8 big questions for the Champions League quarter-finals
1. What did Pep learn from his humbling loss to Liverpool?
It’s very rare that Pep Guardiola can’t dictate his game plan. Not only was the Catalan unable to do this in January’s 4-3 humbling at Anfield, his Manchester City team was completely paralysed against Liverpool’s high-octane assault.
If you rewatch that match on mute, you can almost picture Klopp and his players blasting Metallica through earpieces while they implement that furious, raging press. Liverpool might not always show this frenetic side – they don’t always need to – but you can count on it in big matches.
The Reds’ press had a domino effect that triggered uncharacteristic errors from City. Fernandinho was isolated and taken out of the equation by Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mané, who forced Pep’s men to play the ball out wide. It was from those positions in particular where they struggled to find outlets; in the second half they were mentally exhausted, and started making silly mistakes. How will they deal with it this time around?
2. Who will Zidane actually pick?
Juventus manager Max Allegri has become more versatile, but he doesn’t have nearly the amount of options as Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman has shown himself to be unpredictable in big matches, which is hard to plan for if you’re an opposing manager.
The ‘BBC’ are not a sure thing anymore, and Zidane benched a healthy Gareth Bale in both legs against PSG. Isco, in the form of his life for Julen Lopetegui’s Spain, didn’t start in the second leg. Instead, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio acted as two-way wingers who combined well with Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, feeding Cristiano Ronaldo up front while zipping up defensively on the flanks.
One caveat in those line-up surprises: Zidane didn’t have all three of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric available in Paris. He should against Juventus.
One name to consider, though: Mateo Kovacic, whose box-to-box presence was immense in Paris. Juventus like to plug gaps deep rather than press high (although they did do the latter early on against Tottenham), so a ball-carrier like Kovacic could help in those situations to pose Juve’s defence some unwanted questions.
3. Will Roma survive Valverde’s suffocating tactics?
The margin of error against a Lionel Messi team is small. Antonio Conte had the right approach over two legs against Barcelona – Chelsea created danger on the counter and defended in a low block while providing good coverage on the flanks. The Blues slipped a couple times, though, and were punished accordingly.
If a Conte-led team with a sound plan, N’Golo Kante, plus two dangerous creators in Eden Hazard and Willian couldn’t get the job done, it’s tough to see Roma stopping Barça.
Eusebio Di Francesco will have to deal with so many things – namely Barcelona’s ability to retain possession, play vertically and quickly, and if all else fails, Messi the whole team on his back. Valverde’s men are comfortable sitting back and not pressing for 90 minutes, but they pick and choose when to counter-press. Dealing with their ball retention can be a suffocating endurance test.
Shakhtar Donetsk caused Roma’s right flank problems in the last 16 – but the overloads from Jordi Alba will be even more troublesome for them. Furthermore, the Italians will need to be more efficient on the counter-attack than Chelsea were defensively, which will be a tough task. In moments they do intercept successfully, the decision-making has to be consistently good – Barcelona are generally in a position to recover quickly.
4. Which version of Montella’s Sevilla will show up?
Sevilla have been generally poor this season. Their performances against Manchester United and Atletico Madrid over the course of two legs in the Champions League and Copa del Rey respectively have been anomalies. Can the good version of Sevilla show up again?
They were impressive defending the flanks against Manchester United. Cut-ins from Arjen Robben will be an ever-present threat, and Sergio Escudero will have his hands full. He was very good defensively dealing with the likes of Marcus Rashford and Antonio Valencia on his flank.
One interesting tactic: deploying Jesus Navas as a right-back (a role from his later Manchester City days he “actually enjoyed,” the man himself told FFT recently). Having Navas’s pace and overloads on the right added an interesting dimension to Sevilla’s attack in the first leg against United. This might be something that Vincenzo Montella considers again.