UCL talking points: Are PSG a team now? How will Arsenal, City react in title race?

The 2023-24 Champions League quarterfinals are all wrapped up with plenty of drama, a penalty shootout and brilliant goals. Paris Saint-Germain bounced back to knock out Barcelona, and Borussia Dortmund delivered their own comeback to send Atlético Madrid packing. Elsewhere, Manchester City and Real Madrid went all the way to penalties, where the Spanish giants knocked out the holders. And finally, Bayern Munich showed their European pedigree to dispose of Arsenal.

In the semifinals, we’ll see PSG face Dortmund and Madrid take on Bayern but, before that, we asked ESPN writers Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden and Julien Laurens to answer some of our burning questions from this round.

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1. With PSG so close to a UCL final, is their success due to a team ethos as opposed to reliance on superstars? Is this PSG team built differently?

Luis Enrique’s biggest achievement so far in his first season as manager at PSG is to have made this a proper team. PSG are no longer a collection of individuals as they have been in recent seasons. This is a real unit where every player fights for each other, plays for the badge, makes the effort, and listens to the manager and his teammates.

Even Kylian Mbappé is on board, despite the fact he is set to leave this summer. Luis Enrique has always repeated that there is no star; there are important players, of course, leaders and key men, but no privileges are given, no status sets any player apart. It feels like another lifetime when PSG’s players would do what they wanted without consequence. And really, in this day and age, you can’t win the Champions League unless you have a team mentality. That is the case this season. — Julien Laurens

There are lots of reasons and it’s debatable as to whether the most important is the absence of Lionel Messi from the equation, or the experience and wisdom of coach Luis Enrique. Messi was the wrong player at the wrong time for PSG and his two years at the club were like a spectacular firework fizzling out — for both Messi and the PSG project. But without him, and the over-hyped Neymar, PSG have taken a different path by turning to young, hungry talent under the guidance of Luis Enrique, who has seen it all as a player and coach.

PSG are nowhere the finished article, as their group stage performances and first-leg defeat against Barcelona have shown, but when Mbappé leaves Parc des Princes this summer, they know that the young talent of Bradley Barcola, Warren Zaïre-Emery and Manuel Ugarte will give them the foundation for a bright future. — Mark Ogden

There’s probably something to this, since having a side based around Neymar, Messi and Mbappe up front means the rest of the team is just going to do their running for them. And bringing in a guy like Luis Enrique — with all his foibles and quirks — means accepting somebody who likes to do things his way and is ready to walk out if he doesn’t get it.

It’s also easier to get younger players to follow instructions and guys like Zaire-Emery, Vitinha, Barcola, Ugarte, Goncalo Ramos, etc, are going to be more pliable. Of course, before we get too carried away with “PSG’s success” it’s probably worth remembering that they needed a hugely contentious stoppage-time penalty at home to Newcastle United, which gave them a 1-1 draw, in getting out of the group stage, and haven’t been overly impressive in Ligue 1. But yeah, the club’s direction of travel — with a view towards the post-Mbappe era — is definitely about growing superstars as much as it is lavishing huge transfer sums on ready-made ones. — Gab Marcotti



Xavi: All decisions went against Barca in UCL exit vs. PSG

Xavi Hernandez lashes out at the referee after Ronald Araujo’s red card in Barcelona’s 4-1 loss to PSG in the Champions League.

2. Xavi called the referee a “disaster” after Barca’s loss. Was he right?

I love Xavi, but he’s wrong. What was disastrous was Barcelona’s defending. And I would have been OK if referee Istvan Kovacs had chosen not to send off Ronald Araújo … I don’t think the red card for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity it’s anywhere near as cut-and-dried as some have made it. But the real lapse is when your defensive leader makes such a poor decision to put himself at risk of getting sent off. Once Barcola cuts across him, you either let him go and see if he can beat goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen (he’s a top three ‘keeper for a reason and Barcola isn’t Messi) or you wait until he’s in the box to bring him down with a tackle and concede the penalty (not great, but you’re still ahead on aggregate and it’s 11 vs. 11.)

But it’s not just Araujo. How about João Cancelo losing Ousmane Dembélé for the first goal? Or Robert Lewandowski not shutting down Vitinha before he struck his goal? Or, indeed, the backline not stepping up and playing offside (watch the video, Pedri is hiding behind Marco Asensio for no apparent reason)? Or, not to pick on Cancelo again, the third goal, a needless penalty situation where Dembele can’t hurt you? This is just horrendous defending. These are mistakes akin to the ones PSG goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma made in the first leg.

And its not just individual defending errors either. Xavi, as I see it, made a bad call letting his team get sucked back towards their own goal and defending too deep. It’s fine for some teams to do that, but this Barca side, especially with Cancelo and Iñigo Martínez in there, isn’t built to do that. — GM

The postmatch comments of Barca midfielder Ilkay Gündogan offer a more balanced and fair assessment of the referee’s performance than Xavi’s. Gündogan made the point that Araújo gave the official no option and to give him a red card for his foul on Barcola — the former Manchester City captain also said that Araujo should have forced Barcola to shoot because conceding a goal with 11 players was much better than trying to play for over an hour with 10.

Xavi was clearly emotional after a bad night for his team, but the referee was right to send the coach off for his over-reaction on the touchline when he kicked out at an object on the side of the pitch. Barcelona only have themselves to blame for their defeat; PSG took full advantage of their mistakes. — MO

For every game this season, French newspaper L’Equipe does ratings for referees. As you can imagine, they take it very seriously, like they do with their player ratings, and are very objective about it. On Tuesday night, they gave Kovacs 7/10 for his performance at Montjuic. I think only Xavi disagrees with that evaluation.

The Romanian got all his decisions right (Araujo’s red card, the PSG penalty, the one not given to Gündogan … just to name three.) Xavi lost it at the start of the second half and let his players down by getting sent off for his petulant behaviour. Surely, going after the referee was a way for him to deflect attention away from how he got his tactics wrong. Why take Lamine Yamal off after the red card? Why did Ferran Torres come on 20 minutes before João Félix and Fermin, who are in better form than their teammates? Xavi messed up his tactics and was left exposed in the end. And he can only blame himself, not the referee. — JL



Klinsmann: Dortmund deserved to go through vs. Atleti

Jurgen Klinsmann joins ESPN FC to react to Borussia Dortmund’s thrilling 4-2 win over Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League.

3. We had some great goals in this round. Which was your favourite and why?

Fede Valverde’s goal for Real Madrid in the 3-3 draw against Manchester City in the quarterfinal first leg was the pick of a stunning batch of goals. The beauty of Valverde’s strike — a right-foot volley from Vinícius Júnior’s cross — was the execution, how he angled his body before hitting the ball and guiding it into the far corner of the net. Phil Foden scored a stunner in the same game for City, but the England midfielder has netted a similar goal previously. Valverde’s strike was the kind you are fortunate to score once, so he tops the bill. — MO

I’ll go for Josko Gvardiol’s goal for Man City vs. Real Madrid in that same game, just because he doesn’t score many. Maybe it doesn’t stand out for pure aesthetic pleasure, but I like the storyline of a guy who hardly ever scores nailing such an important strike (and with his weaker right foot too.) The fact that he netted another at the weekend is a nice oddity as well. — GM

I have one from the heart and one from the head here. For the heart pick, it is easy: Dembélé’s equalizer for PSG at Barcelona in the second leg to make it 1-1 was so nice. A team passing move then a cross from Barcola and a great first-time finish by the winger, from a tight angle too. It set PSG up perfectly for their Remontada.

The head pick is, like Mark, Valverde’s volley against Man City in the first leg last week to make it 3-3. It was so pure, elegant, balanced and powerful, nothing can stop it! It was also the goal which put Madrid on the right path to success. — JL



Why the Premier League’s hopes of a 5th UCL place is in tatters

Dale Johnson explains why Arsenal’s defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League all but ends the Premier League’s hopes of an extra Champions League spot.

4. With Man City and Arsenal both out, how will this impact the fight for the Premier League title?

It’s only relevant in terms of mood and morale. City don’t play a Premier League game until next Thursday, so they have plenty of time to recover their focus. Arsenal, meanwhile, go to Wolves on Saturday needing to bounce back after their elimination against Bayern, but the damage to their title bid was done by losing at home to Aston Villa rather than the defeat in the Allianz Arena.

Both sides might even benefit from the extra rest by not having to play two Champions League semifinal games, but ask anyone at either team and they would rather have the additional workload.

The bigger question is why the self-styled “best league in the world” can’t get a team into the Champions League semifinals. Don’t forget, both Manchester United and Newcastle failed to get beyond the group stage. Those failures are a big factor in the Premier League struggling to claim those extra Champions League spots. Maybe the other leagues in Europe are better than many in England are prepared to accept. — MO

I think it has very little impact, since they both went out and are both in the same boat. And unless we get a Liverpool miracle from 3-0 down against Atalanta in the Europa League on Thursday night, they’ll be out of Europe too so it will be a level playing field for all three.

Where it could have moved the needle is if City had gone out and Arsenal had advanced, simply because Arsenal don’t have the experience and the depth that City have. But like this, it doesn’t matter much. More relevant, I think, is the impact the results have on the fifth Champions League spot for next season which — barring some sort of miracle from West Ham and Liverpool — will likely go to the Bundesliga and Serie A, not the Premier League. That means Aston Villa and Spurs will have a legitimate race for the top four, which wasn’t a given when it appeared the Premier League were going to overtake the Bundesliga in second place in the seasonal coefficient race. — GM

I don’t think it will have an impact at all. They are out. Liverpool will follow on Thursday in the Europa League and all three will be able to focus again on the title. It is only the second season since 2016-17 that there will be no English clubs in the Champions League semifinals. The fact that there are none this year should not be seen as the start of the decline of the English top flight. For me, it is circumstantial more than structural or anything else. With an intense title race, minds and bodies are drained physically and it makes it harder to compete in both competitions. — JL

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