This Was The Champions League At Its Dramatic Best

The quarterfinal stage of the Champions League has long been a favorite of mine. The round of 16 has its charms, and the semifinals have higher stakes, but the quarterfinals bring with them the potential for a pair of simultaneous games to alchemize into something approaching the ideal soccer viewing experience. That’s what we got on Tuesday, when Arsenal took on Bayern Munich in North London while Manchester City traveled to the Spanish capital to take on Real Madrid.

Both games had the potential to be great. This was Arsenal’s first foray into the quarterfinals since 2010, and it was an opportunity to avenge its last knockout round experience, a 10-2 aggregate loss against Bayern in 2017. The other match-up has become something of a Champions League mainstay in recent years; this is the third straight season that City and Real have faced off in the tournament, with the series even at one win each. There was enough history and talent here to make for a great day of soccer, across both matches.

All of that pregame potential was fully realized, not just in the final goal tallies from each game, but in the dramatic, scintillating passages of play that filled the space between the goals. Here’s how it all went down.

Bernardo Silva 2′ (Manchester City 1 – Real Madrid 0)

I have to admit: I missed this goal. I had turned the TV on to the Arsenal-Bayern Munich game before realizing I should be using the multicast feature on Paramount Plus, which puts both games side by side. I realized this about a minute in, and went to swap, only for the app to crash. By the time I got it up and running again, Bernardo Silva had already blasted a worm-burner of a free kick to put Manchester City up 1-0 inside of two minutes:

Could Real Madrid goalie Andriy Lunin have done better there? Perhaps, though it’s hard to expect someone to shoot that specific type of free kick from that far away. Credit to Silva, though, who saw the chance to catch the final boss of the Champions League sleeping and took it perfectly. The Portuguese midfielder may not get the hype that some of his teammates do, but he’s still as good of a ball-striker as anyone on City.

Silva’s goal also had a knock-on effect: Thanks to the end of the away-goals rule, which was done away with before the 2021-22 Champions League season, an early goal by either side was sure to open the match up. In years past, Madrid might have bottled up in an attempt to avoid conceding any more all-important away goals and punt their fate ahead to the second fixture. But there’s little incentive to play that way now, and so La Liga’s leaders took control of the match’s ensuing attacking moves, throwing its star-studded lineup forward in seek of vengeance.

Arsenal and Bayern Munich didn’t need much incentive to open up their game. Arsenal has been a machine recently, winning games by three-plus goals more often than it’s found itself in one-goal thrillers. Bayern, on the other hand, has been a domestic mess, and so it became clear that while Arsenal would dominate possession, the German side would spring on every counter-attack. This led to a fascinating back and forth, in which Arsenal pushed eight and sometimes nine players into the Bayern half, only to lose the ball and immediately get stormed by the visitors’ onrush the other direction. Both matches, then, had a similar rhythm: the English sides dictated proceedings, but the opposition was always ready to score. Goals were coming, and soon.

Rúben Dias Own Goal 12′ (Real Madrid 1 – Manchester City 1)
Bukayo Saka 12′ (Arsenal 1 – Bayern Munich 0)
Rodrygo 14′ (Real Madrid 2 – Manchester City 1)
Serge Gnabry 18′ (Arsenal 1 – Bayern Munich 1)

The first of these goals came in North London: Bukayo Saka had and then lost the ball near the Bayern box, but after a brief scramble, the ball found its way back home to his left foot. Without taking a touch to steady himself in the tight space, Saka uncorked a beautiful far-post curler, stretching just past Manuel Neuer for the opener:

Almost immediately after, Real Madrid scored the first of two goals in two minutes: Eduardo Camavinga received the ball miles from goal, seemingly out of the danger area, but the French international glided his way a bit closer and ripped off a shot that ricocheted perfectly off of Rúben Dias, sending the ball to the complete opposite side of City keeper Stefan Ortega, who had already dove to his left.

Before the celebrations had even died out in Madrid, Real struck again. Remember a bit above when I said that Real was more dangerous on the counter-attack? This second goal was a perfect example of how: One pass, from Vinicius Junior to Rodrygo, left the young Brazilian in a sprint against Manuel Akanji, a sprint that Real’s no. 11 was always going to win. Credit to Rodrygo for keeping the ball in perfect distance in order to slow down his run, sending Akanji streaming past, before slotting a little dribbler of a shot past Ortega. These two goals came exactly the way Madrid planned: Hit hard, hit fast, and maybe get a bit of its usual Champions League luck to send the ball into the net.

There would be one more goal back in England before things calmed down a bit, and it would come from a man who came up with Arsenal: Serge Gnabry spent three seasons in North London but didn’t accomplish much, scoring just one goal in 10 appearances there. He matched that tally in the 18th minute of Tuesday’s first leg: A misplay from Arsenal’s defense left the ball at Leroy Sané’s feet just inside the halfway line, and the winger picked out a beautiful, line-breaking pass to a charging Leon Goretzka just outside the Arsenal box. The German then played an inch-perfect, first-touch squeaker of an assist to his countryman Gnabry, who slid into a first touch of his own, hitting the ball through David Raya and into the net for Bayern’s equalizer:

Harry Kane (Penalty) 32′ (Arsenal 1 – Bayern Munich 2)

What followed Gnabry’s goal, in both games, was a period of goalless drama. Neither game slowed down one bit, and this, maybe more than the goals themselves, is what elevated both into classic territory. I wouldn’t have blamed any of the four teams for trying to slow down the game and end the chaos, but that wasn’t in the cards for them. Instead, the same pattern that played out over the first 18 minutes continued here, only with a bubbling undercurrent of anxiety. It was clear that all four teams could score out of nothing, and so all four teams tried to do just that, lest they be caught out again.

Bayern would capitalize next: In the 30th minute, Sané once again received the ball just inside the halfway line, only instead of playing a perfect pass, turned his defender and dribbled past most of Arsenal’s defense into the box, where he drew contact from Arsenal’s star center back, William Saliba. It was a clear penalty, and one that was swiftly converted by none other than Harry Kane, Arsenal’s tormentor from his days at Tottenham.

With that goal, and a scoreless quarter hour to follow in both games, there was an actual break, as halftime rolled around. If there had been no more goals, this would have still been a satisfying day of Champions League soccer, but these matches were nowhere close to being done.

Phil Foden 66′ (Real Madrid 2 – Manchester City 2)

In the 66th minute, Phil Foden happened. City’s English attacker has been one of the best players in the world this year, finally leveling up his potential into pure end-product. He deserves a section of this blog all to himself for his rocket of an equalizer: Taking just a touch to turn and steady himself, Foden blasted a laser beam into the un-saveable top left corner of Lunin’s goal, as good a strike as one will see in any competition:

In a season where he has been good enough to merit real Player of the Year hype in England, this was Foden’s signature moment of the season. Just when City needed him most, in a game where City’s usual goal-hungry attacker Erling Haaland was mostly a passenger, Foden delivered magic. He would not be the last to do so.

Joško Gvardiol 71′ (Real Madrid 2 – Manchester City 3)
Leandro Trossard 76′ (Arsenal 2 – Bayern Munich 2)
Federico Valverde 79′ (Real Madrid 3 – Manchester City 3)

If Joško Gvardiol is famous among more casual fans, it is not to his benefit: The Croatian was absolutely worked by Lionel Messi in the semifinal of the 2022 World Cup, one of Messi’s iconic moments in his most successful tournament. What Gvardiol is probably not famous for, even with die-hard fans who have followed him from his time at RB Leipzig, is his goal-scoring. And yet, five minutes after Foden’s own masterpiece, there was Gvardiol, turning a horrid first touch at the top of the box into a cannon blast that once again left poor Lunin with no options and gave City the lead:

Five minutes after Gvardiol’s stunner, it was Arsenal’s time once more, thanks to one of the best signings of its current era.

Belgian Leandro Trossard moved over to the Gunners in January of 2023, and it seems like all he’s done since arriving is score important goals. In the 76th minute of this wild first leg, he did it again, with a little help from a nifty bit of in-the-box dribbling from Gabriel Jesus; the Brazilian was able to keep close control of the ball long enough against Bayern’s backline to slot a little pass to a charging Trossard, who made no mistake in firing the ball into the low corner of the goal.

OK, phew, we have to be done now, right? There’s no way there could be more action in either of these game—oh, never mind, here’s Federico Valverde:

Just three minutes after Trossard’s goal equalized for Arsenal, Valverde did the same for Real, rushing into the box to latch on to a Vinicius cross with a running volley that was inside the goal before anyone could react. In terms of difficulty, this one might have been the hardest one of all 10 of these goals, and it was similarly one of if not the most important; Madrid can now go into the second leg without needing to over extend itself in pursuit of an aggregate equalizer.


The irony is that for as thrilling as both of these games were, they effectively will not count towards anything. Thanks to the aforementioned removal of the away-goals rule, City’s three goals, and Bayern’s two, mean little, and the second legs of both of these matches will be the sole determining factor in who advances. This could be seen as a negative, but I think these matches would have been a lot cagier and a lot more cramped if the away-goals rule was still in place. Instead, we got games in which both hosts kept pushing for goals, risking scores the other way, because there was no reason to not do that. The resulting games were fun and messy, and served as ideal advertisements for what the Champions League can be. When these two ties were drawn after the round of 16, soccer fans expected some magic. It’s safe to say that even the most optimistic of viewers had their expectations blown away by a barrage of action and an even split of 10 goals.

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