The UEFA Semifinals: So Many Storylines!

We are finally here: the UEFA Champions League and Europa League semifinals, the “squeaky bum time” of European competition. This year’s competition has already stirred up some amazing storylines: Manchester United’s long fall from the glory of the Ferguson days, followed by their near holding of Bayern Munich; the rise of PSG and Atletico Madrid to serious contenders in UEFA competition; Dortmund’s injury-ravaged squad gradually running of steam.The Europa League has also thrown up some great headlines: Valencia’s impossible comeback from a 3-0 first leg deficit to reach the semifinal, FC Porto completely crumbling under the pressure and shipping three first-half goals against Sevilla; Andrea Pirlo continuing to be the master of the free kick. But now, at long last, at the Semifinals of UEFA Competition, some truly delicious storylines have been conjured up in the matchups between these teams.

Champions League Semifinal 1: Bayern Munich v. Real Madrid

The big guns of European competition – the two most dominant forward lines in football – are finally going to meet in the semifinal. This is the fifth time that Bayern and Real Madrid have met in UEFA competition, with Bayern Munich edging past Mourinho’s Madrid on penalties in 2012 after Sergio Ramos did his best punter impression from the spot. From the get-go, these are two of the giants of European football, two of the three wealthiest teams in sport, and the two most star-studded lineups of the bunch. It’s a chance for vengeance, or to turn the screws. Carlo Ancelotti has also been fairly successful against German opposition, having never lost in six attempts (four wins, two draws).

It also marks the return of a number of players and coaches to the Santiago Bernabeu: Arjen Robben was a Madrid player from 2007-2009, while Pep Guardiola returns to face the team that he beat five times in a row (by an aggregate scoreline of 17-2) as Barcelona coach. Bayern are probably the favourites to advance, but if they play as shakily as they did v. Manchester United then the combined force of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema will probably overwhelm them.

Prediction: Bayern edge it. There will be lots of goals.

Champions League Semifinal 2: Chelsea v. Atletico Madrid

Lots of people didn’t expect either of these teams to make it this far. Chelsea were 3-1 down after the first quarter leg v. Paris St. Germain, but clawed their way back into the tie courtesy of Laurent Blanc’s tactical ineptness and Jose Mourinho’s micromanagement of game tactics (and also Demba Ba). Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, drew Barcelona at the Camp Nou before comprehensively outplaying, outthinking, out-running, out-fighting, and out-scoring them at a charged Vicente Calderon stadium; the 1-0 scoreline does not do justice to their superiority, and barring the crossbar they could have had four goals in the first half. The most interesting part of this semifinal is definitely the status of one Thibaut Courtois, a Chelsea goalkeeper who has spent the last three seasons on loan at Atletico Madrid, where he has rapidly become the best goalie in the world. After the 2012 UEFA Supercup, a clause was inserted into his contract where Atletico would have to pay three million euros for every game in which Courtois played against Chelsea, and the club’s President Cerezo indicated that this was a prohibitively high fee. UEFA, however, have done something right (for once) and declared the clause “null, void, and unenforceable,” meaning that Courtois will very likely be allowed to play against his parent club. The saga probably isn’t over, but it remains to be seen what exactly will happen – some thing either Courtois or Chelsea will use it as leverage in contract negotiations, or to lower a potential fee for Diego Costa over the summer. I expect Courtois to start in the semi.

Beyond that, it also marks Jose Mourinho’s return against the club that beat his Madrid in the  Copa del Rey final last May at the Santiago Bernabeu. Combine that with this being Atletico Madrid’s first Champions League semifinal appearance since 1974, Fernando Torres returning to face his old club, and Costa and Courtois playing against what is a potential future club, and this is a truly delicious champions league semifinal.

Prediction: If Courtois doesn’t play – Chelsea; if Courtois plays – Atletico Madrid. Either way, it’ll be cagey and strategic from Mourinho v. Simeone.

The Stadium of The Light – the home of the 2014 Champions League Final in Lisbon

Champions League Final: The Possibilities

If it’s Bayern-Chelsea, you get a replay of the 2012 Champions League Final, which is an exciting prospect save for that final being the single most boring game of football I have ever watched. You also get Mourinho v. Guardiola, as the two former colleagues renew their epic and vicious rivalry with one another. It will be a tactical, cagey, physical final, but one that I’d ultimately expect Bayern to edge.

If it’s Real-Chelsea, you get Jose Mourinho versus his former club AND Carlo Ancelotti versus HIS former club. Each has won trophies with the other team. It would also mark Eto’o return against the club that trained him in their youth academy, plus Gareth Bale’s return against English opposition. Real would comfortably win such a final, simply given the sheer firepower in offense and the fact that Chelsea’s strikers are either aging or bad.

If it’s Bayern-Atletico, you get a repeat of the 1974 European Cup Final, where Bayern and Atletico tied 1-1 before the former won the replay 4-1 (the only time a European Cup final has been replayed). Atletico were second away from winning that tie, and it would be an interesting tie to watch. Given Simeone’s success in neutralizing Barcelona this season (one win, four draws, two goals conceded) the edge would seem to be with an Atletico side that know how to stop tiki-taka with intense pressing and solid positional play. Conversely, Guardiola micromanages strategy against every opponent, and has beaten Atletico Madrid countless times from his Barcelona days. I’d give the edge marginally to Bayern, but European clubs have counted Atletico Madrid out at their own peril this year; ask AC Milan, Porto, or Barcelona about that.

If it’s Real-Atletico, you get a Madrid Derby. In the Champions League Final. Expect goals, shouting, riots, diving, and a metric shitton of yellow and red cards. Their last meeting, a 2-2 draw at the Vicente Calderon, produced what was arguably the most entertaining non-Clasico game of the season.

Regardless of the matchup, we’re in for a treat.

The magnificent Juventus Stadium – home of the 2014 Europa League Final

Europa League Semifinal 1: Juventus v. Benfica

Of all the semifinals, this is probably the one with the least sheer drama, though it’s a reflection of the realities of European football that these two titans of the game are in the Europa League to begin with. Both teams dropped in what were eminently winnable groups; Juventus somehow slipped up against Galatasaray and Copenhagen while Benfica dropped the ball against Olympiakos and even a win against PSG wasn’t enough to put them through. Both have navigated the Europa league with considerable ease, and in all honesty this would have been lots of people’s preferred final. They’re easily the two best teams left in the competition, are both miles ahead in their domestic leagues, and both have highly skilled managers in Antonio Conte and Jorge Jesus. Of course, each of them will have extremely strong reasons for getting to the final: for Benfica, it’s a chance to avenge last year’s finals loss against Chelsea and finally dispatch Bella Gutmann’s curse to its grave; for Juventus, it’s an opportunity to play a European final in their magnificent home ground. Whoever comes out of this tie is likely winning the Europa League, and they’ll both want it really badly.

Prediction: It’ll be close, but I give the edge to Juventus – they have a far deeper squad, one of the best midfields in European football, and the chance to win a European trophy at home.

 

Europa League Semifinal 2: Sevilla v. Valencia

Now this is a positively delicious all-Spanish semifinal. First, it disproves the classic “La Liga is boring and uncompetitive and shit” mouth-breathing that comes out of Premier League supporters’ jingoism-addled brains. Sevilla are currently fifth in La Liga, flying high off of seven wins in their last eight games, and absolutely blitzed FC Porto after falling behind in the first leg, putting three goals past the Portuguese side in the space of forty minutes. Valencia, on the other hand, have struggled mightily this season, swapping an away win against Barcelona for being nine points off a Europa League spot. Much of the squad that was supposed to form the second great attempt at glory – Roberto Soldado, Sergio Canales, Adil Rami – is gone, sold off piece-by-piece to finance the enormous debts of the club. They remain in ownership crisis too, with Bankia desperate to bleed as much money out of the sale as they can. Yet despite all this, Valencia produced a brilliant comeback win against FC Basel in their quarterfinal: down 0-3 from the first leg, they leveled the aggregate score before putting two past the nine-man Swiss in extra time to win 5-3 on aggregate – the first such comeback in the Europa League era.

Nationality aside, the big subplot in this game is Unai Emery. Emery was Valencia coach from 2009-2012, coaching the club to three straight third-place finishes, a Europa league quarter and semi, and the Champions League Round of Sixteen. He was unceremoniously dumped by the board in 2012, having never been particularly popular with the club’s fans, and joined Sevilla as manager last year after an altogether brief spell at Spartak Moscow. Emery has been keen to seek vengeance against his old club at every opportunity, relishing Sevilla’s 3-1 victory at the Mestalla earlier this season that marked the beginning of the end for Miroslav Dukic. Such enmity will surely boil to the surface once more.

For Valencia, this represents one final chance at European glory before the long, debt-ridden fall from Europe begins – the dying gasp of a once-great club bankrupted by criminal presidents and poor real estate investment. For Sevilla, this is an opportunity to begin anew, to bring back the glory days of the mid-2000s when Sevilla FC was a force to be reckoned with under Juande Ramos, when the Andalusian club won two UEFA cups in a row, beat Barcelona in the UEFA Supercup, and won two Spanish Cups in four years. Both have everything to play for, and I fully expect them to.

Prediction: Sevilla to edge through and the games to be nasty.

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