The finals are close enough to taste for the four clubs left standing in the Champions League but before Real Madrid, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City can allow themselves to dream of lifting the European Cup there is the small matter of two mouthwatering semifinals. Chelsea and Real Madrid sees two of the competition's most obdurate defenses face off against each other whilst the other tie is all about the attacking star power of Kylian Mbappe, Kevin De Bruyne, Neymar and 20-year-old sensation Phil Foden.
You can watch all the action on starting Tuesday on Paramount+. Let's make some predictions:
Chelsea keep at least one clean sheet across the tie
In terms of goals conceded Chelsea are neck and neck with Manchester City as this competition's best defense. Since the knockout stage -- and with it the arrival of Thomas Tuchel -- the Blues have shifted up a gear, bruising their way through Atletico Madrid and Porto like some European football approximation of the 1985 Chicago Bears. They aren't perfect, Mehdi Taremi proved that you can score on this team: provided you are willing to wait 180 minutes and score one of the most spectacular goals this season's competition has seen, but they're close.
This is an extremely stout defense, bettered only by Manchester City in terms of expected goals (xG, a metric that assesses the chance of any shot leading to a goal) allowed in the knockout stages with opponents registering an average of 0.77xG against Chelsea in the last four games. If there is a temptation to dismiss this by pointing to their favorable quarter-final opponents in Porto it is worth noting that the Portuguese giants actually made a better fist of getting at the Blues than Atletico Madrid. Across the whole two legs of their round of 16 tie Diego Simeone's side created shots worth a combined 1.35xG, 0.03 less than Porto managed in the first leg alone.
As the shot map below notes they have faced just three big chances -- reflected in the size of the expected goal bubble -- and while the shape of the round of 16 tie might have changed if Thomas Lemar had got a boot on the ball when Luis Suarez flashed it across goal early in the first leg, Chelsea firmed up admirably from that moment on. Since then only a Pepe header and a Moussa Marega shot from a tight angle (worth 0.22 xG) have really tested the defense.
Their defensive resilience is not some freak outcome of the low sample size that comes in European football either. Manchester City can attest that Tuchel's side are a headache for even the best attacks after registering just three shots on target in their FA Cup semi-final defeat nine days ago.
Some of the defensive numbers emerging from Stamford Bridge are simply staggering. In 18 Premier League and Champions League matches since appointing Tuchel Chelsea have faced shots on their goals worth an average of 0.58xG per game. Only two teams have had a shot profile that was better than one expected goal, the aforementioned Porto in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal and a West Bromwich Albion side that were playing against 10 men for over an hour.
This is an almighty change from Frank Lampard's tenure and one that happened almost immediately when the former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain boss took over. Still Tuchel is loath to take credit for it. "Most important is quality, quality and commitment, commitment of the players and the quality explains itself, doing the things which are necessary to do," he told CBS Sports in his pre-match press conference.
"Can I help to cover my teammate when he is going for a challenge? Do I play my role and be 100 percent reliable? Can the defensive guys rely on the midfielders, can the midfielders rely on the strikers? This is a clear yes.
"It is a huge effort that we put in the games, physically into defending and it takes courage, we play very bravely. Never forget the best defense is to have the ball and ball possession, quality of ball possession, counter-pressing you need to be brave high up the pitch and position yourself, very disciplined.
"You really need to have the mentality to not allow shots on goal. Like you said, we are very happy with the numbers, we produce these numbers regularly and with clean sheets that we have deserved. It is a team effort, it is always like this in football and we are ready for another one tomorrow."
Chelsea make it exceptionally difficult to get into the box, do not make clumsy errors if opponents do and know where to allow opponents to shoot from. An offense led by Karim Benzema will be one of the tougher assignments Tuchel's side have faced since his appointment but on the evidence of the past three months it will be just as difficult for Real Madrid to break them down.
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Mbappe comes through in the clutch moments
Manchester City need no reminding of what Kylian Mbappe can do on the biggest stage. It was in the 2017 Champions League with Monaco that the striker announced himself to the world, starting with two goals in the French side's thrilling round of 16 victory over City in Pep Guardiola's first season in English football. That season was the beginning of a remarkable love affair between Europe's premier club competition and the continent's brightest young star, one which neutrals will hope is not put on pause by the injury he suffered in Saturday's win over Metz.
At 22, Mbappe already has 27 goals and 16 assists from just 44 games with this season his best in front of goal. In nine games he has scored eight and laid on three more for team-mates and crucially it has been in some of Paris Saint-Germain's most important matches that he has come to the fore.
Such is the gulf between PSG and much of the field in Ligue 1 one might assume the games where Mbappe registered his highest xG, his most goals and chances created might come against the lesser powers of French football: a drubbing of Nimes here, a thrashing of Nantes there. Instead two of his three highest games this season in terms of xG have been the matches against Barcelona with a thumping win over Istanbul Basaksehir either side of them.
How Mbappe compares in Ligue 1 and Champions League
|Per 90 stats||Ligue 1 (146 games)||Champions League (44 games)|
Big chances created
Take on success
In statistical terms Mbappe's hat-trick at the Nou Camp may just be the outstanding performance of the season: three goals from 1.84xG, four chances created (a tally he has only bettered seven times in 190 Ligue 1 and Champions League games) and a 71% success rate on 14 attempted take-ons.
That is typical of Mbappe. Across the span of his career many of his best games in terms of xG have come in the Champions League, where his per 90 averages for xG, assists, big chances created and even ball recoveries are higher than in Ligue 1, meriting the question which is the real farmers league. Even when he doesn't get a string of good chances he tends to take what comes his way as he proved against Bayern. On the biggest nights he turns up and there are few bigger than a semi-final against Manchester City.
City find joy out wide
For all that Manchester City thoroughly dominated Tottenham in Sunday's EFL Cup Final it took until the 82nd minute for Aymeric Laporte's header to earn them the 1-0 victory they so indisputably merited. When he watches back PSG's quarterfinal win over Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola will know how much difference the presence or absence of a traditional center forward capable of putting the ball in the net makes at the cutting edge of the Champions League. And yet it seems unlikely that either Gabriel Jesus or the soon-to-be departed Sergio Aguero will feature from the outset at the Parc des Princes.
Instead look for Guardiola to reprise much of what worked so well at Wembley with Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker stretching the flanks while five interlinking attacking midfield-forward hybrids draw attention to central areas. This was where City really hurt Tottenham on Sunday. Ryan Mason's side were naturally fearful of the damage that Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden could do in tandem with the central midfielders when they dropped deep to collect the ball off their center backs and perhaps had a shrewd strategy to deal with that, Lucas Moura and Heung-min Son looking to clog the passing lanes with Harry Kane at times sitting alongside Harry Winks.
Rookie head coach Mason, managing just his second professional match, might have also believed that filling these central areas would have lessened the impact of Cancelo, who tends to operate as something akin to a third central midfielder when employed from the left. Instead the Portugal international, perhaps the most tactically fascinating player in the English game this season, operated far more like an orthodox fullback, moving out wide to dovetail with Raheem Sterling. As Kyle Walker did much the same with Riyad Mahrez on the opposite wing City found plenty of fertile ground attacking on the flanks, particularly with Ilkay Gundogan and De Bruyne drifting into pockets of space nearby.
Guardiola has proven throughout his City tenure that he is not the sort of manager to experiment in the EFL Cup -- he has won as many in four years in England as the four Spurs have won in their history -- but it is tempting to see the success of Sunday's plan as something that can be applied in the Parc des Princes in midweek. After all if there is a weak point to PSG it is on the flanks, where the fullback options available to Pochettino are either inexperienced or look more at ease on the front foot. Meanwhile if Neymar starts as a left winger whichever defender is behind him should not be expecting much in the way of tracking back.
There was a fluidity to City on Sunday that was irresistible, only a particularly profligate display from their forwards and some stunning last gasp defending from Toby Alderweireld in particular stopped the game from being over before half-time. Should Pochettino offer his visitors the spaces his former side did then PSG could find themselves chasing shadows in the semi-final.
CBS Research and TruMedia assisted with this article