Biggest winners and losers from Champions League semifinals

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The Champions League semifinal stage is in the books. Before we look ahead to the showpiece match at Wembley, we’re reviewing the dramatic action that left Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund as the last two teams standing in Europe’s premier club competition.

Winner: Joselu

It’s not always the big names who step up.

Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo fruitlessly combined for nine shots at the Santiago Bernabeu. Toni Kroos crafted four big opportunities. Despite his best efforts to find space and out-wrestle defenders, Jude Bellingham couldn’t muster a shot on target across both matches against Bayern Munich.

Instead of those superstars, the difference-maker was someone who was a fan, wearing his Real Madrid shirt, at the 2022 Champions League final. The hero was a forward who could only muster 10 Premier League goals over four seasons on the books of Stoke City and then Newcastle United.

Nobody would’ve guessed it before hand, but this was The Joselu Game.

Manuel Neuer was producing one of his best performances of the past decade before Joselu, in his role as a poacher, anticipated an error in the 88th minute. Joselu was running ahead of his marker, Eric Dier, before Vinicius’ shot spilled from Neuer’s arms, and Bayern’s resistance was broken by a confident right-footed slap past the beleaguered goalkeeper.

The nomadic striker would go one better. With the semifinal locked at 3-3 on aggregate, Joselu was maintaining his position on the last defender. He was waiting for scraps, but he was served something much more substantial on 90 minutes when Antonio Rudiger pinged a ball across the six-yard box. Joselu was beyond the defenders when the delivery arrived, and the offside flag was raised. However, a VAR review determined he was behind Rudiger’s pass, and his finish was legal. Joselu, a selfless, unheralded figure whose loan deal from Espanyol expires next month, was miraculously sending his club to the Champions League final.

“Joselu deserves it all, he has been an amazing squad member this season,” Bellingham told TNT Sports post-match, according to BBC Sport.

Strangely, another former Stoke flop was on the pitch during Joselu’s unexpected starring role. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting was brought on as a late substitute for Harry Kane, and in a stark contrast from Joselu’s new hero status, his introduction is already widely tipped as the moment the tie slipped from Bayern’s grasp.

Losers: Tuchel and the Bayern attackers

Thomas Tuchel said Kane “couldn’t keep going” due to back pain, hence his 84th-minute swap for Choupo-Moting. If that’s the case, it would be harsh to highlight that as the precise moment Bayern’s first trophy-less campaign since 2012 was confirmed.

It would also absolve the Bayern attackers of blame for what was ultimately an unimaginative and toothless effort.

It’s in Kane’s remit to fling balls out wide to his speedier teammates – deliveries that risk possession – but his passing accuracy of below 45% was a hindrance for his team. For the most part, he was easily contained by Rudiger and Nacho. He recorded the assist for Alphonso Davies’ goal, but that was a technicality, really. The Canadian did all the heavy lifting, scoring what was essentially a solo stunner.

Serge Gnabry could only last 26 minutes before his injury issues caught up with him, and by that time he had already shown his rustiness as he slammed a cross out of Kane’s reach. Jamal Musiala was absent for large portions of Wednesday’s match. Leroy Sane, meanwhile, was invisible in attack and barely supported right-back Joshua Kimmich in the defensive effort against Vinicius.

“We started with a front four and all four has to go out with injury or cramp,” Tuchel explained after the soul-crushing defeat.

That’s true, but the outgoing tactician can’t use that to wipe his hands of all responsibility. Before he was forced into the Kane switch, he invited Real Madrid’s late onslaught by introducing Kim Min-jae for Sane, effectively forcing his own team to retreat into a defensive shell and hope for the best.

That’s a risky move at the best of times. Doing it while nursing a one-goal lead against Real Madrid, in the Champions League, at the Bernabeu? That’s willing a late collapse.

Winner: Aleksandar Pavlovic

The defeat will sting for Bayern Munich fans, but they should take solace in that they have a genuine phenom in midfield.

Thomas Tuchel has expressed his displeasure at the club’s failure to sign a No. 6 numerous times during his 13-and-a-half months at the helm. Joao Palhinha’s transfer from Fulham collapsed last summer and Tuchel has never fully appreciated the midfielders he inherited. He wanted to rely on somebody to screen his defense and provide a springboard for his attack.

Leon Goretzka could do neither of those things in the opening fixture against Real Madrid. He was substituted at halftime. His replacement was Raphael Guerreiro, who’s spent most of his career as a left-back, and he comfortably outclassed Goretzka with better ball retention and defensive graft in his half-match shift.

Mateo Villalba / Getty Images Sport / Getty

However, an injury to Guerreiro meant Tuchel had to rethink his midfield duo for the trip to Real Madrid, and Aleksandar Pavlovic was paired with Konrad Laimer.

Pavlovic, who only turned 20 last week, was authoritative in the middle. Only Toni Kroos, Eric Dier, and Nacho touched the ball more times than the youngster, who didn’t misplace a pass in the opening half, made a crucial interception to deny a ball through to Jude Bellingham, and immediately upped the tempo and instigated an attack with a smart pass slid between Rodrygo and Kroos.

He’s a gift for whoever’s in charge at Bayern next season.

Loser: Luis Enrique

It wasn’t an approach you’d associate with a team trying to overturn a one-goal deficit in front of an encouraging home crowd. Paris Saint-Germain started the second leg tentatively, plagued by the fear of conceding rather than consumed by the will to level the tie, and therefore played the opening half with the aggression and tempo of a gooey Coldplay ballad.

PSG’s performance picked up in the second stanza – it had to – but their skirmish with Borussia Dortmund was lost over the preceding 135 minutes. In both fixtures, there were tactical missteps and puzzling selections that granted Der BVB advantages in certain areas of the pitch.

Luis Enrique got it wrong.

PSG were unfortunate across two legs against Borussia Dortmund, hitting the woodwork six times. They attempted 30 shots on Tuesday alone, the most a knockout team has racked up without scoring since Opta started collecting data from the 2003-04 season. Milan Skriniar was an unused substitute for both legs – he’s trying to regain fitness after a troublesome ankle issue – so Lucas Hernandez suffering a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in the opening fixture was a huge loss. The next in line to replace Hernandez is 20-year-old Lucas Beraldo, who is prey to experienced Champions League campaigners.

But Luis Enrique mishandled plenty of elements within his control.

Kylian Mbappe was deployed centrally in Dortmund rather than in his best position on the left wing, and he struggled to influence the game in a crowded area of the pitch. Not a great deal could be done about the brilliance of Jadon Sancho and Karim Adeyemi in the same meeting, but Luis Enrique’s midfield trio lacked the physicality to adequately compete in the middle and offered nothing to protect full-backs Achraf Hakimi and Nuno Mendes from Dortmund’s vibrant wingers.

And then PSG started the second leg like that.

Luis Enrique’s stock was climbing once more after underwhelming and fractious spells in charge of Spain. Now, his reputation will be much harder to repair. PSG were limping out of the quarterfinals before Barcelona’s Ronald Araujo’s red card kindly ushered them through, and now they’ve slumped in the semifinals after an avoidable elimination to the fifth-best team in Germany.

Winner: Mats Hummels

Many thought Mats Hummels was past his prime when Bayern Munich decided to offload him after a patchy campaign, dubbing the World Cup winner surplus to requirements and shipping him back to Borussia Dortmund.

That was five years ago.

Instead of wilting away, the 35-year-old is enjoying a remarkable renaissance this season, anchoring the Dortmund defense as the club unexpectedly finds itself in the final. He was brilliant against PSG. Sure, there was luck involved – PSG’s profligacy, outlined above, was unusual – and Hummels was millimetres away from conceding a penalty for a foul on Ousmane Dembele in the second half on Tuesday. But his luck, and that of his team, felt earned.

Hendrik Deckers / Borussia Dortmund / Getty

Whenever PSG looked menacing, Hummels popped up on the scene. A last-ditch intervention on Mbappe almost certainly saved a goal. That’s just what he’s been doing all tournament long. The suave center-back leads all players in a collection of key defensive metrics in this season’s Champions League, including tackles, interceptions, clearances, and duels won. That he scored Dortmund’s goal in Paris was icing on the cake.

He’s both a calming presence and inspirational leader, and his play is emboldening his teammates, inspiring them to dig in with him for the battle; Nico Schlotterbeck, in particular, rose to the occasion alongside Hummels to send PSG and their enviable array of attacking stars packing. Hummels’ success is also a victory for narratives. He and fellow BVB icon Marco Reus are the only Dortmund players who were part of the side that lost the 2013 Champions League final to rivals Bayern Munich. That match, like next month’s final, was held at Wembley. His journey now comes full circle.

Losers: Manchester United and Chelsea

Jadon Sancho was banned from Manchester United’s training sessions in September after claiming Erik ten Hag made him a “scapegoat” at the underachieving club. Once considered one of the brightest young talents in European football, the Englishman hadn’t made a United appearance since May 2023 and hadn’t played for his country since a routine win over Andorra in October 2021 before returning to Dortmund on loan in January.

How quickly things can change.

In the Champions League semifinals – and either side of Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat to Crystal Palace – Sancho torched Nuno Mendes. Few will begrudge the winger relishing his appearance at the tournament’s showpiece at Wembley Stadium, around 14 miles from his old backyard in south London, while Ten Hag’s United plumb new depths in eighth place in the Premier League table.

Chelsea fans must also look upon this Dortmund team – and the left side of its defense in particular – with some envy.

There’s optimism that a new inverted role will revive Marc Cucurella’s career at Chelsea, but he’s struggled with heightened expectations since his 2022 move from Brighton & Hove Albion and is a regular source of frustration for Blues fans. Fellow left-back Ian Maatsen, meanwhile, has displayed maturity beyond his 22 years during Dortmund’s Champions League knockout matches following his loan move in January. He now has the chance to add another medal to his collection after romping to the Championship title with Burnley last season.

Chelsea co-owner and chairman Todd Boehly was determined to splash the cash. Manchester United went through a phase of predominantly signing players from Ten Hag’s address book. While they’ve been distracted by their own foolish frivolity, they’ve unwittingly strengthened a team for a run to the Champions League final.

Winner: Narratives

The second the semifinal bracket for the tournament was revealed, all eyes were on the potential for Mbappe to meet – and possibly beat – Real Madrid in the Champions League final before joining them in the summer. It was as tantalizing a narrative as they come.

Obviously, it won’t come to fruition. What we are getting, though, could be even better.

The connective tissues linking Bellingham, Borussia Dortmund, and Bayern Munich together are deep. The Englishman could only watch in horror last season as Dortmund threw the Bundesliga title away on the final day of the season, gifting it to Bayern. Wednesday’s comeback against Bayern was surely a little bit sweeter for the midfielder after that heartache.

His reward? A meeting with the club he left and former teammates he forged strong bonds with during his three-year spell in western Germany. After the spectacular debut season he’s enjoyed in Madrid, he could cap it by beating the team he just left, in his home country, no less.

The script has been written.

“At Wembley against Dortmund, it’s a weird one and I can’t believe it, but I’m so looking forward to it. When I was seven years old in Birmingham, I was dreaming of nights like this,” Bellingham said of the impending encounter.

Eat your heart out, Hollywood.

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