2020-21 Champions League preview: Real Madrid vs Chelsea

Photo via CBS Sports

After a tumultuous in football with the European Super League drama, the UEFA Champions League semifinals kick off on Tuesday. To start the round, the first club to back out of the Super League (Chelsea), will face off against the club whose president is the chairman of the league and is one of two clubs still in the league (Real Madrid).

Super League drama aside, Real Madrid, the competition’s most successful club (13-time winners), find themselves back in the Champions League semifinals for the first time since 2018 when they defeated Bayern Munich on aggregate 4-3. Real won the Final 3-1 over Liverpool to win their fourth Champions League title in five years along with capping off a three-peat.

The past two seasons without Cristiano Ronaldo have saw the Spanish giants fall to Ajax and Manchester City in the round of 16 the past two seasons.

This season, Real Madrid has gotten back to the semifinals after dispatching Atalanta in the round of 16 (4-1 on aggregate) and knocking out Liverpool 3-1 on aggregate after a brace from Vinicius Junior in the first leg.

The scoring for Real Madrid begins and ends with striker Karim Benzema, who has continued to add to his illustrious career with another 20+ goal season in La Liga with 21 goals and seven assists in 29 league matches. In UCL play, he has added five goals with Vinicius adding three.

Real Madrid will get a boost from Eden Hazard, who they signed for over 100 million euros in 2019, as he returns after a multitude of injuries in a bench role for the club against his former club, Chelsea. Despite his injuries and only scoring three goals for the club in league play in two years, he has the talent to make an impact when healthy and will be motivated to perform well against Chelsea.

Speaking of Chelsea, this season has been a tale of two halves for the Blues. During the first half of the season, Chelsea slipped outside European contention as manager Frank Lampard struggled to hold together a squad with many new additions competing with mainstays that led Chelsea to a top-four spot in the Premier League last season.

He was sacked in January and promptly replaced by former Paris Saint-Germain manager, Thomas Tuchel, who has created a defensive force in European football. Ever since Chelsea began their Champions League knockout round journey against Atletico Madrid back on Feb. 23, Chelsea has conceded a total of two goals across all competitions, aside from the disastrous 5-2 loss to West Bromwich Albion (two goals conceded in their past 13 matches).

This defensive renaissance has not only allowed Chelsea to surge their way into the top four of the Premier League table, but also get to their first UCL semifinals since 2014 when they lost 3-1 to Atletico.

They defeated Atletico in the round of 16 3-0 and took care of business against FC Porto 2-1 to advance to the semifinals against Real Madrid.

While the scoring across all competitions has been spread out, the main scorer in Chelsea’s UCL campaign has been French striker Olivier Giroud, who has six goals, including a bicycle kick against Atletico in leg 1 of the round of 16. Also, goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has been a stout addition for a club that spent over 200 million euros this past transfer window, earning 22 clean sheets across all competitions in his first year with the club.

This will be a battle between two clubs with stout midfields and defenses. Goals will be at a premium as Chelsea looks for their first Champions League Final berth since 2012 and Real Madrid is attempting to reclaim their throne after a two-year absence.

While Real Madrid looks to be the favorite on paper, Chelsea matches up favorably and should come out on top in this tie. N’Golo Kante and Mendy will hold Real Madrid’s attack in check and Mason Mount will score an electric goal in the second leg to lift Chelsea over Real Madrid.

Prediction on aggregate: Chelsea 2 Real Madrid 1

Leeds United: active, not passive

Photo via CNN

Certain clubs might maintain the mindset of simply getting to the Premier League. 

The philosophy for Leeds United, however, is not one of such blandness. No, they did not clinch the 2019-20 EFL Championship and say their goal has already been achieved. Nor did they claim their first berth in the Premier League in close to two decades (2003-04 season) to simply pick up a participation trophy. 

In the club’s mind, the bar has been set much, much higher. So high, in fact, that Leeds does not want to maybe win a half a dozen matches and call it fine and dandy. 

Instead, they want to make a leap for the top of the pyramid. They want to not only challenge the elite but etch their name into it. Yearning for another grab at a Champions League spot is their goal, and while it might take several seasons to legitimately contend for it, the club is most certainly on the right path. 

Even when you disregard the aggression the club showed in their most recent transfer windows, the aggression has made itself known on the pitch during the 2020-21 campaign. In 32 Premier League matches played, Leeds United is 14-4-14 and 10th in the table. If “middle-of-the-pack” was looked up in the dictionary, Leeds would be a reference, as they not only sit smack dab at the midway point in the table, but also have a goal differential of zero. While the club has conceded the sixth-most goals (50), their 50 goals scored are tied for eighth (Chelsea). Leading (see what I did there?) the way in the goal department is star striker Patrick Bamford, whose 14 goals scored are tied with Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin for fifth among all Premier League goal scorers. 

Bamford’s star power, along with his supplementary reinforcements in Stuart Dallas, Jack Harrison and Raphinha (who have seven, seven and six goals to their 2020-21 resume, respectively) have helped piece Marcelo Bielsa’s puzzle together in regard to how they wish to run the attacking formations. For the Leeds manager, the winning formula is simple: passing and shooting in large quantities, and from long ranges. 

Such has been the winning way for the club so far this season. While the club’s 16,045 total passes heading into Apr. 24 action rank eighth, their 666 total crosses rank second (Liverpool ranks first with 753). Sharing the ball has helped net the club a ton of shot opportunities as a result – the club is fifth in shots (441) and shots on target (165). 

More passing and more shooting is definitely enticing, but Leeds United has been able to cash in with many a goal, and from all over the pitch. The club’s eight goals scored via the header are tied for sixth (Chelsea, Man City and Wolverhampton). 

Not bad, but certainly not what club has been known for as of late. Instead, due to the club’s 4-1-4-1 formation, there has been a more ingrained philosophy on long-range shooting, and boy, has it showed this season. When looking at goals scored from outside of the penalty box, Leeds is tied for first (12 with Leicester City). The club’s aggression from the counterattack has also been illustrated through the club’s aggressive tactics, as their six goals from the counterattack are also tied for first (Manchester United). 

The club might be a couple seasons away from legitimate Champions League consideration, but their philosophy has always been about aggression. In Leeds’ eyes, being station-to-station is synonymous with going through the motion. 

For Leeds, it was never about getting to the Premier League, but excelling in it. 

In their mind, aggression will make it possible.  

Johnny’s Surprise of the Week: the New York Knicks

Photo via Pool Photos-USA TODAY Sports

Each and every professional sports league has a team or two that simply is not succeeding over a certain stretch. For a time in the NFL, it was the Cleveland Browns. For a time in MLB, it was the Chicago Cubs. You get the idea. 

So, what would an NBA equivalent be? Well, if you look over the past 20 years, it would be hard to pass up on the New York Knicks, wouldn’t you say? 

To say the New York Knicks have had a rough going over the past 20 years would be putting it as tamely. Since their 14-year stretch of punching a playoff ticket every season (1987-88 through the 2000-01 season), New York has been through a relatively steady playoff drought ever since. Over the following 19 seasons (2001-02 season through the 2019-20 season), the Knicks made the postseason only four times, and of those four, only once did they get past the first round (2012-13 season). In only one season did the team finish first in their division (2012-13). 

However, as any sports fan knows, bad stretches come and go, and if the 2020-21 NBA season is any indication, the Knicks just might be starting up a better stretch for the fanbase to get behind. 

A brief glimpse at the standings can show this possibility as a potential probability. Heading into Apr. 23 action, the Knicks are 33-27. Even if they did not play another game this season, their win total would already be higher than their previous six seasons. 

Statistically speaking, the defense is what stands out the most. The Knicks rank first in the entire NBA in points allowed per game (104.7), opponent field goal percentage (44.2%) and opponent three-point percentage (33.6%). This might be the tip of the iceberg, but it contrasts quite exponentially to many of the rebuilding Knicks squads just a few seasons prior. 

Offensively, the Knicks might not look like juggernaut, and they most certainly are not – their 106.7 points per game ranks 26th in the league, while their 45.4 FG% ranks 22nd. Even still, the offense does have some depth and balance to it. Seven players are averaging 10 points or more, with their top two being 26 years old or younger (Julius Randle is 26 while RJ Barrett is 20). When speaking about the former, the former Kentucky Wildcat has averaged 23.9 points per game, 10.5 total rebounds per game and 6.1 assists per game. All three statistical categories are currently career-highs. In fact, should his current averages hold up, Randle would be the first player in franchise history to average at least a 20-10-6 mark before turning 27. 

It is not solely a one-man Randle show. With Barrett, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Co., the Knicks have consistently started to find the win column more and more, and especially as of late. With their thrilling 137-127 overtime victory against the Atlanta Hawks on Apr. 21, the Knicks have now won eight straight games. The last time the Knicks won eight games or more in a row was 2014 (Mar. 5-21). 

Any Knicks fan will tell you the same story. One season does not correct the last 20 years of production (or lack thereof). The team’s 2020-21 season certainly will not move the pendulum, regardless of what happens moving forward. 

However, the Knicks might just be seeing something to build off of, and maybe, just maybe, they are finally losing the label of being that team. 

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