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Champions League continues through semi-finals

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The UEFA Champions League Tournament has been whittled down to four remaining teams. Coincidentally, these four teams all hail from different domestic leagues in Europe. There’s Real Madrid, the two-time defending winners of the tournament from Spain’s La Liga. There’s Bayern Munich, who have won the German Bundesliga in 10 of the last 14 seasons. There’s Liverpool, the high-flying English Premier League club with a storied history in Europe. And finally, there’s AC Roma, the consensus underdogs representing Italy’s Serie A. Four teams, four different countries, and four very different paths to the semi-finals. This year’s Champions League semi-finals is shaping up to one of the best yet.

Let’s take a look back at how each of these four clubs arrived in the semi-finals of Europe’s most prestigious tournament. Real Madrid shockingly didn’t win their group, finishing behind Tottenham Hotspur, an English side, with 4 wins, 1 draw, and 1 loss. As a result, they had to play against French powerhouse P.S.G., who won their respective group and were a favorite to win the tournament, in the Round of 16. However, Real Madrid easily disposed of the French champions, winning 3-1 in the first leg, and 2-1 in the second. Madrid’s crown jewel Cristiano Ronaldo scored three times across the two matches. While this would be considered an impressive feat for most players, this was another day at the office for Ronaldo. He is the competition’s leading scorer, having found the back of the net 120 times. Next up for Real Madrid was Italian powerhouse Juventus, which Real Madrid defeated in last years’ Champions League final. Real Madrid easily won the first leg 3-0, behind two Ronaldo goals, one being a jaw-dropping overhead kick that will be remembered for years to come. The second leg, however, brought the drama and intrigue that had been lacking in Real Madrid’s tournament run so far. Real Madrid were down 3-0 and looked to be heading to overtime after Juventus staged a fantastic comeback, but in added time, Real Madrid was awarded a penalty kick. Who else but Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up to take the kick? Ronaldo blasted the ball past Juventus’ backup goalie Szczęsny (the starter Buffon was sent off for arguing with the ref) and Real Madrid found themselves in their seventh straight Champions League semifinals on a 3-3 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich had a much easier path to the semi-finals than Real. The German giants did place 2nd in their group behind P.S.G., but this ended being a stroke of luck. Bayern faced a weak winner in Besiktas in the Round of 16, defeating them 8-1 over two legs. Bayern then had to deal with Sevilla, who had defeated Manchester United previous round. Many though Bayern would post a similar aggregate score against Sevilla to the one they did against Besiktas, but Bayern struggled. Bayern won 2-1 on the road against Sevilla and drew 0-0 at home. This was enough for Bayern to punch their ticket to the semis but was not the convincing performance many fans were looking for.

Liverpool found themselves out of reach of a Premier League title early this year. As a result, they were able to focus a lot of their attention on the Champions League. In December, manager Jurgen Klopp admitted that it looks like they could be “second, third or fourth this season.” However, he has remained optimistic about Liverpool’s Champions League aspirations, saying the following about the Europe’s elite teams.

“I think we belong there [with the elite], to be honest –– it should not be a big surprise,” said Klopp. Liverpool won their group win a meager three wins, but scored 23 goals across all six matches. This stat would foreshadow the dominance Liverpool’s front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino would display in the later rounds of the tournament. Liverpool began their campaign against Porto, winning the first game 5-0 and drawing the second 0-0. All members of Liverpool’s attacking trio scored in the victory. In the quarter-finals, Liverpool were facing Manchester City, the English champions, as a clear underdog. But the Reds didn’t flinch, winning 3-0 in the first leg at home behind a fantastic Mohamed Salah performance and 2-1 in the second leg, again lead by Salah.

Roma, who won their group, began their tournament run by winning on away goals against Shakhtar Donetsk 2-2. Many believed after this poor performance, Roma were doomed to exit in the quarter-finals against Spanish champions Barcelona. After losing 4-1 in the first leg at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, the matchup seemed all but over. Then, a magical night in Rome changed everything. Heavily favored Barcelona conceded early on in the second leg. Roma had hope. They scored against on a penalty kick in the 56th minute, and got their winning goal in the 82nd minute. The one away goal scored in their 4-1 defeat proved to be crucial, as Roma tied on aggregate score 4-4 but won on away goals.

It is easy to see that these four excellent teams all deserve to be in the semi-finals. Liverpool dominated their opposition, Bayern calmly smothered theirs, Roma staged a fantastic comeback, and Real Madrid flexed their muscles as the tournament’s most daunting side. Despite this, many people already picked out their favorites to win: Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. However, if there’s anything we should learn from the Champions League tournament, it is that being a favorite means nothing. In fact, it means even less this year considering Bayern Munich and Real Madrid were drawn to face each other. The other matchup, obviously, would be Liverpool versus Roma.

The first legs of these matches were played on Tuesday, April 24 and Wednesday, April 25. Liverpool and Roma were the first to play, and the match did not disappoint. Liverpool, once again carried on the legs of Mohamed Salah, cruised to a 5-0 lead within 70 minutes! Salah bagged the first two goals in the 34th and 44th minutes. Mane grabbed his goal in the 55th minute, and Firmino got two of his own in the 60th and 67th minutes, both assisted by Salah. Behind these performances, Salah has put himself in serious contention for the Ballon D’or, the most prestigious award an individual player can win. It given to the best player of the year in world football, which has been Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi for the past 10 years. So, with a 5-0 lead and perhaps the best player in the world on their side, Liverpool looked to be easily advancing to the finals. However, in similar fashion to their previous match against Barcelona, Roma got themselves a lifeline. This time, it wasn’t one but two goals, both scored past the 80th minute. Roma, instead of needing a 6-0 victory at home to win the match, only needs a 3-0 victory to advance.

Roma had a tall mountain to climb in the second leg, and seeing as they were able to win 3-0 versus Barcelona on the road, nobody wrote the Italians off. However, Liverpool’s prolific offense proved to be too much for Roma. Liverpool grabbed a goal from Mane in the 9th minute, and Roma responded thanks to an own goal from Liverpool midfielder James Milner. Liverpool scored again in the 25th minute by Georginio Wijnaldum, and again Roma came back with a goal of their own, this time from Dzeko. Roma did take the lead in the 86th minute with a goal from Nainggolan, and the drama increased when he scored again in the 94th minute. However, Roma still needed one more goal and had only 1 more minute to get it. They were unable to pull through, and Liverpool clinched their first final since 2005 on an aggregate win of 6-7.

Real Madrid and Bayern Munich delivered an equally as enticing first leg as Liverpool and Roma did. Bayern jumped out to a 1-0 lead after a goal from Joshua Kimmich in the 27th minute and it looked to be their night. The German team was dominating Real, creating more chances and holding more of the ball. However, just before halftime, left-back Marcelo drilled a volley from just outside the 18 yard box to level the score. Shortly after halftime, Spanish prodigies Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez combined to give Real Madrid the lead. Bayern once again were possessing the ball in Real’s half when a turnover gave the speedy youngsters an opportunity to punish Bayern. Vazquez flashed up the pitch and unselfishly passed the ball to Asensio, who calmly finished his chance. The score remained 2-1, and Bayern found themselves in very tight spot heading into the second leg.

The second leg was played two weeks later, and it did not disappoint. Bayern, who needed to score at least two goals, scored within the first five minutes: Joshua Kimmich headed home a cross from inside the box. However, Real Madrid were able to respond six minutes later with a header of their own. Karim Benzema, whose position in the team as a starter has been in question, scored the vital goal from inside the box. Just after halftime, disaster struck for Bayern. A slow back pass was played to Bayern keeper Sven Ulreich, who had been filling in all season for injured star Manuel Neuer. Ulreich ran towards the ball, slid as if to pick it up with his hands, but then pulled out at the last second, presumably realizing this would result a free kick for Real Madrid. He then attempted to reach his leg out to stop the ball, but it slipped underneath his legs. Benzema scored the easiest goal of his career with the empty net tap-in, and Bayern was in big trouble. However, shortly after, Bayern got one of two needed goals to advance to the next round. This one came from the Real Madrid player on loan to Bayern Munich for two seasons: James Rodriguez. After scoring, James did not celebrate, solemnly holding up his hands to show respect for his parent club. For the next 30 minutes, Bayern was knocking on Real’s door, but ultimately came up short. Real Madrid was through to their fourth final in five years with the opportunity to win their third straight title.

It could be argued that this year’s final of Real Madrid versus Liverpool has more intrigue than any final in recent years. First, an English team is in the final for the first time since 2012, when Chelsea made the final and won. Additionally, the most exciting player in football right now, Mohamed Salah, has his chance to put the pressure on Ronaldo and Messi for the Ballon D’or. A Liverpool victory and strong performance for Salah will put him in serious consideration for the award. There are numerous other reasons, like the David versus Goliath tale, Real Madrid’s three-peat, and Liverpool’s notorious European history, that this final will be one to remember. All that can be said is that May 26, the day of the final, cannot come soon enough.

Will The Clasico Be a Classic?

in Columns/Out of Left Field/Sports by

What we have this week is really a treat, with Real Madrid fighting to save their season and to begin 2013 on the front foot. The match on Tuesday against Barcelona in the second leg of their Copa del Rey clash was a great start to a three game run that will decide whether Mourinho was a successful coach in Spain or not.  Starting with a 3-1 victory in this run of games sets the tone for how things should play out in the future, but really, the score line of this one game should not be exaggerated because what seems like Madrid’s dominance could also be seen as a symptom of Barca’s continuing failure.

The first thing to look at is the game itself and how for once Mourinho got the tactics right and a referee who was not willing to be bullied by Barcelona. This combination enabled Real Madrid to provide a solid defensive effort without the threat of being penalised for every challenge. Admittedly, Barcelona did try it on a bit despite the fact that Roura knew that he wasn’t going to get any favours, but old habits die hard and a lifetime of training can’t be overturned for one match. With Mallenco in charge Madrid had a chance to get their tackles in without being punished unfairly. However, the tactical battle during the match was much more interesting than what was happening with the referee. Much like in the Milan game, Roura had no idea what to do to tactically break down Madrid once plan A had failed. Against Milan there was no incision, there was little magic from Messi, and the ball simply moved from wing to wing via Xavi and Iniesta. The same things happened on Tuesday, with the occasional shot from Pedro and Iniesta when they cut inside. The Alba goal at the end was from a lovely chip over the backline by Iniesta but it was probably the only through ball in the final third that reached its target. Barcelona once again had 62% of possession and very little to show for it, but that was because of the Madrid game plan: bring the fullbacks in and keep one defensive line. By congesting the middle of the penalty area and letting the Barcelona midfield take long range efforts Real Madrid managed to nullify almost every Barcelona attempt. Varane was particularly impressive all game and proved that against Barca all you have to do is look for the interceptions and resist the urge to get stuck in, unlike Pepe. In the end there was only going to be one result once Ronaldo scored the first goal since it meant Barca had to chase the game against a team that was quite happy to give two thirds of the pitch up.

 

The next two games coming up will really show how Mourinho wants to be remembered in Madrid. The game on Saturday against Barcelona will give an indication as to the team for next week. Having played and beaten Barcelona in the match that mattered, there will be two possibilities for the Classico this weekend: either Mourinho will field a strong team and show that he wants to beat Barcelona for pride or he will bench several major players and set his sight on winning in Manchester. Either way, there will be a lot of politics in his decision and his legacy will rely on how well he does. If he sacrifices the next Classico then it will show that he has truly given up on La Liga and that he plans to focus on winning the Champions League. It will also show that Mourinho is willing to sacrifice his feud with Barcelona for a chance at some silverware, a decision that would be unpopular with the Madrid faithful but would be understood by the board. However, Mourinho has too much history with Barcelona to simply roll over in favour of beating Man U, all the eye poking and other shenanigans would have been for nothing.

But with the greater prize in the Champions League and most of the Real Madrid team available for the return leg, it would be silly for Mourinho to risk it all by trying to get a few points off Barcelona that probably won’t matter in the end. The Champions League is winnable because Real Madrid is in a good position and the competition shouldn’t scare them too much. United have been able to win despite playing poorly in Europe most of the season, and against a Madrid team hot off a Classico win they may just fold. Against QPR it took a Rafael wonder goal and a lapse of judgement at the end of the game from an overrated group of defenders to win. Man U have found a way to win a lot of matches playing poorly and have rode their luck a lot of the way too, but without Phil Jones to pick up Ronaldo and maybe without a fully fit Van Persie there is a good chance that Madrid could dominate the game by controlling the middle of the field. It might just be time to call the final as being a Bayern Munich – Real Madrid face off. Also with Barcelona 2-0 down against a Milan team than knows how to defend competently at times and Barca showing that their possession football is not scoring them a lot of goals against quality sides it should be a good year for Madrid to put in a CL challenge. Anyway, depending on what team Mourinho starts on Saturday we’ll know whether he plans to go all out for the rest of the season on all fronts or whether he is going to be more tactical and hedge his bets on CL success, his third and Madrid’s tenth.

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