'Think it will be a Man City vs AC Milan final in Champions League'

The UEFA Champions League semi-finals are now around the corner. The marquee clash will be the Manchester City vs Real Madrid contest. The first leg of this semi-final clash will be played early Wednesday morning (12:30 AM IST). The fans are eagerly waiting to see this contest as City push once again to win that elusive Champions League title.
The other semi-final will feature two Milan clubs – Inter and AC Milan.
TimesofIndia.com spoke to professional football manager and former player Ashley Westwood, who has coached Indian clubs like Bengaluru FC, ATK and RoundGlass Punjab FC about the key player battles, stand-out players and coaches as we count down to the first leg of the City vs Real clash.

This is part 2 of the interview with Ashley.
Wanted to talk to you about a few players who are often considered to be underrated by some experts – across both semi-final clashes that are liked-up in the UEFA Champions League this time. First up – Thibaut Courtois. We know how good he is, but do you think he often doesn’t get the recognition he deserves? He is of course part of a star-studded Real Madrid Team – made some really crucial saves against Liverpool in the Round of 16 and then against Chelsea in the quarters. Would you call him the best goal-keeper in the world? Quite a few experts feel he is the best in the world currently…
I wouldn’t call him (Thibaut Courtois) the best goal-keeper in the world to be honest. I obviously respect him and I have seen the world class saves he has been making. I just feel that nowadays, the best goal-keeper in the world has to be incredible with his feet, because of the way teams play from the back. He is good with his feet, don’t get me wrong, but he is not incredible with his feet . When you look at someone like Ederson or even Alisson (Becker) at Liverpool – their distribution can be fantastic with their feet. He (Thibaut Courtois) doesn’t quite have that for me, but he has kept Real Madrid in big moments and pulled off big saves at big times when things have been difficult. He is obviously a world class goal-keeper. With goalkeepers – the older you get, the more games you get the better you become, because it is about decision making predominantly. It is about experience and being in that position time and time again and that is something Courtois now possesses because he is experienced so he has got the knowhow now. He has made big saves and he can call on instincts, he can call on experience to make those big saves.
From a goal-keeper wanted to move to a forward – Rafael Leao – the Portuguese forward. He showed us what he is capable of truly when AC Milan played Napoli – bursting from his own half before setting up Olivier Giroud for a goal. Your take on Leao and if you think he is still sort of an underrated player….
I wouldn’t say he is underrated. He is 23 years of age now. I would say he is inconsistent if I am being honest. I have watched him a lot across the league. In the big games he seems to do it and sometimes he doesn’t work as hard as you would like. He is not a consistent 90 minute worker, but he has certainly got lots of potential. He has got unbelievable pace, balance. He can take defenders on one on one and go both ways. He can sustain his pace across bursting runs that we have seen in the Champions League – 60, 60, 70 metre runs, where he seems to get stronger. But If I was a football club and I had 80, 90 or a 100 million pounds to spare would I like to see a little bit more of him? Because I still think that at the age of 23, he can be inconsistent and If I had to pick between Vinicius Jr. and Leao, I think there is no contest. I would go Vinicius Jr. because I think he does it more regularly and seems to have a little bit better desire than Leo. But, it wouldn’t surprise me if he takes the bull by both horns and really imposes himself, because it’s a big game and he can do it. Whether he can do it on Tuesday night in Turin is another matter. That’s what the world class players do. That’s what your Benzemas do, that’s what your De Bruynes do – they do it week in and week out and they don’t let their standards drop. I think that’s something that he (Leao) has to now add to his game if he is going to be a world world class striker.


Rafael Leao. (AP Photo)
The next player that I wanted to talk to you about was Mike Maignan – the French AC Milan keeper. Would you say that he is in very very good form and virtually unstoppable between the posts right now> He also did play a crucial role in AC Milan making the semis….
Yes, he certainly did. And like I mentioned before in other interviews – AC Milan have had 5 clean sheets until their last game and they only conceded in the last minute from a corner when Napoli had put everybody in the box, because it was the last minute. If it wasn’t for that they would have kept 6 out of 6 clean sheets and if you look at the teams they have played, that’s incredible form. It’s a combination of the defense and the goal-keeper. But to keep 5 clean sheets in the latter stages of the Champions League, when you are talking about Round of 16s, when you are talking about quarter-finals, that’s incredible. And it shows you the kind of form that he is in and the strength of AC Milan in keeping those clean sheets.

The last player I wanted to talk to you about on this list is Jack Grealish. He plays in a team that has the likes of De Bruyne, Haaland, Rodri, etc. In that context would you say that he is sometimes underrated? He has fit into Pep’s scheme of things rather well though…
I think when he initially went to Manchester City with a 100 million pound price tag, there were a lot of expectations from him. He has had to change his game a little bit from what he had to do at Aston Villa. At Aston Villa – you play on the counter-attack, you can be exciting and it’s a little bit easier maybe for him to take players on. When you are at Manchester City the emphasis is on keeping the ball and not losing it, so I think it’s taken him some time to have the confidence, to beat players, to risk losing that ball because there is such pressure on a player at Manchester City to keep the ball, to retain the ball. And now he has shown us that he has come into his own. I think Guardiola has recognised his talent, he’s obviously seen it at training and he really trusts him. And when he is keeping out players like Phil Foden and (Riyad) Mahrez, it shows you that you must be doing something right, because they are world class players in their own right. Jack Grealish now seems to be one of the first names on the team sheets in that wide left position. He is showing his pace, he is showing his fitness. He is showing that he can drift past players. He is popping up with the odd goal and he is providing some key assists now. He has shown why the price tag was a hundred million and he is repaying it with his form.


Jack Grealish. (Reuters Photo)
Which are the player battles that you are looking forward to the most in the semis? Say Rudiger vs Halaand or Dumfries vs Leao…
I am not sure it will happen, but I have a feeling it might, would be Kyle Walker against Vinicius Jr. City need to be careful of Vinicius Jr. because of his pace. They have been playing three central defenders, but I think that will be a risk, so if Guardiola goes to a four – I think we can see a Kyle Walker because we know how quick he is and playing against Vinicius Jr. – that will be a very very key battle. But there are many (player battles) all over the pitch. Modric vs De Bryune – I think that could possibly be Valverde against De Bruyne because Modric might be a little bit further forward and Valverde could be the one that has to take care of De Bruyne. I think, if I remember correctly, Militao could be suspended for Real Madrid (for the first leg vs Man City), so I think it will be Rudiger against Haaland, which will be as physical as it gets. A massive centre-forward – his physicality everyone understands and appreciates. Ridiger could be a force in the air as well. So that can be a very interesting encounter as well.
A quick word on Erling Haaland. One could say that if Michael Phelps was built to swim, Haaland was built to play football. He is again someone who has fit right into Pep’s vision hasn’t he?
I think he has. He has 4 or 5 hat-tricks already this season, but it’s only the last three months that people have started to appreciate what he is. The first 3-4 months this season, even though he was scoring for fun, everybody felt that he has made Manchester City worse, because they are not playing with a false Number 9 and he is scoring all the goals, Man City were losing the odd game, they were losing momentum in the league and everybody was blaming Haaland. He has come through that. So, it’s not just his performance, it also shows his mentality. Even though he has been tested – his character, his performances – he has scored 50 goals and he hasn’t let it bother him at all. It’s been a great signing. He has been the missing link for Manchester City, what they have missed over so many seasons and he could be the difference. It’s the desire and the hunger to score goals that sets him apart. We have seen him this season on two goals a few times, gets substituted and is really disappointed because he has not been allowed to stay on the pitch to get his hat-trick or he has not been allowed to stay on and get his goal tally up. I’m sure he trusts Guardiola, but he wants to stay on, he wants to score more goals. He is not happy with scoring 2 and 3. He is not even happy to score 50. It wouldn’t surprise me if he goes on to score even 60 this season because he is so desperate to score goals and I think that’s what sets him apart. He can have all the money he wants. I am sure we are going to see over the next 10 years – he could switch off now and be a multi, multi millionaire, but I don’t think he cares about money. I don’t think he cares about anything, apart from scoring goals.


Erling Haaland. (AP Photo)
A quick word now Ashley on the coach of the tournament. Many feel that that title should go to Luciano Spalletti, even though Napoli couldn’t make the semis cut, but they did push AC Milan hard in the quarters. Your pick for the coach of the tournament….
If we look at who’s there – Ancelotti is always reserved but he always seems to find a way. If they are to beat Manchester City it (title of coach of the tournament) will certainly go to him. I think Guardiola for me would be key. He has been inventive, he has chopped and changed his tactics. He has chopped and changed his style at times. For somebody who has shown variation, I would go with Guardiola. Of course Spalletti, if Napoli had advanced would have been right up there , but they didn’t find a way against AC Milan. They played AC Milan and got beat 4-0 in the league. They played them twice in the Champions League within the space of two, two and a half weeks and they only scored one goal really, which showed that he (Spalletti) just missed something towards the end so at the moment in the driving seat for me is Guardiola.
If you had to pick the final line-up, which two teams would you pick as the finalists this season?
I think Manchester City and AC Milan. If that were the final I would expect Manchester City to win it. What’s going to be key is that the second leg (of the semi-final between Man City and Real Madrid) is in Manchester, whereas the second leg last year was in Madrid and the crowd was a huge difference. I think that’s a little switch and an advantage for Manchester City.
Watch Ashley Westwood picks 5 players who can leave their mark on the Champions League semi-finals

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