All drama, half heartbreak: Champions League turns to semifinals

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One man’s Cinderella is another man’s heartache. If there’s one thing the Champions League quarterfinals had plenty of, it was drama. Late goals, epic blowouts and iconic comebacks all shook Lisbon as a pair of French teams and a pair of German teams made the last four.

Quarterfinal recaps

Paris Saint-Germain 2, Atalanta 1

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen: Ask Mr. Google for the definition of heartbreak and you’ll likely find a photo of Atalanta, which was mere minutes away from a colossal upset before successive goals from the French champions turned the match on its head.

Paris Saint-Germain, or PSG, was a hobbled giant, missing multiple key starters, including an injured Kylian Mbappé, who started the game on the bench. Atalanta was a machine gun-toting Cinderella and entered in full attack mode, despite the loss of talismanic striker Josip Iličić. The French side was isolated early, its wide formation unable to keep up with Atalanta’s fluid attack and defense. Atalanta’s Mario Pašalić made that superiority decisive with a curling strike in the first half.

PSG brought Mbappé on midway through the second period, and he galvanized his side even as Atalanta doggedly held onto a 1-0 lead for all 90 minutes. But the Italians were unable to finish. Neymar and Mbappé worked together to set up Marquinhos and unlikely hero Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for two stoppage time goals, which kept PSG’s dream of European glory alive.

RB Leipzig 2, Atlético Madrid 1

Chanun Ong: Prior to this year’s campaign, RB Leipzig had never escaped the group stages of the Champions League. Meanwhile, Atlético had reached the final twice in the past seven years. The vivacious team-based attack of young Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann faced its biggest test yet against Atleti boss Diego Simeone’s hard-nosed defensive style.

Ultimately, the Colchoneros cracked first. Leipzig’s Dani Olmo buried a header past Jan Oblak to fire the newcomers into the lead early in the second half. Atlético would respond by subbing on the 126 million euro wunderkind João Félix, who would win and convert a 70th-minute penalty. With two minutes to go and the game deadlocked at 1-1, Leipzig broke through again to crush Atlético’s hopes. Oblak initially had Tyler Adams’ shot covered, but a brutal deflection off of Stefan Savić sent the ball floating into the net.

It was a heartbreaking way to crash out of the Champions League, but Atlético must harness its offensive potential if it plans to be a European force once again. 

Bayern Munich 8, Barcelona 2 

CO: The end of the Barcelona era was supposed to go like this: Under the lights at the Camp Nou, Lionel Messi plays his final game. The fans hold up a banner to bid him farewell — the words “Gràcies Leo” above the ageless image of the man himself, pointing two fingers to the sky in his trademark goal celebration. Cut to Luis Suárez in the stands, clapping with tears in his eyes.

In reality, Barcelona’s demise has been premature and quite gruesome. A blown lead in the La Liga title race and the sale of 24-year-old midfielder Arthur Melo to Juventus put the Catalans on fragile footing with supporters heading into the Champions League. Even after the brilliance of Messi pushed it past Napoli, Barça was considered a heavy underdog against Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich.

Still, no one expected a match with shades of Germany vs. Brazil — a loss so embarrassing that it might be forever associated with a team’s identity. To rub salt in the wound, Barcelona outcast Philippe Coutinho scored two of the Bavarians’ eight goals. A sweet strike from Suárez and two chances for Messi were the only positives, but Barça’s soul had left its body well before Joshua Kimmich tapped in Bayern’s fifth.

There is so much for Barcelona to do, and it has already taken the first step by sacking manager Quique Setién. Dealing with the aftermath of nonsensical and expensive transfers, however, is a far more difficult problem to solve. 

Lyon 3, Manchester City 1

Spencer Golanka: Manchester City has to take a long look in the mirror after an abysmal loss to the seventh-best team in France, Lyon. Since 2016, City has spent $943 million on its squad, but it has yet to reach the UCL quarterfinals. Coming off a massive victory over Real Madrid in the round of 16, the Citizens were first in line to the semifinals given their opposition. Instead, they came out of the gates sluggish, disoriented and devoid of purpose.

City was tactically outclassed by Lyon, which was stout in defense and deadly in attack. The dagger came out of nowhere in the 79th minute from Moussa Dembélé’s side-footed strike, putting OL in the driver’s seat at 2-1. City was unable to find an equalizer after Raheem Sterling’s career-defining bottle job just a few feet from an open net.

Lyon is playing with house money now, reaching its first Champions League semifinal since 2010. Manchester City, much like Barcelona, is in crisis mode.

Semifinal previews and predictions

PSG vs. RB Leipzig

JKS: Whether you love them as exciting new blood or hate them as sponsored new money, PSG and RB Leipzig are undeniably upstarts in European competition. The winner of this match will be a first-time finalist. The new kids are truly in town, but only one team can stay in Lisbon.

PSG will bring many key players back into its starting lineup. Mbappé’s critical quarterfinal cameo indicated that he is close to healthy, and Ángel Di María has served his suspension. But the French champions are not without their losses, as goalie Keylor Navas injured his hamstring their prior match.

Leipzig has a more complete team in both fitness and play. Its reliance on unselfishness and teamwork under Nagelsmann casts it in opposition to PSG’s superstar-centered approach. The key to the match may be formations. Atalanta stifled PSG for most of the game using a back three, but once Mbappé entered the game, he and Neymar were able to successfully overrun their quarterfinal opponents. Leipzig center back Dayot Upamecano is both fast and aggressive, but can he handle both superstars at once if Mbappé starts? The match’s result may depend on the answer to that question, but if Upamecano is up to the task, PSG’s midfield could be outnumbered when Neymar or Mbappé fail to drop back.

SG: 3-2, PSG

CO: 2-1, PSG

JKS: 1-0, RB Leipzig

Bayern Munich vs. Lyon

SG: It’d be too easy to write off Lyon in this tie. The team has earned its place in this tournament, outlasting two of the biggest spenders in Europe over the last few seasons and taking advantage of the special circumstances this season’s tournament provides. It has squad players rising to the occasion, including Dembélé, who shined against Manchester City, accompanying veterans such as Memphis Depay, who can threaten his goal-scoring ability against any defense in the world.

That being said, Bayern Munich has more experience, technical ability and attacking threat than Lyon does. As were Juventus and Manchester City, Bayern will be the overwhelming favorite to reach the final. The usual suspects of Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski will be ready to wreak havoc, and young gun Alphonso Davies is emerging as one of the top players in the world.

Bayern has enough defensive reinforcements to quell whatever Lyon throws at it, but in this tournament, anything can happen.

SG: 2-1, Lyon

CO: 3-0, Bayern Munich

JKS: 3-1, Bayern Munich

Who is the most exciting player in the semifinals?

SG: Bayern Munich left back Davies. Breaking the ankles of Europe’s formidable defenders, the former Vancouver Whitecap has emerged as one of the quickest, most feared players in the tournament. Lyon will have its hands full, to say the least.

CO: Neymar had everything but the final touch against Atalanta. The Brazilian could not find the net despite multiple opportunities, including an uncharacteristic miss after being one-on-one with goalkeeper Marco Sportiello. Still, a series of inspirational dribbles and passes from the ex-Barcelona talisman ran a tiring Atalanta defense into the ground. He’s come a long way from his days alongside Messi, but this moment is exactly why he left the Camp Nou — Neymar has a shot to lead a team of his own to a European title. He’ll be one to watch as PSG takes on a scrappy RB Leipzig.

JKS: Upamecano put in a massive performance in the quarterfinals. The French center back was a giant — both metaphorically and literally — in Leipzig’s clash against Atlético Madrid, showing fearlessness in the air and a shrewd tackling ability to deny Los Rojiblancos space and possession on the front foot. It’s not traditionally exciting, but Upamecano’s positioning and tackling will be a key against the talented PSG front line, which brings an element of speed to a game that can challenge the Frenchman. His battles against Neymar and Mbappé will be worthy of attention.

Who’s going to win it all?

SG: Lyon.

CO: My brain says Bayern Munich, but a collapse from the German champions right now would be historic and massively entertaining. 

JKS: Writing anything but Bayern Munich feels like sheer folly. The Bundesliga champions have outscored opponents 12-3 since the tournament’s restart. Another Champions League trophy feels inevitable.

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