Returns, rematches, powerhouses mark Champions League semifinals
The Champions League semifinal draw was conducted Friday and while the names may be familiar, the opportunity for new storylines to arise is bountiful. There will be reunions for coaches and a chance to avenge previous defeats, and, with three teams still dreaming of clinching a European, league title and domestic cup treble, plenty at stake.
Here is a breakdown of the semifinal draw that yielded Barcelona meeting Bayern Munich and Real Madrid facing Juventus:
Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich (May 6, 12)
Pep Guardiola was late to his seat just after Barcelona had kicked off against Manchester City in the round of 16 second leg at Camp Nou back in March. He missed Neymar almost scoring, but did see Lionel Messi play one of his best matches in a Barcelona shirt, with a 20-minute span before halftime in which he dominated the game, set up the only goal for Ivan Rakitic and nutmegged three opponents.
Guardiola enjoyed it so much, the cameras spotted him gazing wide-eyed and open-mouthed at Messi’s brilliance: that’s Messi, the player he helped develop and turn into the world’s best.
Now his job is to stop him, and the team that he created. This is the "Pepico," the game that many neutrals wanted to be the final. Yes, these two are probably Europe’s best two sides at the moment, but in a way it’s a good thing they meet now: it means that we get to watch them play twice, and not just once, as would have been the case if they met in Berlin.
For Guardiola, it may be emotional. His reaction against City showed that he remains a Barcelona fan. As he said after the draw: “Naturally, it’s special. I’m from Barcelona. That’s all I need to say. It’s a special tie for many of us here, [Bayern midfielder] Thiago, the staff... a lifetime at Barcelona.”
As Guardiola said, his is not the only notable return: Thiago Alcantara, whose return from injury has given the Bayern midfield a huge boost, will face his brother, Rafinha. There is also the matter of the semifinals in 2013, when Jupp Heynckes was Bayern coach: a 7-0 Arjen Robben-inspired drubbing over two legs. This Barcelona is better than that one, and this Bayern? It’s certainly different, and for much of the Pep reign, we have wondered if it is in fact better.
These two games will help us find out.
Tipped to progress: Bayern Munich
Juventus vs. Real Madrid (May 5, 13)
There is another managerial return in this one, with Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti back at the team he coached from 1999-2001. A repeat of the 1998 final–interesting, as this is the only time any of these European heavyweights have ever met in a final–the fact that Juventus has even reached this far, after failing to get out of the group stage last season, is vindication of club president Andrea Agnelli’s brave decision to appoint Maximilliano Allegri as coach when Antonio Conte walked out on the team prior to the season.
Allegri has done what Conte never could, and despite Juventus’s €279 million revenue, Juventus is the outsider and underdog (if not quite the level of Borussia Dortmund or Atlético Madrid of the past two seasons) of this quartet.
It is also the one least worried about expansive football. Juventus has kept nine clean sheets in its last 10 games and will need at least one more if it wants to get to Berlin. At the other end, Juventus has Carlos Tevez in the form of his life–but pining for a return to Boca Juniors when his contract is up next summer–and Alvaro Morata, a signing from Real Madrid last summer, who will face his former side.
Madrid, as Spanish outlet AS reported, wanted a clause forbidding Morata from facing it if the two sides were drawn together, but Juventus and UEFA put their foot down. Morata has scored 11 goals this season, but one more, against his former side, would be sweet.
Real Madrid has now reached five straight semifinals, and the law of averages will say that at some point, one of the big clubs will go back-to-back in the Champions League era. Will it be Madrid? It could be the only way Ancelotti keeps his job, which may sound ridiculous but is the way Hollywood-inspired Florentino Perez likes it.
Manchester City might hope Ancelotti falls short, and so, quietly, might a certain Madrid-based Frenchman with ties to Juventus as well. Zinedine Zidane is currently coaching the Real Madrid B side, but he has made no secret of his desire to become the No. 1 at the Bernabeu. The players are said to support his candidacy, but after three years on the sidelines–first as assistant to Jose Mourinho, then Ancelotti last season and now in charge of Castilla–he thinks he is ready to be a head coach next season. But will it be in Madrid?
This semifinal may go a long way in determining that.
Tipped to progress: Real Madrid