Despite a disappointing result at the weekend Real Madrid will test Chelsea to the limit, writes Andy Brassell, with Manchester City and Arsenal also facing tricky trips into Europe
"Los Merengues’ record in the biggest matches this season has been impeccable as Barcelona, Atlético, Inter and Liverpool can attest."
Madrid's grind challenging for Chelsea
It was not the ideal weekend of preparation for Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid, held to a goalless draw in the driving rain by Real Betis. On nights like Saturday, the champions' temporary home for matches at Valdebebas seems like a millstone, giving a big game the air of a particularly gruelling training session rather than of an occasion to stir the blood.
Neither should it be taken as a sign of encouragement to Chelsea ahead of their visit to the Spanish capital on Tuesday, however, even if the loss of two points in the race for La Liga will annoy. El Real have been stretched to the limit in terms of personnel for weeks - hence the exclusion of Toni Kroos, making sure he and his immaculate delivery from set plays will be available to Zidane against their Premier League opponents - but their priority is always European ahead of domestic, which is perhaps why their current president believes they deserve a league all of their own on the continental stage.
Los Merengues' record in the biggest matches this season has been impeccable as Barcelona, Atlético, Inter and Liverpool can attest. They are parsimonious at the back and can make the most of limited possession in the final third, so will provide a very particular challenge for Thomas Tuchel. The German's Paris Saint-Germain side never faced an opponent of this sort of experience and poise in their run to the final last year, so it will be interesting to see how he deals with a perennially underrated but tactically astute coach in Zidane.
Pochettino aims to use Premier League experience on City
This, finally, is supposed to be it for Manchester City. Having made the Champions League last four at last in the Pep Guardiola era (their only previous semi-final appearance was in the dying embers of the Manuel Pellegrini era), the feeling in Premier League circles for months has been that they are ready to seize their moment.
Confidence across the continent is not quite as high. While Guardiola is still revered and their football is widely admired, they simply don't have the winning experience at the sharp end of the Champions League - yet. Of course, one could say the same thing for Mauricio Pochettino, though it is hard to think of a coach without a huge wealth of experience who has guided a new team through his opening European knockout ties with the authority that he has for Paris Saint-Germain's ties with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
It helps when you have Kylian Mbappé - who scored twice at the weekend versus Metz and will be fit - and Neymar, with the Brazilian and Ángel Di María both having had some useful rest time of late. So too has Marco Verratti, now back and well and key for Pochettino in a number 10 position. Pochettino knows City well and knows how they can be susceptible to a counter. With Mbappé and Neymar, who undid Bayern in a similar fashion, he has the players to do it.
Emery reunion stands between Arsenal and final
It was always going to happen. In this season where Arsenal aim to move on from recent troubles and return to the Champions League, they face the man whose ability to get them there they lost faith in around 18 months ago.
Unai Emery makes a particularly good gatekeeper in this scenario because this is his competition, which he won three times before with Sevilla - before his reputation was partially damaged in Paris and London. His Villarreal side have drawn too many games this season, stymying their chances of reaching the Champions League domestically but despite a recent stumble as their focus switches to European competition, they have the tools to make it difficult for Mikel Arteta and company.
The Yellow Submarine have plenty of experience in Raúl Albiol, Dani Parejo, Etienne Capoue and Sergio Asenjo, not to mention one of the most underrated and inventive forwards on the continent in Gerard Moreno, who has 20 goals in La Liga and scored in both legs of the last round against Dinamo Zagreb. Arsenal would be right to be wary of the pivotal moment in their season, which is laced with danger.
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