random number generator of results. You can never be sure which teams in the competition genuinely care about being there and are trying to win it. However, once you get to the semifinals, you can be reasonably assured that the four remaining teams want to win. Unfortunately, I don't see much value in this week's matches on their own. I see the value on a parlay of the likely winners.
It's pretty simple. Rangers getting this far in the competition is a credit to them, but they aren't in the same league as Leipzig, and I can't imagine they'll go to Germany and come away with a result. Then there's West Ham, who cannot reach the Champions League places in England, so their only route to the Champions League is by winning the Europa League (and look how well that path has worked out for Villarreal!). They're facing a Frankfurt team that sits in ninth place in Germany with a goal differential of -2. While they've played well in the Europa League, they're not likely to provide much of a threat to the Hammers in London. Pick: West Ham and RB Leipzig to win (+156)