The most boring knockout stage ever?! Winners and losers of the Champions League quarter-finals
The line-up for the semi-finals of the Champions League has been confirmed. Manchester City will meet Real Madrid in the last four for the second consecutive season, while the other game will be an all-Italian affair, with Inter taking on AC Milan.
Neutrals will be hoping that the two ties provide some serious excitement, given the quarter-final second legs were largely devoid of any real jeopardy.
There were, at least, numerous talking points.
GOAL runs through the winners and losers from the last eight...
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WINNER: Julian Nagelsmann
Julian Nagelsmann's name was trending on Twitter on Wednesday night, with football fans asking the inevitable question: did Bayern Munich make a huge mistake sacking their manager during the last international break.
The team's form had been patchy, but only in the Bundesliga. Bayern had a perfect record in this season's Champions League, making it eight wins from eight games by beating Paris Saint-Germain home and away in the last 16.
Then, the Bavarians sensationally decided to axe Nagelsmann and promptly replace him with long-term target Thomas Tuchel, before the latter accepted an offer from PSG, Real Madrid or even Tottenham.
Was that the right decision? It's far too early to tell. But it certainly did nothing to boost their chances of winning the Champions League, with Bayern losing 4-1 on aggregate to Manchester City, and if Tuchel fails to lead Bayern to the Bundesliga title, you can be sure that Nagelsmann's name will start trending again on Twitter...
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LOSER: Chelsea's idiotic owners
An understandably despondent Didier Drogba admitted after Chelsea's inevitable Champions League exit that he no longer recognised his club. The Ivorian icon lamented the loss of a "certain class" that he claimed was present during the Roman Abramovich era, which was obviously ludicrous, given the source of the Russian's wealth and the way in which the club treated its employees.
However, Drogba was 100 percent correct when he pointed out that while the new owners are proving just as ruthless when it comes to hiring and firing managers (they're already on their fourth coach of the current campaign) and spending as much money on as players as the previous regime, the choices being made are nowhere near as "intelligent".
To date, we have seen absolutely no method to the madness that has been unfolding at Stamford Bridge since last summer. More than £600 million ($750m) has been spent on players and yet former midfielder Gus Poyet quite rightly asked after yet another toothless display against Real Madrid on Tuesday night, "Where is the striker?!"
Todd Boehly & Co. haven't strengthened Chelsea's squad at all - they've merely enlarged it, as a visibly bewildered Thiago Silva pointed out after the 4-0 aggregate loss to Madrid.
"I think the first step has been made. An incorrect step, but it has been made," the Brazilian told TNT Sports. "It’s a hard period for the club, with a lot of indecision. Change of ownership, new players arriving - we had to increase the size of the changing room because it didn’t fit the size of the squad.
"A positive point is that there are amazing players in the squad, but on the other hand there are always players that are going to be unhappy. There is always going to be someone upset because not everyone can play. The manager can only pick 11 from a squad of 30-something – that’s tough.
"Some can’t make the squad, we signed eight in January, we need to stop and put a strategy in place otherwise next season we could make the same mistakes."
Based on what we've seen so far, though, does anyone really believe that the new owners will suddenly start making sensible decisions? Interim boss Frank Lampard insists that Chelsea will be back soon, but that looks like wishful thinking.
It really could be some time before we see the Blues in the Champions League again.
WINNER: The city of Milan
It's on! We're going to have a Derby della Madonnina in the Champions League for just the third time in history, with Inter having finished the job against Benfica to set up a semi-final against city rivals Milan, who upset Napoli in the last eight.
The Rossoneri prevailed in their previous two European encounters, in 2003 and 2005, and will be the slight favourites to progress this time around too.
Inter have won two of their three meetings this season, though, and, in truth, there is very little to choose between two teams that have proven maddeningly inconsistent over the past few months.
Indeed, both sides are in very real danger of failing to qualify for next season's Champions League, with Milan and Inter sitting fourth and fifth in Serie A, respectively. They could both even drop a place if Juventus' points deduction is overturned on Thursday.
In that context, then, it would actually be hard to make a case for either Milan club really being one of the top four teams in Europe at the minute. However, both have taken full advantage of being placed on the right side of the Champions League draw and now have an golden opportunity to become Italy's first finalist since Juventus in 2017.
And besides, just think of what a spectacle this semi-final showdown at San Siro is going to be! Obviously, nobody wants a repeat of the stupid behaviour that forced the abandonment of their quarter-final clash in 2005, but the choreography alone should make this a Milan derby to remember for all the right reasons.
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LOSER: Lampard's job prospects
Frank Lampard isn't responsible for the mess Chelsea currently find themselves in. Far from it. And he's not responsible for the stupidity of his employers.
The ridiculous decision to bring him back as interim boss is on them. Lampard can't be criticised for the incredible opportunity to manage a team still participating in the Champions League - despite the fact that his previous spell in charge was an unmitigated disaster.
However, his ill-advised return is doing absolutely nothing to restore his reputation. On the contrary, Lampard is looking even more out of his depth this time around.
He has overseen four matches since replacing Graham Potter on a temporary basis - and Chelsea have lost every single one of them (their worst run since 1993), scoring just one goal in the process.
Whatever chance Lampard had of extending his stay at Stamford Bridge is already over. Worse still, he's irreparably damaged his hopes of securing another Premier League job this summer.
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WINNER: Leao's bargaining position
Rafael Leao's genuinely awesome assist for Olivier Giroud's opener against Napoli reminded us of two things: firstly, Ruud Gullit's run against the same side at the same stadium in 1988; and secondly, that Milan need to tie him down to a new contract as soon as possible.
The renewal talks have dragged on for far too long already and there is now just over a year left on his current deal, meaning the Rossoneri are in a rather perilous position. Unless he signs a contract extension, Milan will have to seriously considering selling the winger this summer to avoid the nightmare scenario of losing him for nothing in 2024.
The Rossoneri, remember, have been badly burned before. They didn't get a single cent for Gigi Donnarumma, Hakan Calhanoglu or Franck Kessie.
Leao insisted again on Tuesday night that he's happy at Milan and the club remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached in the coming weeks. However, they literally can't afford to haggle much more and will likely have to give the 23-year-old whatever he wants, given his bargaining position has only been strengthened by his decisive display in Naples.
LOSER: Sterling's stock
Chelsea made a rather big deal about buying Raheem Sterling from Manchester City, and that was hardly surprising. He was their statement signing, a player of proven Premier League quality, a serial title winner, and one of the stars of England's run to the final of Euro 2020.
In that context, then, Sterling is arguably the biggest flop of the club's new era to date. The England international has been directly involved in just 10 goals this season and started the must-win meeting with Madrid on Tuesday night on the bench - a damning indictment of just how far his stock has fallen this season.
Eyebrows were raised when Pep Guardiola decided to cash in on Sterling last summer, but now it's looking like an inspired bit of business, given the winger's influence at the Etihad had been on the wane for at least a year.
WINNER: Real's remarkable record against English teams
The Premier League is regarded by some as the most competitive and difficult domestic competition in world football. And yet Real Madrid would arguably run riot in England's top flight.
The second-placed team in La Liga have faced Premier League opposition in each of their last five Champions League knockout ties, including last season's final, and won seven of those nine games.
They've also already eliminated Chelsea and Liverpool from this year's tournament, scoring 10 times in the process, and conceding only twice.
Manchester City will obviously provide a sterner test than either of those two clubs, but Madrid's impressive winning mentality, which borders on a sense of entitlement, means that they will have no fear of facing Guardiola's treble-chasers.
They beat them at the same stage last season. They'll undoubtedly be confident of doing so again, which would see them complete an impressive Premier League hat-trick.
LOSER: Napoli's double dream
To describe Napoli as a 'loser' in any context seems extremely harsh. They are having an incredible season under Luciano Spalletti, surpassing all expectations after a summer of discontent.
A first Scudetto since 1990 is a mere formality. As the fans at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona sang in spite of Tuesday night's Champions League elimination "We will win the title" and "We have a dream in our hearts". That dream will be realised in a matter of weeks and will spark the mother of all parties in Naples.
However, while Napoli made history by reaching the last eight of the European Cup for the first time in their history, their manner of their exit was still shrouded in regret.
Spalletti spoke of "injustices" after his side lost 2-1 on aggregate to AC Milan, and there is no denying that several big calls went against the Partenopei over the two legs. They were also desperately unfortunate with injuries. By half-time on Tuesday night, they had been shorn of three starters, Kim Min-jae, Matteo Politano and Mario Rui, while Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa was sitting in the stands after being suspended for the harshest of red cards at San Siro.
Still, there is no getting away from the fact that a place in the final was there for the taking for Napoli. Milan fully deserved to progress, just as they fully deserved to beat Napoli in the league a fortnight ago, but they are not as good as Napoli. The table never lies and, right now, there are 22 points separating these two sides in the Serie A standings.
The Partenopei are also a far better side than a maddeningly inconsistent Inter. There will be an Italian team in the Champions League final on June 10 - and it should have been Napoli.
However, as well as making several individual "errors" against Milan, as Spalletti acknowledged, they also got their tactical approach all wrong. They were guilty of gross naivety, repeatedly leaving themselves wide open to the counter-attack when a more patient and conservative approach would have reaped dividends by nullifying their opponents' pace on the break.
Of course, Napoli's sense of adventure is what makes them such a thrill to watch in full flow, but two-legged European encounters require a savvier attitude and, for all their misfortune, this is where Spalletti and his players were found wanting.
Still, the hope is that this could be start of something truly special in Naples, provided they can hold on to their best players of course...
WINNER: Maignan's status as the world's No.1 goalkeeper
The best goalkeeper in the world? Well, there certainly isn't a shot-stopper in better form. Mike Maignan is making miraculous saves like almost routine right now.
After cementing his status as France's No.1 during the international break, the 27-year-old played a pivotal role in AC Milan's progression to the semi-finals of the Champions League at the expense of Napoli, first by keeping out Giovanni Di Lorenzo's late effort at San Siro, and then denying Khvicha Kvaratskhelia from the penalty spot in the return leg.
Incredibly, Maignan has now avoided conceding from 37 percent of the spot-kicks he has faced during his career, which really makes you wonder, would France have won their World Cup final shootout with Argentina last December if 'Magic Mike' had been fit to play in Qatar?...
LOSER: Kvaradona comparisons
Just like Napoli, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia is enjoying one hell of a season, but comparisons to Diego Maradona were made to look a little premature on Tuesday night.
It wasn't just that he missed a crucial penalty that could well have sparked a turnaround. It was his overall lack of precision. Indeed, the Georgian had eight shots over the course of the two games against Milan, and hit the target with just three. And one of those was the weak spot-kick that was saved by Maignan.
His wonderful dribbling skills did create a couple of decent openings for himself, but he was repeatedly stopped by the excellent Davide Calabria. As Spalletti said, Kvaratskhelia found himself in one-on-one situations with the Milan right-back "20 times" but he didn't actually win that many.
Not long after the full-time whistle, the winger took to Instagram to apologise to the Napoli fans for his poor performance, which wasn't really necessary given all he has contributed to the cause this season.
But it was encouraging to see him promise to "learn from today's experience". Just like Napoli, he will hopefully come back even stronger from what was a chastening defeat.
WINNER: Milan's managers
Just a couple of weeks ago, there was talk in the Italian press of both Stefano Pioli and Simone Inzaghi being sacked at the end of the season if their respective sides fail to finish in the top four of Serie A.
Such a scenario remains entirely possible, particularly in the case of Inzaghi, with Inter having lost four of their last five league games, and drawing the other.
However, the former forward has, at least, boosted his chances of holding onto his job - or at least departing with his head held high - after leading the Nerazzurri into the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since they last won the competition 13 years ago.
Pioli, meanwhile, is once again getting richly deserved praise for the outstanding job he has done since taking over in 2019. Winning the title last season was an extraordinary achievement, but getting Milan into a European Cup final would been even greater.
LOSER: Bayern Munich's forwards
Thomas Tuchel's touchline tantrums on Wednesday were embarrassing, and rightly resulted in a red card, but one could at least understand his frustration.
Not with the officials, of course, they just made for a convenient target. Tuchel was really upset with his own players and the dire defensive errors which effectively condemned Bayern to a last-eight exit.
However, it should not be overlooked that the forwards were also found wanting against Manchester City.
Bayern actually played well for long periods of both legs, but their lack of a world-class goalscorer was made painfully clear. Erling Haaland was effectively the difference between the two teams.
Obviously, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting missed the first game at the Etihad through injury, which was a blow, and he didn't exactly look fully fit for the return.
However, Bayern clearly need a better No.9. Indeed, while watching their forwards waste one opening after another against City, it was very easy to understand why the club are reportedly willing to pull out all the stops to sign Napoli's Victor Osimhen this summer.
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WINNER: Erling Haaland
Haaland is not flawless. He sometimes makes mistakes, as we saw at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday night when he blazed a penalty over the bar.
But his reaction to that shocking miss told us a lot about his character. Haaland didn't let the first failed spot-kick of his City career get him down. He kept going and got his reward when Dayot Upamecano offered him a clear path to goal. The Norwegian produced a typically emphatic finish to effectively seal Manchester City's place in the final four.
Real Madrid now stand in their way and the Spaniards won last year's meeting between the two sides at the same stage. But City have Haaland now, and his mere presence strikes fear into the heart of every opponent, while also filling his team-mates with confidence.
As Bernardo Silva told BT Sport after the 1-1 draw at Bayern, "Erling is a special player, a different player to what we had in the past. He doesn't need many touches. He is like a shadow for 85 minutes and touches the ball once it is a goal. When we have that special player in attack, it makes us feel more comfortable at the back."
LOSER: Adrenaline junkies
Football can't always been stunning comebacks and last-gasp goals. But football fans have grown accustomed to being treated to nail-biting finales in the Champions League. It is the world's most popular club competition for a reason and is renowned for coming alive in the knockout stage.
So, it's hard not to feel a little deflated by what we've seen so far in this season's tournament. The quarter-final ties were especially lacking in jeopardy.
There was some fine football played across the four games, but no team came that close to turning a tie around.
Maybe we've just been spoiled. Real Madrid, after all, pulled off one miracle after another on their way to winning last season's tournament.
But the hope has to be that we will see some plot twists in the semis. Otherwise, we'll be looking at one of the most boring knockout stages in Champions League history...