Champions League semifinals yield intriguing, tough-to-call pairings
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The Champions League semifinal draw kept apart the two teams from Madrid and also denied Pep Guardiola the opportunity to face his club for next season, Manchester City–at least until a potential final. When the names were drawn out in Nyon, Switzerland on Friday, it was Manchester City vs. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid. Both semifinals will be fascinating, but on the basis of the quarterfinals, you could argue that the two weakest teams still left face each other, as do the two strongest teams.
Here is a breakdown of what we can expect as the road to the May 28 final in Milan becomes more clear:
Manchester City vs. Real Madrid
This is the draw that both of these teams might have wanted: each has more weaknesses, mainly in defense, than the other two sides, and neither coach has reached a Champions League final before. The similarities are obvious: these are teams that rely on their star players in attack to compensate for the deficiencies in defense.
The story of City’s season is that its Premier League title challenge faltered in February, after the club announced that Guardiola would replace Manuel Pellegrini as coach next season. In truth, the turning point was a few days earlier, when Kevin De Bruyne injured his knee and was out for 10 weeks. Since his return, City has looked like a different team, and the brilliant Belgian scored goals home and away against PSG to win a quarterfinal tie that was high on drama and low on quality.
With De Bruyne in form, City will believe it can get past Real Madrid, even if club director Txiki Begiristain played down its chances.
“Madrid are the favorite,” he told Spanish TV after the draw. “They have been to 26 semis, six in a row. But we see ourselves capable of doing it. We're delighted to be in the semifinals and to keep dreaming. It’s difficult to get to here, and will be difficult against Madrid too.”
Madrid can count itself fortunate. When it won the Champions League final in 2014, it had a fairly tough draw in the knockout rounds: Schalke, Borussia Dortmund (who had reached the 2013 final), Bayern Munich and then Atletico in the final. This time around, it has faced Roma, Wolfsburg and now Manchester City. Zinedine Zidane must have the magic touch when it comes to draws, as in each of them, Madrid has played the second leg at home.
Pellegrini could argue that he was unlucky in his one season as coach of Real Madrid, as his team finished three points behind Barcelona in the title race but still racked up 96 points, which would have been enough to win it this season and the previous two. What did him in at Real was the Cup defeats–to Lyon in the Champions League last 16, and third-division Alcorcon in the Copa del Rey. He is too gracious to admit to wanting to prove a point to Florentino Perez, but with the Chilean still a free agent next season, reaching his first Champions League final would enhance his credentials, and might make Guardiola’s job at City next season a little trickier.
Prediction to advance: Manchester City
Bayern Munich vs. Atletico Madrid
These are the two best teams left in the competition, along with the two most tactically interesting coaches. The tie is a hipster’s dream, with Guardiola’s vision of total football facing the immovable object of Diego Simeone’s defensive rock of a side, one that has conceded only 16 goals in 32 La Liga matches all season. Even more impressive, that has happened in a league that averages more goals per game (2.71) than England (2.62), France (2.49) and Italy (2.53) (although not Germany, which is at 2.8 partly because Bayern and Dortmund have scored so many).
Spanish paper Marca ran the headline Friday morning "They don’t want to see each other" and while there will be some relief that the semifinal is not an all-Madrid affair, Simeone knows if he reaches this final, it will be the hard way, beating first Barcelona and next Bayern.
After the win over Barcelona, Simeone spoke of the values that his side plays and lives by at Atletico Madrid: “Respect, perseverance, a will to win, a desire to improve, to compete.”
Almost single-handedly, he has pushed Atletico into a place among Europe’s elite, and now he comes up against Guardiola, who is looking to reach the final for the first time in his three years in Germany.
In his seven years as coach, Guardiola has always reached this stage of the competition: in the last two seasons, Spanish sides have been his undoing, Real Madrid in 2014 and Barcelona last year. This could be even tougher for his side that is brilliant going forward but continues to make mistakes at the back. A 2-2 draw at Benfica in the quarterfinal second leg was enough to progress, but was hardly convincing. With Philipp Lahm and Franck Ribery showing signs of their best form, Guardiola will need more from Douglas Costa and Thiago Alcantara for a two-legged affair that could turn out to be a classic.
Prediction to advance: Atletico Madrid