Predicting the Champions League Quarter-finals
Two English sides are in a good spot, one is not. One Spanish side is in a good spot, one is not, and one wishes the Champions League quarter-finals were a single leg like in 2020 (but even then Bayern scored eight). Here are the predictions, rankings and a few deeper numbers to consider for the second legs of each tie.
Bayern Munich (0-1) Villarreal
Global rankings: Bayern Munich 2nd, Villarreal 19th
Chances of advancing: Bayern Munich 66.3%, Villarreal 33.7%
Chances of winning the Champions League: Bayern Munich 10.9%, Villarreal 1.4%
One more number: 0.07
It’s the tie that feels the least decided, and the numbers back that up with Villarreal having a one-in-three chance of surviving a seemingly inevitable barrage in Munich. But even typing that feels a little fraudulent because it’s also the tie in which you wonder if the visiting one-goal leaders witnessed what happened to RB Salzburg. Granted, the last 16 matchup between Salzburg and Bayern was 1-1 after the away leg in Austria, but it ended 8-2, Robert Lewandowski had bagged a hat-trick by the 23rd minute of the second leg, and it was 4-0 by the 31st. Scoresheet carnage.
But Villarreal and Salzburg are not the same. Last week before the first leg, we discussed shot quality. Villarreal’s xG per shot was the highest in the competition. It turns out they can also be fantastic in limiting the quality of the individual chances of their opponents. That was particularly true against Bayern in the first leg. Of Bayern’s nine matches, their 0.07 xG per shot against Villarreal is the lowest, and only Real Madrid have a lower xG/shot conceded for the competition. Four of Bayern’s 22 shots in the match were on target for their lowest on target total or rate so far in this season’s Champions League. Entering the game, the Bavarians were averaging 2.96 xG per match in the competition. They got halfway there against the Yellow Submarine, but not much beyond:
Bayern have been dominant, but they haven’t exactly had a difficult path to this point. In group, recall, it was a then-directionless Barcelona side, Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv. The Round of 16 was against a team that had never been to that stage. Even if they get by Villarreal, might that lack of competition domestically and thus far in UCL catch up with them?
Lack of competition is not a problem in the next tie between the current European champions and the all-time European champions.
Real Madrid (3-1) Chelsea
Global rankings: Real Madrid 4th, Chelsea 5th
Chances of advancing: Real Madrid 87.3%, Chelsea 12.7%
Chances of winning the Champions League: Real Madrid 11.1%, Chelsea 1.6%
One more number: 3.7
We wrote before the first legs about Bayern’s paltry xG against in the competition. Among remaining teams, Real Madrid have joined them for the fewest goals against. Both have conceded six in nine games, but they’ve done it differently. Bayern have done it by limiting chances. Real have done it with the added element of strong goalkeeping. Thibaut Courtois had that signature save last week, but he’s also prevented 3.7 goals based on his expected goals on target conceded. That’s second most in the competition (including penalties) behind Benfica’s Odysseas Vlachodimos.
Combine that with Karim Benzema overperforming his xG by a competition-best 5.13 goals (11 goals from 5.87 xG), and you can begin to understand why a team that’s been underwhelming in their title run-in in Spain is almost certainly going to be in the Champions League semi-finals. Now, will that over performance be sustainable beyond the quarter-finals? Perhaps not, but that’s not all they’ve got going for them. Vinícius Júnior has been one of the competition’s most impactful players, and the team has shown some versatility in terms of tactics.
Last week, we wrote about the two different approaches we saw from Real in their last 16 tie with Paris Saint-Germain. We talked about it as if it were an all-or-nothing approach in terms of whether Real might choose to be aggressive with Chelsea the way they were in the second leg of the last 16. Turns out Carlo Ancelotti got the best of both worlds – in part thanks to a terrible Chelsea error and in part thanks to the luxury of being 2-0 up by the 24th minute. As may have been expected at Stamford Bridge, Los Blancos hardly pressed, with a matchweek-low five pressed sequences (Bayern had 29, Liverpool 26), but they did manage three high turnovers from that and did (technically) score from that press. They’re now in a situation where they absolutely don’t have to, but they also know very well 3-1 is far from untouchable – that’s why they’re here after overcoming a two-goal deficit to PSG, and they did it with far less than 90 minutes to make it up.
There’s pressing to score, which Real have done very well with four such goals in nine UCL matches, and then there’s pressing to just make life miserable and nervy for your opponents and, sure, scoring would be nice but isn’t absolutely imperative. That was Manchester City last week.
Atlético Madrid (0-1) Manchester City
Global rankings: Atlético Madrid 10th, Manchester City 1st
Chances of advancing: Atlético Madrid 11.7%, Manchester City 88.3%
Chances of winning the Champions League: Atlético Madrid 1.3%, Manchester City 41.7%
One more number: 34.8
Last week we noted these sides had the most contrast in styles among the remaining ties, and that showed in the first leg. But after watching that game, the word style doesn’t really do the distinction justice. It’s also philosophy, individual playmaking, and quality on the ball from a team perspective. That doesn’t get into where they prioritise winning the ball. City had 11 high turnovers on 16 pressed sequences. Those aren’t massive numbers, but they do suggest a blueprint of sorts. None of those resulted in shots, but they didn’t need to. It had the effect we talked about before last week of pinning Atlético back and essentially making it impossible for them to attack even if they’d thought it wise, which, to be fair, they almost certainly didn’t.
We referenced the starting point of Atléti’s sequences against Liverpool back in November being 34.9 metres from their own goal. At the Etihad, Simeone’s side averaged 34.8m. For context, Benfica – next worst last week – averaged a full 4m more advanced than that in the starting point of their sequences against Liverpool. For Atlético, it’s just too deep to create anything, and their combined xG in their losses to Liverpool and Man City is 0.25.
Recall Atlético have been up against it not just in the knockout stages but back on MD6 of group when they beat Porto 3-1 away. That required a couple of Porto reds and a couple of 90+ minute goals, but who are we to say what qualifies as tactics these days? If there’s a fine line between a match devolving into humiliation and a masterclass, we haven’t yet found where to put it on a graphic.
Liverpool (3-1) Benfica
Global rankings: Liverpool 3rd, Benfica 28th
Chances of advancing: Liverpool 98.8%, Benfica 1.2%
Chances of winning the Champions League: Liverpool 31.9%, Benfica 0.1%
One more number: 2.21
We started with the tie that feels least decided and we’ll end with the one that feels most decided. This isn’t going to be complicated: It doesn’t seem like Benfica can play with Liverpool. More specifically, it doesn’t seem like Benfica can defend Liverpool, and we’re not basing this just on 90 minutes against Liverpool. Benfica were shredded by Bayern in the group stage to the tune of 8.08 expected goals in two matches, and that’s just about what we saw from the Reds last week (3.86). Nélson Veríssimo’s team’s 2.21 xG against per match is more in line with Malmö and Sheriff Tiraspol than it is with anyone left in the competition:
If that changes drastically and Benfica are able to win by at least two goals and advance, we may just be able to write straight-faced about a masterclass next week.
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