With the Champions League semifinals complete, Manchester City and Chelsea move on to the May 29 final, while Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid wonder where it all went wrong. We asked Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden and Julien Laurens to answer some big questions.
Who will win the final and why?
Marcotti: Manchester City are a better side, but obviously Chelsea beat them in the FA Cup semifinal last month (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.). I’ll be really curious to see what happens this weekend when Chelsea visit City in the Premier League. Will either manager show his hand? Logic suggests City, but it’s not lost on anyone that Pep Guardiola in recent seasons has sometimes over-thought things in big games and paid the price. Right now, I’ll lean toward City because they have quality and work rate. But it’s very close.
Ogden: Chelsea. As much as everything points to Manchester City in terms of their dominance of the Premier League, unbeaten record in this season’s Champions League and the sense of destiny that seems to have attached itself to a club that was initially banned from this year’s competition by UEFA, there can be no denying that Chelsea have the players, coach and self-belief to win in Istanbul. Chelsea’s FA Cup semifinal victory against City last month was more one-sided than the 1-0 winning margin suggested and coach Thomas Tuchel will know he has devised a game-plan in a big game to beat Guardiola. City are vulnerable against teams who break quickly on the counter-attack and Chelsea have that quality in abundance. They also have a top-quality goalkeeper in Edouard Mendy, an outstanding midfielder in N’Golo Kante and the emerging talents of Mason Mount and Kai Havertz further forward. I just feel that Chelsea’s pace and energy in the attacking third will decide the final, so it will be Chelsea’s second Champions League crown to keep City waiting for their first.
Laurens: To start with, I think it will be a super tactical final, which often means quite defensive. However, we should see it differently. This is a tactical battle between two genius tacticians, where the positional game will be more important than anything else and where any little mistake could cost so much that you will play to make sure you don’t make any slip-ups. Indeed, both teams are so good at exploiting opposition errors, as we saw in the semifinals. That said, I think Chelsea will win it because their back five is perfect against the City attack. City, as we saw in the FA Cup semifinal, struggled to stop Chelsea’s build-up play from the back. Having Kante in his current form is like playing with 12 players. Tuchel is the first manager to reach the Champions League final two seasons in a row with two different clubs and this time, like for Thiago Silva, he will get to lift the trophy. Silva, by the way, never made it to the semifinals until he was 35, and will now play a second final in a row at 36! Incredible.
Who is your player of the knockout rounds?
Laurens: Phil Foden has been fantastic, especially at 20, and it’s a real shame Kylian Mbappe was not fully fit for the first leg of the semifinal and out for the second leg, but Riyad Mahrez was truly a clutch player and unstoppable at times during the knockout phase. However, there can only be one winner here and it’s Kante. He was exceptional both against Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, destroying both midfields on his own. His performances against Real, especially, were even more impressive when you take in consideration that he is currently fasting every day for Ramadan.
Marcotti: I feel like I should pick somebody who is playing in the final, so I’m going to pick Foden. It feels weird selecting an individual out of Manchester City when it’s so collectively based and, of course, Mahrez or Ruben Dias or Kevin De Bruyne would all be strong candidates too. But Foden hasn’t just played very well, he allowed City to come together and play a certain way.
Ogden: Foden. He is now unquestionably a first-team regular at the age of 20 and he has come of age in the Champions League, with his two goals in the quarterfinal against Borussia Dortmund underlining his ability to influence the biggest games. Mahrez, who scored three of City’s four goals in the semifinal win against PSG has also delivered when it matters most, while Christian Pulisic, Mount and Havertz have been outstanding for Chelsea. Honourable mention too for Jude Bellingham, whose performances for Borussia Dortmund at just 17 highlighted how he will become a huge figure in the game in the years ahead.
ESPN FC’s Craig Burley was very disappointed by Real Madrid’s display vs. Chelsea.
Which losing semifinalists have a bigger rebuilding job to reach next season’s final?
Ogden: Real Madrid. In many ways, it is a testament to the mentality within Zinedine Zidane’s squad that they even made it to the semifinals considering how old and tired they looked when being eliminated by City in last season’s round of 16. But Real are now a year older and in desperate need of new blood to replace ageing stars such as Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo. Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos, both in the mid-30s, still performed to high levels, but age is against them too. So Real have a major rebuilding job to do and money is tight at the Santiago Bernabeu. PSG also need to reshape their team, but they could still keep Mbappe and Neymar, and money is never a problem for them.
Laurens: It has to be Real Madrid. PSG have work to do and a lot will depend on whether Neymar and Mbappe sign contract extensions. But the rebuilding job at Real is huge and they have money issues amid the pandemic. They have relied a lot, too much, on Benzema who will be 34 in December, Ramos is close to leaving, Modric is 35, Raphael Varane wants to leave, Eden Hazard is struggling, Vinicius Junior is too inconsistent and overall there is a lack of talent and of depth in the squad. On top of all of that, it looks like Zinedine Zidane could leave in the summer, so they also need a new manager. Good luck, Florentino!
Marcotti: We don’t know what the transfer window is going to look like. But when you look at PSG, you have two superstars, four or five exceptional players and then, frankly, a bunch of interchangeable parts. So if they hang on to Mbappe and Neymar, it’s not much of a rebuild. I’ll pick Real Madrid simply because they’re all a year older. And this campaign has been all about five players – Thibaut Courtois, Benzema, Modric, Casemiro and Kroos. And we don’t know if Ramos is going to stay.
What one thing would you change about the Champions League?
Marcotti: I’d change the seeding system in the knockout rounds to make it meaningful. I’d let the top seed choose their opponents, and whether they want to play them home or away first. And then the second seed, and so on. It would add a layer of strategy (and some WWE-style bluster). And the reality is that some teams are better suited to playing at home first, while others might prefer to do it based on the fixture list. Why not let them choose?
Ogden: I would reduce the automatic slots for the top leagues from four clubs to three and ensure that the additional places go to the champions of less powerful nations. The only way to have depth of competition is by allowing great talent-producing countries such as Romania, Serbia, Poland and others to be able to keep their best young players with the promise of Champions League football. Steaua Bucharest (now known as FCSB and Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup in 1986 and 1991 respectively, so keep the path open for them to have the chance to challenge again.
Laurens: I would create a closed league with the 15 biggest and richest clubs in Europe who run the whole thing themselves … only kidding! If I could change one thing, I would scrap the away goals rule. I don’t like it, never have. UEFA can start by not counting away goals in extra time if it wants, but I think it should disappear completely.