Jude Bellingham makes history - and sends further message to Gareth Southgate; Manchester City pass character test; what now for Liverpool? plus: Chelsea get job done... and has Mauricio Pochettino found the perfect mix of skill and steel at PSG?
Thursday 15 April 2021 14:15, UK
"I'm not bad at football," 17-year-old Jude Bellingham replied, when asked if playing on the biggest stage was a pinch-yourself moment.
It might have sounded like the cocksure quip of a teenager but it was delivered with the sort of steel and self-assurance that pervaded the former Birmingham youngster's performances across both legs of a captivating Champions League tie between Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City.
Bellingham left the field on the losing side on Wednesday after tilting the last-eight decider in Borussia Dortmund's favour for 40 minutes, but this was another showcase of his winning credentials.
He had insisted his team-mates could overturn a slender deficit on home soil and he was the protagonist from the off, pressing at each opportunity, supporting attacks when the chance came.
There was a goal-line clearance celebrated lustily, a booking for a tug that prompted a brief howl of frustration before the focus returned. He wanted it and it showed, his legs carrying him further than any of his team-mates in the first half.
But it was his composure on the ball as the adrenaline coursed that caught the eye again; the ability to play a diagonal pass or a slide-rule one between the lines and, when the ball rolled loose to him on the edge of the area, the sureness of the touch out of his feet, before another sent the ball beyond the diving Ederson.
It was a moment for the record books; he is now the youngest English player to score in this competition.
Finding the right midfield blend appears to remain a puzzle for Gareth Southgate but Bellingham's box-to-box style feels more enthralling with each watch. Roy Keane was impressed enough to opine he had the look of a "complete midfielder" after a nerveless display against San Marino. Against far starrier opposition, Pep Guardiola was taken aback. "I cannot believe [he is only 17]. Maybe he is a liar! He is so good!"
Not bad at football is an understatement indeed.
Could Man City cope with the pressure of a Champions League quarter-final, knowing all that had gone before? The answer was a resounding yes. And, they did it the hard way.
Pep Guardiola is in the last four of a competition he once made his own. The last-eight hurdle with City has finally been cleared. For the club, too, this is a big achievement in the context of history as it is just the second time they have reached this stage of the competition, following the last-four appearance in 2016 under Manuel Pellegrini.
Guardiola and his players would have been forgiven for thinking a fourth straight quarter-final exit was on the cards. City allowed the first 15 minutes to drift by, something not advisable against a team like Dortmund who have fine players in the final third.
Bellingham is one of those. His opening goal was a thing of beauty after a nervy John Stones had been easily turned by Erling Haaland. And the City fans watching on from home - or in a pub garden - will have been rolling their eyes when Kevin De Bruyne rattled the bar just before the break.
Another one of those days?
No chance, said Phil Foden, playing without most of the scars his team-mates have suffered in this competition. It was his cross which tempted Emre Can to stick out an arm for the penalty and, of course, it was his rasping strike which gave City the two-goal breathing space.
He ran to his manager, who looked like a proud father during those celebrations. Guardiola is building a special side. And a side that can deliver when the chips are down. The Quadruple is on.
Liverpool exited the Champions League - but at least looking more like themselves.
"The performance in general was good, it was much better," said Klopp. "We didn't lose the tie tonight, we lost it in Madrid."
The challenge for them now, with a slimmed-down schedule containing only Premier League fixtures, is to continue in the same vein domestically.
Liverpool's title hopes are long over but a top-four finish is not out of reach. In fact, they are only three points behind fourth-placed West Ham with seven games still to play.
"I think the most important thing is that we concentrate on our level of performance," said James Milner. "If we perform with the intensity, desire and tempo that we played with tonight for the last league games then hopefully we can get into those top-four spots."
Their Premier League form bodes well. Liverpool have won three consecutive games in the competition - against Aston Villa, Arsenal and Wolves - for the first time since the opening weeks of the season and the opportunity is there to build momentum.
Their Monday Night Football meeting with Leeds - "leading-all-physical-stats-in-the-league Leeds," as Klopp called them in his post-match interview - will test their stamina following their European exertions.
But victory at Elland Road could close the gap further on the teams above them and five of Liverpool's final six games after that are against teams in the bottom half.
It is a kind run-in for a side targeting a strong finish and it is down to Liverpool to recover from their European disappointment and take advantage of it.
As a neutral, you would be forgiven if you were not too interested in Chelsea's second leg against Porto. There was some wild attacking football going on in Paris, after all, and even Thomas Tuchel recognised that this was not great for television viewing.
But this business-like Chelsea side showed they have professionalism to play two-legged European football, despite inexperience running throughout the squad. Chelsea's full-backs in Seville were 21-year-old Reece James and 24-year-old Ben Chilwell. Their front line of Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz and Mason Mount? Just 22, 21 and 22 respectively.
This is not the age or profile of players you would expect to be supremely disciplined, but Chelsea's youngsters resisted the urge to commit numbers forward, perhaps helped by an empty stadium.
Disregarding a quite sublime Mehdi Taremi overhead kick in the fourth minute of injury-time, this was nearly the perfect second-leg performance. That front three, attack-minded at their core, knew their role: slow down play, win fouls and fight hard.
Pulisic, in particular, was brilliant, and responsible for 11 of the 20 fouls won by Chelsea. It is not creativity. It is not silky play. It is certainly not glorious, unless you are Tuchel looking on. He barely had a touch in the Porto box. But it was so necessary to see Chelsea through, in a home game that felt like an away game, and shows that Tuchel's side have this chameleon-like ability to adapt to their surroundings.
Such is the nature of two-legged football, it will most probably be needed again.
It was hard to ignore any of the majestic PSG front three as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria were all full of invention and quality as Maurico Pochettino's side booked their spot in the last four. A 1-0 defeat on the night to Bayern Munich was still good enough to make it through having scored three goals in Germany. If Bayern had scored another to knock them out it would have been a huge injustice. Neymar struck the post and bar, while Mbappe's pace in behind Bayern's high line was at times frightening.
The most important part of the PSG performance was going the other way, though.
The key area where this game was won was the space in front of the PSG back four. Bayern - through Thomas Muller mostly - work that part of the pitch so cleverly, but there was no way through in this game. The PSG defence were protected expertly by Idrissa Gueye, who put in the performance of his life. He has taken his game to another level since his Everton days, judged on this performance. When he was required to snuff out danger, he was there. When he was required to cover one of his team-mates, he was there. For all their attacking talent, Gueye is perhaps their most important player in this style under Pochettino.
No player made more tackles than him on the night (six) as he was supported in the engine room by the classy Leandro Paredes, who sparked plenty of PSG counter-attacks with sublime passing into his front three.
PSG now seem to have the platform to support their array of attacking riches.
No Bayern Munich manager has ever posted a higher win percentage than Hansi Flick. Nope, not even Pep Guardiola.
Yet, the current boss could have just managed his last game in the Champions League for Bayern Munich having been knocked out by PSG.
Since taking over when the club were fourth in the Bundesliga in November 2019, everything Flick had previously touched has turned to silverware, winning the Treble in the form of the Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League. A 12th-straight Bundesliga title looks on the cards, too, with just six games remaining.
Yet, Flick's future is in serious doubt with the 56-year-old the strong favourite to replace the outgoing Joachim Low as Germany manager after the relationship with Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic became unworkable, according to reports in BILD.
RB Leipzig boss Julian Nagelsmann is reportedly the man to replace Flick, who has not exactly cooled talk of his impending departure. He said after the PSG defeat: "My family will always be completely behind me, no matter my decision. Regardless of whether everything is going well here or not, you always have to think."
First legs: April 27/28 | Second legs: May 4/5