Champions League semifinal preview: PSG, Neymar too good for Leipzig? Can Lyon stop mighty Bayern?
After a dizzying, dramatic slate of quarterfinals in Lisbon that saw last-second drama (PSG vs. Atalanta), historic scores (Bayern Munich 8, Barcelona 2) and a pair of serious updates (RB Leipzig over Atletico Madrid, Lyon knocking Man City out), we’re down to the final four in the UEFA Champions League. Two games pitting Ligue 1 sides against Bundesliga opposition are up next, as Lyon face Bayern and RB Leipzig look to end PSG’s date with destiny.
Which teams are likely to move onto the final? Which players could be decisive in either contest?
Here’s your preview for the semifinals.
RB LEIPZIG vs. PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN (Tues., 3 p.m. ET)
Master vs. Apprentice
When Julian Nagelsmann was forced into premature retirement as a young central defender at Augsburg in 2008, it was his then-coach Thomas Tuchel who nudged him down the coaching path. Under Tuchel, Nagelsmann (still on the Augsburg payroll) started scouting and then took his first steps into coaching as assistant with 1860 Munich U-17s. From there he joined Hoffenheim’s youth system, got the top job and is now in charge of Champions League semifinalists Leipzig. His trajectory has been rapid and impressive in equal measure.
A Nagelsmann side finds a way of punching above its weight, where the system draws together individual talent to create a collective stronger than the sum of its parts. Having dispatched Tottenham and then Atletico Madrid in the knockout stages, Nagelsmann’s Leipzig play without fear and even without Timo Werner — he joined Chelsea on July 1 — they are a formidable outfit. Nagelsmann, 33, will relish the chance to knock his previous boss out of the Champions League. “Games against him are always interesting, because he has a good idea of football,” Nagelsmann said of Tuchel last week.
“Of course I was his player, but that was a long time ago. Coaching’s my game now, just like it’s his.”
Steve Nicol and Don Hutchison heap praise on Dayot Upamecano’s stellar UCL performance vs. Atletico.
Naglesmann’s approach is all about transitions and the speed of turning defence into attack. Dayot Upamecano, their towering centre-back, was magnificent against Atletico Madrid and neutralized the threat of Diego Costa with ease. Upamecano will have his hands full trying to stop Neymar and Mauro Icardi.
– Hamilton: Adams the hero as Leipzig beat Atletico
With Werner at Chelsea, the pressure is on Leipzig’s forwards to deliver. Yussuf Poulsen will be their go-to striker, but Marcel Sabitzer is integral. The Austrian attacking midfielder has 16 goals and 11 assists to his name, and Leipzig will need him to be at his most creative vs. PSG.
Why they will win
Leipzig have a fearless mentality. In short, the bigger the opponent, the greater the opportunity. They are defensively solid and through the brilliance of Naglesmann’s tactical approach, can switch from a 3-4-3, to a 3-4-1-2 or a 4-2-3-1 in the blink of an eye. The players have an inherent understanding of their roles and are equally confident in moving out of position to plug gaps. They are so hard to break down, with Kevin Kampl integral to their system as he hovers in front of the back three snaffling out any potential attacking threats.
Why they will not win
They have one thing going against them, and it’s a big one: the absence of Werner. He scored 34 goals for them this season and was the heartbeat of their rapid attack. While they’ve already moved to sort that for next season with the signing of Hwang Hee-Chan from Salzburg, on Tuesday night they will need players to once again step out of the Werner shadows and embrace the spotlight. — Tom Hamilton
Frank Leboeuf says PSG have “many question marks” heading into their Champions League semifinal vs. RB Leipzig.
This is Neymar’s time to shine
When you think of the PSG version of Neymar in the Champions League, you think of inconsistency and an inability to deliver, having missed their last two exits from the competition due to injury. In the round of 16 against Dortmund, Neymar was equal parts brash and brilliant. Against Atalanta, he was wasteful in front of goal but never stopped trying to crack the Serie A side’s defenses. Apart from Lionel Messi, no one else can dribble past people like him and can own a game like he did against the Italians. He was the only creative touch against them. He was PSG’s attacking system alone.
The French champions relied on him against Dortmund in the last 16 and he delivered with two goals. They relied on him against Atalanta and he carried them, assisting the first goal and with a second assist on the second. They will rely on him again on Tuesday against RB Leipzig. Will he take them to the final? That’s why they signed him. That’s why he left Barcelona. He has two more games to get to the top of Europe, like in 2015 with Barca, but this time, he would be the main man doing it like he wanted it.
Neymar will of course be the leader, but Kylian Mbappé will be his faithful lieutenant, the duo resembling a footballing version of Batman and Robin. The French prodigy is back in the semifinal of the Champions League three years after reaching it with Monaco in 2017. At the time, he was 18 and had taken Europe both by storm and by surprise. This is a different, better KMB, and he is where we expect him to be. Like against Atalanta, his pace and his partnership with Neymar will cause havoc in the Leipzig defence..
Then there is Marquinhos, the best hybrid centre-back/holding midfielder in the world. No other player can do both jobs as well as him. He will be key for PSG once more, as he will have to protect his back four from the waves of Leipzig attacks as well as providing the right balance in transition for his team. At 26, he is also a real leader even if he doesn’t wear the armband; he told his teammates not to panic against Atalanta when they were 1-0 down and to not give up when the clock was ticking down.
Why PSG will win
The Parisians are giants both in terms of their star power and their financial might. They’re the haves against Leipzig’s have-nots, and they’re on a mission. Before the lockdown and before they faced Dortmund in the last 16 second-leg, with a 2-1 deficit to overturn, they made a pact as a group to go all the way. They believed this was their season, and they’re proving it so far.
Better yet, their individuals are in top form, unlike in previous seasons. Neymar, Mbappé, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva form a winning spine capable of carrying this team to the final. They have too much brilliance for Leipzig to combat, especially given Neymar’s form. That brilliance extends to the coaching battle: Tuchel knows Nagelsmann better than anyone else and he will be ready to win the tactical battle against him, especially to beat Leipzig’s press.
Julien Laurens and Gab Marcotti dive into Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s footballing journey and his goal for PSG.
Why PSG will not win
The expectations are massive. Having waited 25 years for this opportunity, not reaching the final four of the Champions League/European Cup since 1995, the pressure could be crippling. PSG don’t usually cope well with this kind of stress, having crashed out of this competition in the quarterfinals or earlier in each of the past seven attempts. Despite boasting the likes of Mbappe, Neymar, Edinson Cavani and even Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Champions League has been truly beyond their grasp.
The French champions are not used to facing a team like Leipzig that plays with so much energy, intensity and movement. It will be tough for them to keep up with all the runs from the wing backs, the forwards and the midfielders.
Based on the latest training sessions, it looks like Tuchel will revert to his favourite 4-4-2 formation for this game, which would be a mistake as it would play into Leipzig’s hands, especially in midfield where PSG risk to be totally outplayed. The other risk is that if things start going wrong and if Leipzig take the lead, Neymar or Mbappe will try to do their thing on their own and it will be totally counter-productive for the team. — Julien Laurens
If Leipzig can keep PSG’s attacking riches at bay, they will book their place in the Champions League final with a 2-1 victory. — Tom Hamilton
PSG is stronger individually but Leipzig is better collectively. However, in a game like this, I think individual talent will prevail. PSG will win 2-1. — Julien Laurens
OLYMPIQUE LYON vs. BAYERN MUNICH (Weds., 3 p.m. ET)
The secret to Lyon’s success: This was never on the cards. Never, at any point this season, did something about Lyon’s game make you think they would be on the verge of something so special in the Champions League. Yet, here they are. They managed to defy adversity and negativity all season, even weathering the premature end to the Ligue 1 season due to the coronavirus outbreak across the globe.
Coach Rudi Garcia and his players created a fantastic team spirit, a sense of togetherness and a mental strength that has taken them 90 minutes from the Champions League final. They also found the perfect tactical system for them — a 3-5-2 that suits most of their top players. In this formation, they’re hard to break down and hard to beat. They are solid in midfield, crowding out opponents, they’re disciplined in the tackle and they can play on the counterattack.
The FC crew debate if the better team won the Champions League tie between Man City and Lyon.
The other secret is the emergence of a remarkable midfield three. In Houssem Aouar, Lyon already had a gem on their hands. This could be his last game for the club if a bigger team comes for him this summer, but Aouar has been a wonderful technical leader. He is the total package: can create scoring chances, retain possession under pressure and advance with the ball through tackles even in his own half.
Next to him, Lyon have unearthed a real star in the making in Bruno Guimaraes. The Brazilian was already praised in his country, but quite unknown in Europe. Not any more, as the holding midfielder was superb against Juventus and Manchester City. The third and last musketeer in the Lyon midfield is the youngest and the new kid on the block, Maxence Caqueret, 20, who plays with the maturity of a 30-year-old. Everything is clean with him and he puts so much pressure on the opposition too.
In addition to the aforementioned Houssem Aouar, Bayern must heed the threat created by Memphis Depay, who arguably shouldn’t even be playing. When he injured his knee before Christmas, he and club officials thought that his season was over. On Wednesday, he will lead his team as the captain into one of the biggest games in Lyon’s history. He wants to make his second chance count.
Equally, this is a great opportunity for Depay to show how far he’s come since his disappointing spell at Manchester United. He was young then, and probably not ready after leaving PSV. At Lyon, he’s found himself again. Whether he plays at a false nine or a second striker, his influence on the team’s game is huge. He is the boss of this team, its guide and its soul. For Lyon to beat Bayern, they will need a great night from him and a great partnership with Karl Toko Ekambi, who complements him well up front with his runs.
Why Lyon will win
No one expected them to get this far, and they will keep doing what has worked so far against Juventus and City: defend deep with a back five and play on the counter. It should be effective if Bayern stick with their high line, giving Lyon opportunities and room to run in behind. There will be lots of space there for Depay, Toko Ekambi and the wing-backs to exploit. In midfield, the three young Lyonnais should cope with the pressure from Bayern’s midfield.
Why Lyon won’t win
Did you see what Bayern did to Barcelona? Make no mistake, Lyon are facing the favorites to win it all. There will be no shame in losing against a better side, one that has the experience in midfield to block Lyon’s trio. Stopping Alfonso Davies and Robert Lewandowski could also be very difficult and could cost them the game with an early goal. — Julien Laurens
Julien Laurens details how a coaching change transformed Bayern Munich earlier this season.
Is this Bayern’s trophy to lose?
Where do you go after you’ve already scored eight against Lionel Messi & Co.? That’s the challenge facing Bayern Munich: how to keep it going. Having secured a spot in Champions League immortality with that once-in-a-lifetime result, they know it’ll count for nothing unless they back it up with two more wins and the trophy.
Oliver Kahn, the great Bayern Munich goalkeeper, is now on their board and said recently that the club needs to win the Champions League “more often.” (Their last title: 2012-13, when they beat Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund 2-1.)
“I look at the future and it is not enough to win the Champions League title one time every 10 years,” he continued. Well, there’s the challenge to Hansi Flick’s side and a sign of their ambition. The Bundesliga title — as others like Maurizio Sarri at Juventus found after clinching Serie A — is no longer enough to satisfy the hunger of ambitious boardrooms. But this is now Bayern Munich’s Champions League to lose.
They have been magnificent all season, dominated the Bundesliga and far away lead the Champions League standings for expected goals, or xG (31.38), have averaged 4.3 goals per game and are second behind Manchester City for expected assists, or xA (19.67). They have incredible depth — just look at their bench against Barcelona, as they were able to bring on Kingsley Coman and Philippe Coutinho to strengthen their grip on the match — and the world’s best striker in Robert Lewandowski. Then they have unsung heroes like Joshua Kimmich, the box-office talent of Davies and the ever-calm Manuel Neuer between the posts.
You can pick anyone from Bayern’s remarkable squad, but it’s hard to look past their brilliant raumdeuter (or, literally, “space interpreter”) Thomas Muller. The attacking midfielder was out of the picture under previous manager Nico Kovac, but Flick’s introduction saw Muller return to centre stage and he has been outstanding for Bayern this season. He is their glue: always the link man in attack (he has registered 21 assists this term) and also chips in with his fair share of goals. He has a wonderfully unique style and the deftest touch on the ball; with freedom in attack, he’s so difficult to mark.
Alongside Müller, Bayern will also need David Alaba to be on form in the heart of their defence. The 28-year-old has formed an impressive partnership with Jerome Boateng, but will need to be on song to halt the likes of Depay and Moussa Dembele. He was vulnerable against Barcelona and though it didn’t cost Bayern in the end, he’ll need to rebound quickly for the challenge of Lyon.
Craig Burley says not even Lionel Messi can hold his head up after Bayern Munich’s emphatic 8-2 win over Barca.
Why Bayern will win
When you have Lewandowski in the team, you fancy your chances, but Bayern are far bigger than just one man. Their motto “Mia san Mia” roughly translates to “we are who we are” and is the lifeblood of their identity — everything flows through this, and they put so much emphasis on team harmony and a collective will. Flick manages the club through encouragement, rather than an authoritarian approach, and the players have responded.
Boateng, their veteran impressive centre-back, has previously spoken of how Flick has brought the fun back to Bayern and the players are clearly thriving. They dominated the Bundesliga, winning their eighth-straight title by 13 points, and have Champions League-winners in the squad in Müller, Neuer, Alaba and Boateng. In short, they know how to win.
Why Bayern won’t win
Lyon won’t be overawed by Bayern, after the French side polished off Man City, and will target the German champions’ centre-backs, looking to push and pull Boateng and Alaba out of position. Both defenders are vulnerable to pace given Bayern’s propensity to play a high line; if the likes of Davies and Kimmich are isolated upfield, there could be room for Depay & Co. to exploit. — Tom Hamilton
I think that Bayern will be too good for Lyon. I can see the Germans winning 3-1. — Julien Laurens
Bayern Munich will come through with a 4-2 victory, Lewandowski will score and Müller will have an outstanding game. — Tom Hamilton