Five things to look out for in UEFA Champions League semifinals


The UEFA Champions League has just five more matches in store this season, each one a pairing of European giants.

The first legs of the semifinals begin Tuesday, when Juventus and Real Madrid tangle ahead of Bayern Munich and Barcelona squaring off on Wednesday. The pairs swap days of the week for the second legs, and the winners will emerge for a big showdown in Berlin on June 6.

[ MORE: In defense of Chelsea ]

What should you be monitoring for this week’s first legs? Here’s a quick five pack for you:

1) Bayern’s battered

Several regulars were rested by Pep Guardiola in Bayern Munich’s 2-0 loss at Bayer Leverkusen over the weekend in the hopes that freshness can overcome injury moving forward. Robert Lewandowski (broken nose, jaw, concussion) has been practicing in a mask, while Arjen Robben and David Alaba are out. Franck Ribery is considered day-to-day. Bayern has the depth to deal, but Barca is relatively healthy.

2) How will Pep attack his old team?

Much has changed since Pep Guardiola left Barcelona for Bayern Munich, but the boss will still have plenty of familiarity when it comes to game plan for Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and others. Still, Bayern will have to worry about the three-pronged killer unit comprised of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, while also testing Gerard Pique and company? Wednesday’s going to be a beaut.

3) Status of Serie A

Juventus is by far the class of Italy, and those penciling in Real Madrid for a trip to the Olympiastadion may not have been watching a lot of UCL and Serie A lately. Carlos Tevez has been a ruthless finisher in Europe, and Paul Pogba is playing at an incredibly high level for a 22-year-old. With stingy defending and Gigi Buffon between the sticks, an upset isn’t nearly as unlikely as you’d think. A big win for Real, however, would be a setback in the Italian revival through the UCL and Europa League.

[ MORE: Four Old Traffords? ]

4) Will Real Madrid somehow be caught looking ahead?

All the talk before the match has been about Real Madrid going after the Undecima, an unprecedented 11th European Cup. With a motivated Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlo Ancelotti, surely they won’t overlook Juventus too much. And Pepe is saying the right things before he gets a red card.

“We don’t feel any pressure. We know it will be complicated and how hard it is to play here, but we’re very calm and we know that at this stage of the Champions League, there are no favourites.”

source: Getty Images5) Will Ter Stegen shine?

Marc-Andre ter Stegen has been Barcelona’s goalkeeper for the Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League matches, but this is by far the biggest stage the 22-year-old has even trod. Now, will he be able to be the goalkeeper who emerges from a stare down with Manuel Neuer’s side to make it two straight youngsters as starters in the final (Thibaut Courtois backstopped Atletico Madrid to a second-place finish last season)?

“It’s a great feeling. You always associate something with the Champions League anthem – for us players, it’s something special. When the anthem sounds I know it’s time for the Champions League and I get goosebumps.”

A thin line separates goosebumps from nerves.

Everton’s Silva: ‘It is concerning about the goals we didn’t score’

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Like in the two games leading into Friday night, Everton have done their part in creating clear-cut chances.

They haven’t done their part in finishing, however. A major point of concern for manager Marco Silva following his side’s 2-0 loss against Aston Villa. From the BBC:

“It is really difficult to see how we can lose this game when we create so many chances to score. It is a tough place to play football.”

The Toffees have now outshot all three opponents they’ve faced this season (34-21), but have only a goal to speak for their attacking dominance. Against Villa, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Theo Walcott squandered ideal chances in the first and second halves, respectively. In the minutes following his Everton debut, Alex Iwobi was the closest to converting for the visitors, hitting the post in the closing minutes of the match.

Silva, as critical as ever before, acknowledges that despite his team succeeding when it comes to creating chances, they desperately need to move the ball past the white line.

“The most difficult thing is to create and when you do you have to put the ball in the net,” the 42-year-old added. “It is concerning about the goals we didn’t score and of course we should score more. Against Palace we created lots of chances to score and didn’t and again today.”

With a challenging bout against Wolves at Goodison Park next on the schedule, the Portuguese will certainly look to tinker his attack to improve the team’s poor conversion rate. Despite falling to score 10 yards in, Iwobi contributed positively for Everton at Villa Park. Moise Kean, still adjusting to the rigors of the league, can be another prudent option to consider.

Luckily, Everton have time – and a match against Lincoln City midweek – to weigh their options. Silva, as he clearly explained at Villa Park, would want the goals to come in sooner rather than later.

Villa’s Wesley hopes to ‘continue like this’ after scoring first goal

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Anwar El Ghazi was the x-factor Friday night, giving every Aston Villa supporter in attendance at Villa Park the excuse to roar at the top of their lungs following his composed finish in the dying seconds of stoppage time.

But about an hour earlier, Villa’s $28-million striker, Wesley, gave the same supporters a reason to believe that they had a chance against Everton, and, most importantly, that Villa made the right decision in securing his signature just months ago.

[ MORE: Recap | Highlights ]

With a timely run and a well-paced strike, the Brazilian opened his Premier League and Aston Villa account. Something manager Dean Smith knew was bound to happen. From the BBC:

“Wesley is not rewarding me but this performance was very good tonight. I believe in him, I have watched him for a while at Club Bruges, playing in the Champions League so I know the calibre of player we were bringing in. You can’t judge someone after two games.”

Prior to Friday, Wesley was less effective than expected in the claret and blue, recording only two shots on target in his first 164 minutes in the league. Smith was swarmed with questions about the striker’s ineffectiveness as the pressure continued to pile on.

Against Everton, however, with the Villa struggling to keep possession and most playing through frenetic counter attacks, the 22-year-old made the most out of the small number of chances he saw. 21 minutes in, he scored. A couple of minutes later – if it wasn’t for a superb last-second tackle from Everton’s Yerry Mina – the Brazilian would have had a brace.

When he wasn’t aiming for goal, the striker was effectively displacing Everton’s back four with his clever runs and brawny hold-up play. One could tell that the Brazilian was playing the game to his strengths, in peace.

“I am very happy tonight, what a performance from the team,” Wesley said after the match. “We worked hard, played very well and we hope to continue like this week by week then we will see what happens.

“The manager knows me, he sees me everyday working hard and the supporters know me too. I keep calm, I know my qualities and today you saw that I can do.

“I hope to continue like this, the last two games were very difficult but now I have to help my team with goals.”

Time will tell if Wesley will continue on the same path, but after a slow start, its quite crystal clear that everyone at Aston Villa is behind the Brazilian striker.

Late El Ghazi goal seals Aston Villa victory over Everton

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With three points under their belt and Villa Park rocking like never before, it now feels like Aston Villa are finally back in the Premier League.

Pinned back the majority of the second half, trying to conserve a 1-0 lead, Anwar El Ghazi‘s last-gasp goal sealed the deal for Villa, edging Everton 2-0 on Friday.

Wesley‘s cathartic welcome to the Premier League 21 minutes in gave Dean Smith‘s side the room to breathe, despite being behind the ball the majority of the match.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Four things we learned

1. Certainly not the case last time they featured in the Premier League, Villa now have the luxury of boasting game-changing choices off the bench like El Ghazi, who can come in and finish things off.

2. Three matches in, and the Toffees’ glaring void is a clinical finisher up top. They’ll need to find a solution, sooner rather than later.

3.  In the 30-minute cameo, Alex Iwobi displayed that he can turn out to be a difference-maker for Everton this season, if utilized properly.

4. On a good night, there aren’t many stadiums that roar louder than Villa Park.

Man of the Match

Jota, positive for 77 minutes on the right side of the midfield, combined time and time again with Villa right back Frederic Guilbert for the greater good of creating energetic counters. The Spaniard’s first assist of the season came in similar fashion, when Wesley finished off his precise through ball.

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Everton, like in the first half, imposed themselves on the home side, dominating control of the ball. A lack of fishing and creativity in the final third, however, complicated things for Marco Silva‘s side. As the clocked ticked, the ingenuity was nowhere to be found.

Shortly after coming on, Iwobi put forward the clearest chance Everton had experienced all night. The substitute’s shot, though, struck post, denying any chances of a brilliant debut by the former Arsenal man.

Villa continued to sit back with its four-man backline and Douglas Luiz right above as the No. 6, while remaining attentive on when to spring forward and take advantage of an unbalanced Everton.

El Ghazi surprised many, riffling a shot from 25 yards out. Pickford, vigilant as ever before, calmly blocked it out of danger.

Right before stoppage time, the Toffees were a couple of feet from walking away from Villa Park with a vital point. Theo Wolcott, however, failed to keep his strike leveled, skying the ball well over the bar.

Just minutes later, substitute El-Ghazi showed those watching how to finish, leading Villa to their first Premier League win since 2016.

AT HALF: Wesley scores first goal for Aston Villa

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With pressure certainly on, Wesley scored his first Premier League goal, which has Aston Villa 45 minutes out of their first points since their return to the big stage.

Following a sublime through ball from Jota, the Brazilian didn’t shy away from slotting the ball past Jordan Pickford and into the back of the net.

[ STREAM: Aston Villa – Everton ]

Such timely run and clinical finish showcased by the 22-year-old put into perspective why Villa were willing to shell out $28 million for the striker this summer.

Welcome to the Premier League, Wesley.