CL hits and misses: This time feels different for Man City

Is this finally Man City’s treble-winning season?

“It’s looking ominous. They’re very close to it. Far too close for comfort,” said a concerned Gary Neville at the weekend.

Manchester City have been here before. It’s not the first time they’ve had a realistic chance of winning the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup in the same season. And under Pep Guardiola, it’s usually the norm at this time of year.

Of course, the Champions League is the one piece of silverware that always seems to slip away. This season, though, it feels different.

City have the luxury of being able to call upon the ruthless Erling Haaland, who took his tally to a staggering 48 goals this term when he scored against Bayern Munich on Wednesday. That, as well as going 15 games unbeaten in all competitions, suggests Neville is right to be worried.

“They’re purring now and are serious about it,” the Sky Sports pundit added. Guardiola’s men are on the charge and mean business.

Real Madrid – City’s semi-final conquerors last season – could well end their dream again. AC Milan or Inter Milan could also prevent them from finally winning Europe’s elite club competition. But with Arsenal showing signs of faltering in the Premier League title race and Sheffield United up next in the FA Cup semi-finals, winning all three major honours is looking increasingly possible.

They’ve completed the domestic treble before, but this one is considered the best. Manchester United are the only English side to have managed it, but there’s every chance City will emulate their rivals this year. There’s no better team in Europe right now.
Dan Sansom

Another record tumbles for Haaland

Haaland
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Erling Haaland reached 35 Champions League goals

Haaland has scored 35 goals in only 27 Champions League appearances. Just let that sink in. He’s only 22. Players like him should still be learning about the game. He’s almost completed it, mate.

He’s got to 35 goals in this competition faster than anyone else. Ruud van Nistelrooy got there in 42 games, it took Lionel Messi 36 games, Kylian Mbappe 37 and Cristiano Ronaldo took 56 matches.

Haaland’s goal in Munich means he’s also the youngest player to score 35 Champions League goals, surpassing Mbappe’s age of 23 years and 260 days.

Haaland means Manchester City can win by other means now – not just strangling teams with possession. That was epitomised by his goal where he played on the shoulder, just waiting for City to break past the Munich press and release him one-on-one with Dayot Upamecano, who had already survived a red card for hauling down Haaland as the last man but the offside flag spared him.

For the goal, Upamecano was left on his backside by the full force of Haaland’s pace and power. City no longer have to play 20 passes to create a chance. One pass – usually to Haaland – is all it takes.
Lewis Jones

Ludicrous handballs make a mockery of the Champions League

Dayot Upamencano protests against the handball
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Dayot Upamecano protests against the decision to penalise him for handball

Handballs have been a hot topic, but Manchester City’s Champions League quarter-final second leg at Bayern Munich surely claimed this season’s title for the most farcical spot-kicks awarded in one game.

The first penalty, awarded to City after Dayot Upamecano’s elbow brushed against Ilkay Gundogan’s shot from the edge of the area, seemed to catch everyone but referee Clement Turpin by surprise.

The confusion among fans and players was understandable, with Upamecano forgiven if he hadn’t even realised his error, so minimal was the contact.

Haaland’s ballooned penalty ensured justice was delivered, but Turpin was at it again in the second half, awarding Bayern a penalty of their own following a visit to the monitor after Manuel Akanji’s arm blocked Sadio Mane’s cross from all of two yards.

It begs the question of what exactly defenders are supposed to do in these situations. Their job requires them to move towards the ball in an effort to prevent their opponents from scoring, and asking them to do so with their arms pinned behind their back provides an unhealthy advantage to the opposition forwards.

Tuchel
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Thomas Tuchel watches from the stands having been sent off

The reaction of the two managers summed up the situation, with Tuchel appearing surprised to see Bayern awarded their spot-kick, while Guardiola told BT Sport after the game that “nobody complained” after Akanji blocked Mane’s cross.

It must be pointed out that Turpin was only doing as instructed. IFAB rules say a player has committed a handball if they use their arm to make their body unnaturally bigger. Given Upamecano and Akanji both had their arms away from their bodies, this applied in each case.

However, IFAB says referees should be focusing on players making a “deliberate action” to use their arm to block the ball and that the proximity of the offending player should be taken into account. This explains why some defenders who inadvertently commit a handball in the area are not penalised in the Premier League.

However, UEFA has instructed officials to apply the criteria in a stricter manner in its competitions, which is why farcical decisions such as the ones witnessed in the Allianz Arena now litter the Champions League.

Fortunately for everyone involved, those decisions didn’t dramatically change the tie, but the interpretation of the rules in the Champions League needs to become far less draconian – ideally before another ludicrous handball call really does unfairly alter the outcome of the competition.
Joe Shread

Why did Lampard play so safe?

Chelsea
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Mykhailo Mudryk, Raheem Sterling and Joao Felix were only brought on when 3-0 down on aggregate

The sight of Mykhailo Mudryk, Raheem Sterling and Joao Felix all being readied to come off the bench with Chelsea 3-0 down on aggregate with only 20 minutes left made for a strange picture.

Frank Lampard went bold with his team selection – not in terms of tactics but certainly in terms of the surprise factor.

Many will argue his decision to select a more defensive-minded side, full of legs in midfield, presented Chelsea with a way into the match. They were ahead on the scorecards but couldn’t deliver the knockout punch – but that’s what you get when selecting N’Golo Kante in an advanced role.

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Sky Sports News’ Gary Cotterill and Nick Wright give their full-time analysis of Chelsea’s 4-0 aggregate defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final, and ask: can anyone make these players gel together?

You get so much out of him but two poor finishes when well placed – one in each half – cost Chelsea a chance to really put the wobbles up Madrid. The starting XI had only scored 17 goals between them this season – and it showed at key moments with Marc Cucurella and Kai Havertz also failing to truly test Thibaut Courtois with any serious work. So many shots. So many straight at the goalkeeper.

Should Lampard have rolled the dice sooner with the game still in reach for Chelsea? It’s a question that may haunt him for a while. It’s now 15 losses in his last 18 games as a manager. His stock has never been lower.
Lewis Jones

Chelsea could do with a Giroud!

AC Milan last reached a Champions League semi-final in 2007. Olivier Giroud was 19-years-old then and certainly hasn’t lost that spark he had in those teenage days.

The French forward, who turns 37 in five months, is now in his best Champions League run. His crucial goal in Naples to send Milan into the last four was his seventh goal contribution in the competition this term – a personal best.

Milan's Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring their side's winner against Napoli
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Milan’s Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring their side’s winner against Napoli

Normally when you set new records in your late 30s, they are age-related. But Giroud is the gift that keeps on giving, ageing like a fine wine, etc etc. We’ve heard it all before, but that makes the forward’s time at this level all the more remarkable.

Perhaps English football cast off Giroud too soon. The former Arsenal and Chelsea striker was often used as a scapegoat but is now adding a Champions League semi-final appearance to his World Cup final outing in terms of season highlights.

The fact he is helping to find the net in Europe makes him not the worst option for Chelsea. Are you watching Mr Boehly?
Sam Blitz

Leao upstages ‘Kvaradona’

On the night it was meant to be about Kvicha ‘Kvaradona’ Kvaratskhelia – yet another winger rose to the mark on Tuesday night.

The Georgian winger has got Napoli and European football fans off their seats this season, but the home fans had their hands on their head as Rafael Leao put in one of the assists of the season.

Picking up the ball in his own half, the AC Milan winger ignored everything in his path. The Napoli defender, the noise from the fans, the demands from his team-mates to pass.

Rafael Leao put in one of the assists of the season in Milan's win over Napoli
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Rafael Leao put in one of the assists of the season in Milan’s win over Napoli

One defender beaten, a second jinked past and a swift touch to take it past the last opponent in his path. Then, the unselfish awareness to square for Olivier Giroud instead of risking his hard work with a tricky finish.

Leao showed glimpses of his talent in last year’s World Cup but failed to shine brightly in Qatar. Now he has Europe’s attention as he tries to lead Milan’s bid for a first Champions League title in 16 years.

But there will likely be suitors, potentially from the biggest Premier League clubs, in the summer as well. With one year left on his contract and dwindling negotiations with Milan of late, the 23-year-old’s future will be one hot topic in the summer.
Sam Blitz

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