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Champions League - Football: Prem big two to press Champions claims

04 April 2022 07:30:39 EST
Guardiola looking to end European title wait

Title chasers Manchester City and Liverpool made winning Premier League returns after the international break and now turn their attention to Europe and the first leg of their Champions League quarter-finals.

Last year's beaten finalists City welcome Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid to the Etihad Stadium while six-time winners Liverpool are off to Lisbon to shackle Portugal's seven-time finalists Benfica.

City, chasing a Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup treble, are 2.20 to go on to avenge last season's near miss and win Europe's premier cup competition for a first time.

Liverpool, chasing down a quad having already pocketed the League Cup, are 1.53 to reclaim a prize they last collected in 2019.

Can Simeone summon memories of past success?

It is remarkable that Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone, given their remarkable pedigree, have met only three times as managers.

In terms of statistics, Guardiola boasts a 2-1 win record over his Argentine rival. However, in terms of prestige, it's definitely Simeone who boasts the bragging rights.

The last time these great coaches pitted their wits against each other was in the 2015-16 Champions League semi-finals, when Guardiola was desperate, in his last season in charge at Bayern Munich, to get the German powers to a Champions League final.

Simeone, however, had other ideas and not for the first time in his decorated career managed the two-legged tie immaculately, Atletico winning the home leg 1-0 and losing the away leg 2-1 (defying a 22-5 shot count and 12-2 corner count) to break Guardiola's heart on away goals.

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Atletico hitting form ahead of City test

It was classic Simeone and City – especially Guardiola – know exactly what to expect from the Spanish powers who arrive in Manchester in good form after an underwhelming start to 2021-22.

City are 1.28 favourites to win the first leg with Atletico a massive 11.00 shot. The draw's been hung out at 5.50.

It's hardly a surprise Atletico are massive outsiders yet their form of late has been excellent. They have long since given up hope of retaining their Spanish league title but are currently on a run of eight games unbeaten with six straight wins, including the 1-0 success at Manchester United which saw off Ralf Rangnick's men in the last 16.

Every bit as impressive was the 3-1 win at La Liga high-fliers Betis and there is no doubt that when this supremely well-organised unit do the basics right they remain a desperately hard side to beat, and they seem to thrive the higher the stakes.

Pep's pack purring

Simeone will have to make a couple of changes with two key men missing. Midfield linchpin Hector Herrera is out with a strained hamstring while centre-back Jose Gimenez limped out of Saturday's 4-1 demolition of Alaves and has not travelled.

Guardiola is also missing two key men – class defensive act Ruben Dias is crocked and Kyle Walker suspended – as the Blues get ready to embark on the 11 days that will define the season with Sunday's title decider against Liverpool sandwiched between the two showdowns with Atletico, and an FA Cup semi-final, also against Liverpool, to follow next weekend.

Guardiola will be pleased then that his players barely had to get out of first gear at Burnley on Saturday, as they returned from the international break with an effortless 2-0 win. They've lost just once since the start of December and are playing as well as ever.

Klopp's red-hot travellers

City are a short price to see off Atletico and Liverpool are also long odds-on in Benfica where Jurgen Klopp's quad-chasers get a 1.40 quote. Benfica are 7.50, the draw 4.75.

The formbook is certainly right behind the visiting Reds, who have won 15 of their last 17, not conceded a goal on their last six trips away from Anfield, warmed up for this assignment with a solid-enough 2-0 win success over Watford and could even welcome back Trent Alexander-Arnold to terrify Benfica's left-sided defenders.

Benfica look like they are going to miss out on automatic Champions League qualification next season after slipping to a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Braga on Friday to fall nine points behind second-placed Sporting Lisbon.

They have one or two injuries to contend with – among them Adel Taarabt – and seven players a yellow card away from missing the next leg. Among that septet is ex-Manchester City hardman Nicolas Otamendi, who is 2.60 to be booked.

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