WE’VE all seen Champions League finals that just didn’t have it. Often the tension is too much, the temperature is too high, the fear of failure too palpable. This time three years ago we were about to witness two of the greatest Champions League semi-finals in the competition’s great history. Eventually, somehow, Liverpool and Tottenham made it through from almost impossible positions. The continent marvelled and frothed, and waited impatiently for the sort of final that would cap one of the European Cup’s finest editions.
We all remember how that turned out.
Some people saw it coming, versed in the cultural mores of a final between two clubs from the same domestic competition. Memories of the 2003 final between Juventus and Milan are hardwired into the continent’s collective mind, even if that game was probably better than you think it was. Even so, as with the 2008 final between Manchester United and Chelsea, it feels odd to see rivals with decades of battles and bad blood take that on to the continental battlefield, like cousins fighting on a beach and disrupting a wedding reception.
And with two Premier League vs La Liga semi-finals this season, there’s a strong possibility of a ninth single-country Champions League final (after 2000, 2003, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2019, 2021). Spot the recent trend? Yes, the continent probably isn’t averse to a Manchester City against Liverpool game this year, based on the vivid quality of matches between the clubs, but that – and the potential alternative, Real Madrid vs Villarreal – still won’t feel like the sort of stylistic discord thrown up by undoubted classic finals like 1999, 2005 and 2011.
Statistically, how much better are semi-finals than the overall tournament? If we look at the last four seasons, stretching back to 2017-18 when Bayern and Real Madrid shared seven goals while Liverpool and Roma combined for a barely credible 13 across two games, then the evidence is clear.
The 2018 semi-finals had an xG per game of 4.4 compared to 3.1 for the season overall, while there were an additional five shots per game.
The 2019 semi-finals had an xG of 4.0 per game compared to 3.1 for the season overall.
Even the 2020 semi-finals, single games played in Portugal in a competition-completing mini-tournament in August after the continent’s first year of the coronavirus, saw 4.6 xG per game compared to 3.5 overall. And that was after Barcelona had been beaten 8-2 by eventual winners Bayern in the quarter-finals.
Last season’s semi-finals were about par for the year as Manchester City and Chelsea followed up strong away performances in the first leg with relatively controlled 2-0 wins in the second leg. Even so, if we can accept that the Champions League semi-finals produce the drama that makes a dead rubber game in matchday six of the group stage worthwhile, where is that drama coming from this season?
Manchester City against Real Madrid will surely revolve around whether Pep Guardiola’s team can do what PSG and Chelsea couldn’t and control Karim Benzema across two games. Currently Benzema is on course to set a new Champions League record for expected goals overperformance. He is +5.54 above xG so far this season, with Lionel Messi’s +5.53 in 2018-19 the current record, narrowly ahead of Serge Gnabry’s +5.27 in 2019-20. Good players will outperform the industry standard, but City have conceded only 16.9 open play xG in the Premier League this season. It’s system against veteran genius.
In the other tie Liverpool are strong favourites to beat Villarreal but so have many other sides and look how those turned out. Liverpool will go level with Milan on 10 progressions from 12 European Cup semis if they do make it, but Villareal manager Unai Emery has progressed from 84% of his UEFA Europa League/Champions League knockout ties (31/37), the second-best ratio of any manager to have taken charge of at least 10, after only Zinedine Zidane (88%). Emery ended his time managing in England unfairly maligned as a figure of fun but has built this side to be able to stay in games and wipe the smiles off bigger boys.
Villarreal’s biggest xG gap (positive or negative) in any of their 10 Champions League games this season is a +1.24 against Manchester United, a game they lost in an incredibly unfortunate manner when Cristiano Ronaldo scored a 95th minute winner. If their one weakness is being unlucky in north west England to a team who play in red then I have some bad news for their fans, but then again this is a side who restricted Bayern Munich to 3.01 xG across 180 minutes. Chuck this Villarreal team into the Champions League semis and it’s surprise times surprise. Surprise squared. Just how we like it.