With the help of football journalist Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed), we preview the semi-final match-ups and offer some sharp betting advice.

Semi-final showdown

The Champions League has reached the semi-final stage for 2021, and at a torrid time for European football.

The quarter-finals concluded only two weeks ago, yet since then the idea of a game-changing European Super League was launched, and immediately shouted down from all angles. 

Three of the ‘dirty dozen’ clubs involved in the proposal are still in the Champions League, so no doubt any neutral fans will be rooting for Paris Saint-Germain to lift the trophy as they were not one of the 12 teams in question. 

Mauricio Pochettino’s side are second-favourites to win the tournament (at odds of 3.52), but the one club ahead of them in the market (at 2.30) are their opponents at this stage, Manchester City.

Neither team has won the European Cup or Champions League before, whereas the clubs in the other semi-final have - although Real Madrid leads Chelsea in the title count 13-1.

The Spanish side have lifted ‘Old Big Ears’ four times since the Blues went all the way in 2012 too, so undoubtedly have the most pedigree in the competition among the four teams. However, the odds on both these teams to win now sit at 5.04.

History suggests they have an advantage in playing the first leg at home too. Between 2003/04 - when the Champions League adopted its current format - and 2018/19, there have been 32 semi-final ties, with only 12 won by the team who played away from home first. That said, in each of the last four of those seasons, one away side from the first leg did reach the final.

The contrasting goal records of the different sides could prove crucial too. All four teams have scored between 18 and 21 goals in their 10 matches in the competition this season, but the English clubs have each only conceded three times, while PSG and Real Madrid each have 11 in the goals against column.

There are clearly a lot of factors to try to account for, so let’s look at what we can expect from the two Champions League semi-finals for 2020/21.

Real Madrid v Chelsea

Where the other tie feels like it could turn into a festival of free-flowing football, this has the potential to be of greater interest to tactical purists. One for the legacy fans rather than the fans of the future, perhaps, to use the parlance of the European Super League.

Real Madrid reached this point by beating Atalanta home and away in the Last 16, before sinking Liverpool’s hopes in the first half of the first quarter-final leg and finishing the job by holding them at bay in a goalless draw at Anfield.

Chelsea’s passage to the last four has been equally smooth, the only blemish on their copybook a 93rd minute Porto goal in the second leg of the quarter-final which proved academic anyway. Aside from that, the Blues beat Atletico Madrid to nil home and away, then won 2-0 in Portugal. 

If we ignore some pre-season meetings in the International Champions Cup (which with hindsight is really starting to look like a dry run for the ESL) then these teams haven’t clashed since way back in 1998.

However, Blues boss Thomas Tuchel has faced off with Zinedine Zidane four times with other teams. Borussia Dortmund were drawn with Real in the group stage in 2016/17, before PSG were last season. The German’s record of a 3-0 win in Paris and a trio of 2-2 draws will give him confidence ahead of this clash.

And he’d no doubt take a draw in the first leg too if he could, as a home win usually results in qualification for the team in question. 

Chelsea have a good chance of leaving Spain all square, as they have shown remarkable defensive solidity since Tuchel was appointed - in a complete about-face from the Frank Lampard era - conceding just 0.6 expected goals (xG) per league match.

Semi-final first legs have traditionally been tight and tense affairs, which should also play into Chelsea’s hands. Since 2003/04, 27% of Last 16 and quarter-final ties have had one goal or fewer in the first match, compared to 47% at this stage. 

Expect Chelsea to earn a draw in a low scoring first leg, then get the job done at Stamford Bridge to reach their second Champions League final. 

Back the draw (3.21)
Total goals: Under 2.25 (1.80)
1st Half Exact Total Goals: 0 (2.47)

Tip to reach the final: Chelsea 

Paris Saint Germain v Manchester City

Having coped with the threat of one of Europe’s hotshot young strikers in the previous round, Manchester City will have to see off another if they are to qualify for the final in Istanbul.

To recap, after a pair of 2-0 wins over Borussia Monchengladbach, Pep Guardiola’s side then had 2-1 victories both home and away over Borussia Dortmund. What chance a 2-2 draw in both legs here?

While recent Champions League history suggests it’s unlikely, both sides look capable of scoring the goals required. After all, PSG beat Barcelona 4-1 and Bayern Munich 3-2 on their way to reaching this stage for a second successive season. 

But this tie is relatively uncharted territory for both teams in a couple of ways - it is the Parisiens’ first two-legged semi-final tie since 1995, and it is four years since they last played the opening match of a Champions League knockout tie at home.

On that occasion they beat Barcelona 4-0... only to lose 6-1 at the Nou Camp in the return match - so it’s doubtful they’ll need reminding of what took place.  

12 months earlier, they were knocked out by Man City in the last eight, as the Citizens reached their only previous Champions League semi-final. The first leg of that tie ended 2-2 in Paris, so all the omens appear to be pointing in that direction. 

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this match-up is trying to guess how Guardiola will approach it. His Bayern Munich side fell at the semi-final hurdle in all three of his seasons in charge, and each time they lost to nil away from home in the first leg. 

They arrive at this tie in arguably their worst form of the campaign too, having recently suffered losses to Leeds and Chelsea (in the FA Cup semi-final), and they only have two full days to prepare for the first leg following the Carabao Cup final with Tottenham - although they did lift that particular piece of silverware.

Considering all of that - plus the fact that Kylian Mbappe scored five goals across the first legs in the two previous rounds of the competition - means we are leaning towards a PSG win in the first leg.

But City will get chances. PSG have leaked a lot of expected goals this season (only 4.4 fewer than the other three teams combined), and they’ve only kept two clean sheets, while Real have four and the English teams seven apiece.  

PSG have also seen both teams score in seven of their 10 Champions League games this season, and this semi-final first leg should be another to add to the list. 

Pochettino oversaw City’s exit from Europe in 2019, and if his side can put in a strong performance on home turf then he should prove to be Guardiola’s nemesis once more. 

Back PSG for the win (3.23)
Total goals: Over 3 (alternative line 2.11)
Both Teams to Score: Yes (1.59)

Tip to reach the final: Paris Saint Germain

Apr 27, 2021

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