God bless Xabi Alonso. The George Clooney of international soccer has won the sport’s most important trophies—World Cup, European Championship (twice), UEFA Champions League, Spain’s La Liga, etc.— yet found time on Tuesday night, just hours before the world’s biggest club game of the year so far, to take a phone call from SI.com.
Alonso’s Real Madrid takes on defending European champion Bayern Munich on Wednesday in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals (2:45 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1), a match-up that most neutrals were hoping would wait until the final. Bayern is slightly favored, but Real Madrid is certainly capable of dethroning the Bavarians, especially if attacking stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are fit to play after dealing with injuries.
Alonso, 32, has long been one of the classiest players in soccer going back to his early days at Real Sociedad and his breakthrough at Liverpool. Blessed with terrific instincts in the central midfield and an acute vision for the game on attack and defense, Alonso always seems to be in the right place at the right time, all without appearing to strain himself to get there. How often do you ever see him make a desperate lunge for a tackle? This guy could play the game in a tuxedo.
He’s also just plain smart, one of my go-to guys when it comes to explaining what he sees on the field, and he can do it in more than one language. In our pre-game conversation, Alonso compared Pep Guardiola’s Bayern to Guardiola’s Barcelona, detailed the virtues of Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti and chimed in on Liverpool’s English title chase, among other things. Enjoy:
SI.com: Bayern obviously is a fantastic team, but they aren’t unbeatable. What are the keys to playing well against Bayern?
Alonso: Of course you have to play a very complete game, not just in defense but in attack. We know their qualities: They have a great balance between the defense and the attack, players that know how to control the tempo. But we have big threats, especially in attack. And because of that if we are able to control them as well as possible, we know that especially playing at home we will have our chances. And we are good enough to take them and to score. That’s what we want: To score goals, not to concede and to have a good result for the second leg in Munich next Tuesday.
SI.com: In what ways is Pep Guardiola’s Bayern team similar to his Barcelona teams? In what ways is it different?
Alonso: Well, I wouldn’t compare them, because what’s similar is the manager. The qualities of the players are different, the profiles of them are different as well maybe. Barcelona may have more control, while Bayern Munich combines the control, the possession, with players that can run into space, that can run into the box. Because of that they combine a lot of different tempos in the game and they’re flexible to change systems during the game. We know them pretty well. Because of that I wouldn’t compare Bayern with Guardiola’s Barça.
SI.com: You missed the first part of this season due to a foot injury. Do you feel any fresher now in your legs than you typically do at this time of the season?
Alonso: It’s difficult to compare. I feel that especially last season it was difficult for me because I was coping with the pain and wasn’t playing comfortably due to the previous [groin] injury I had, and at the end of the season I needed surgery. But it has been really intense since January because we had the Copa del Rey during January and February, and in March and April we are playing Champions League. So it’s kind of non-stop each three days. Each game is key for us. I wouldn’t say that I feel fresher, but I feel ready for whatever is coming, for the challenges we have ahead of us—and of course thinking about the World Cup and getting ready as well.
SI.com: What have you learned about Carlo Ancelotti this season?
Alonso: You see that he’s a great manager, not just from the tactical side but also from the emotional side and the psychological side. He knows how to be with top squads, with big players, when he has to push us and when he has to be more smooth, not as intense. He has those qualities that are important for a top side where you are fighting for every title. You can see that his experience, his knowledge of the game is total.
SI.com: What’s your opinion of Gareth Bale and the way he has adjusted to Spain?
Alonso: He’s done pretty well in his first season. Of course, he takes some time because he’s always been in Britain since he was born. And to come to a new country, a new future, a massive club like Real Madrid, and to have massive expectations as well because of the big transfer, he’s dealt with all that pressure well. To be the first season, we have to be really pleased. We’re happy with him. We know he’s one of our main players, especially in attack. Being the first season, we can be more than happy. But we are expecting that the best is still to come. He can improve in the following seasons.
SI.com: I know you’re focused on Real Madrid, but have you been following your old team Liverpool’s Premier League title chase lately?
Alonso: Absolutely, absolutely. Whenever I’m not on work duty, I keep an eye on the Reds. I’m really excited. It’s thrilling what’s happening in the city right now. What they are doing at the moment is so admirable, the players, the coaches. Eleven wins in a row is a massive achievement, and they are so close to winning the league for the first time in 24 years. So I’m really looking forward to it and happy for the ones I know like Stevie [Gerrard] and Lucas [Leiva], the ones I played with there.
SI.com: Judging from your Twitter feed, you have the best movie and television taste of just about any soccer player I know. How do you like the new Mad Men season so far?
Alonso: I know it has already started, but I’m one of those guys that I want to finish all the seasons, and once that’s over I’ll watch the seventh season. At the moment I am holding myself (laughs).