Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Your Champions League Semifinal Primer

Can Ronaldo carry Real Madrid to a Champions League title?

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial) and Alejandro Vargas (@callmejandro)

The UEFA Champions League quarterfinals saw two huge upsets as Barcelona and PSG crashed out of the tournament, setting the stage for a fascinating, yet unpredictable round. The draw kept apart the two teams from Madrid, and denied Pep Guardiola the opportunity to face his club for next season, Manchester City, at least until a potential final.  

Who will be able to fight off their nerves and progress to the final in Milan? Alejandro and myself examine… 

Atletico Madrid vs. Bayern Munich / 1st leg April 27th 2:45 PM in Madrid/ 2nd leg May 3rd 2:45PM in Munich.


League standing: Bayern Munich 1st, ahead by 7 points. Atletico Madrid 2nd, even on points with 1st.

Diego Simeone's Atlético have reached the last four for the second time in three years, while Bayern are appearing at this stage for the fifth season in a row. This is Atlético's fifth European Cup semifinal appearance, and their record is a respectable 2-2. The Spanish side have not lost at home in a European Cup semifinal and are unbeaten in their last five home matches against German clubs. Bayern have won only two of their last 12 trips to Spain, and have not won any of their last seven knockout games away from home.

Did you know?

Simeone and Guardiola were regular opponents as players, playing in ten club matches when Simeone was with Atlético and Sevilla FC, and Guardiola was at Barcelona. Simeone recorded three wins to Guardiola's four, although the Argentinian did come out on top in the 1996 Copa del Rey final, with Atlético winning 1-0 after extra time.

Probable Starting XI

Atlético Madrid: GK Jan Oblak RB Juanfran CB Jose Gimenez CB Stefan Savic M Saul M Gabi LW Yannick Carrasco RW Koke F Antoine Griezmann F Fernando Torres

Bayern Munich: GK Manuel Neuer RB Philipp Lahm CB Medhi Benatia CB Javi Martinez LB David Alaba M Arturo Vidal M Thiago M Douglas Costa M Mario Gotze F Thomas Muller F Robert Lewandowski

Justin: A tactically sound midfield is imperative whenever going up against a defense led by Diego Simeone. For Bayern, Arturo Vidal and Thiago are the keys that will be tasked with busting open that lock. Vidal’s physicality should bode well against Atletico’s rough and rumble tactics, allowing the Bavarians to build up from the center before playing the ball wide to their danger men. He also provided an unexpected scoring punch last round with a goal in each leg against Benfica. 

Thiago has been in a bit of a slump this term, and would love nothing more than to impress in his adopted homeland. With the Euro’s fast approaching, Tiago’s selection to the national side isn’t as cut and dry as previously believed. Getting back to his best will not only be imperative to securing a spot in France, but it could be the difference in Bayern playing in the final.

Alejandro: The resurgence of “El Niño” Fernando Torres (Atletico) has been enjoyable to witness this season. With eight goals in his last 14 appearances he has shown that he remains one of the top threats any side can face. Atletico’s shutdown defensive line will miss the Uruguayan international Diego Godin, which will give hope to the ever-ready attacking front of Bayern Munich, spearheaded by Robert Lewandowski. 

If that wasn’t enough cause for concern, Thomas Muller (Bayern) is capable of scoring from anywhere on the pitch. Look for these attackers on both sides of the pitch to attempt to impose their will against strong defenses.

Deciding factor

Justin: This is a fascinating matchup in so many ways, but the chess match I will be most captivated by is the one played by the two men in the slim-fit suits. This tie is a soccer aficionado'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. 

Simeone’s side was masterful against Barca in mixing up it’s pressing, while always looking to threaten on the counter attack. Guardiola, meanwhile, has reached this stage of the competition all seven years he has roamed the touchline, but in the last two seasons, Spanish sides have been his undoing- Real Madrid in 2014 and Barcelona last year. 

This matchup could present even more problems for his side, as Bayern is brilliant going forward but continues to make mistakes at the back. Whichever manager is able to implement his game plan more effectively could make the difference in such an even matchup.  

Alejandro: After the improbable comeback that Atletico accomplished against defending champions Barcelona, Los Rojiblancos will be flying high with confidence and aiming to play spoiler for Bayern Munich, who hope to duplicate their championship performance of 2013. Bayern will be favored in this matchup, and with Manuel Neuer between the posts, Atletico will have to be at the top of their game to get balls past the man who has just tied the Bundesliga record for most clean sheets in a season (20). 

If Atletico can keep their shape and hold formation in the back line, Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann (Atletico) should have a number of chances to tarnish Neuer’s record. It will all come down to the confidence that Atletico can maintain, and the grit and determination that Bayern will surely come out of the gate with.


Justin: Bayern have more talent, experience, money and prestige. Sound familiar? Atletico faced the same, but slayed the dragon that is Barcelona by sticking to their defensive principles and making the most of their scoring chances when they presented themselves. 

Bayern possess a different type of challenge, in that Barcelona are overly reliant on their forward trio, who were well below their best in the second leg, while Bayern combine world class forwards in a more structured and variable side that can hurt you in many ways. Still, there’s just something magical about this Atletico side in which their coach always seems to pull every last drop of talent from their pores. Atletico goes through, 2-1.

Alejandro: It’s raining shots on goal in this one. Atletico will rely on their stalwart back line to not allow Bayern’s attackers good chances and, conversely, Bayern will look to have the ball locked up in the midfield at the feet of Douglas Costa and Arturo Vidal to avoid allowing Torres and Griezmann to pelt Manuel Neuer. 

This Atletico side have an aura about them that is tenable, even through television screens and radio waves, Atletico wins on aggregate 4-2.

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City / 1st leg April 26th 2:45 PM in Manchester/ 2nd leg May 4th 2:45 PM in Madrid.


League standing: Manchester City 3rd, 12 points behind 1st. Real Madrid 3rd, 1 point behind 1st

This is Manchester City’s first semifinal appearance in this competition, while Madrid are in the last four for a record 27th time, holding an even win-loss record of 13-13. Although they are in a sixth successive Champions League semifinal, Madrid have won only once in that sequence – against Bayern München in 2013/14, when they went on to win a tenth title. 

This will mark only the second time these sides have ever met in the competition, with Madrid winning one and drawing the other in the 2012/13 group-stage.

Did you know?

City manager Manuel Pellegrini was in charge of Madrid in 2009/10, before he was replaced by Jose Mourinho, despite achieving a then-club record 96 points and finishing second in La Liga to Barcelona. 

His side were knocked out of the UEFA Champions League in the round of 16 by Olympique Lyonnais and were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by third-tier Alcorcón. Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Álvaro Arbeloa are the only surviving squad members of Pellegrini's Madrid reign.

Probable Starting XI

Manchester City: GK Joe hart RB Aleksandar Kolarov CB Nicolás Otamendi CB Vincent Kompany LB Pablo Zabaleta M Fernando M Fernandinho M Jesus Navas M Kevin De Bruyne M David Silva F Sergio Aguero
Real Madrid: GK Keylor Navas RB Dani Carvajal CB Pepe CB Sergio Ramos LB Marcelo M Casemiro M Toni Kroos M Luka Modric LW Cristiano Ronaldo RW Gareth Bale F Karim Benzema

Justin: Trying to play the role of contrarian, I’ve purposely avoided picking Cristiano Ronaldo as my player to watch throughout this tournament but, begrudgingly, I just can’t fake it any longer. The Portuguese single-handedly put Madrid on his back, scoring an incredible hat-trick to overturn a 2-0 aggregate deficit to Wolfsburg

Ronaldo now has 16 goals in this season’s competition, one short of his own record for a single European Cup campaign, set in 2013/14. Having missed this past weekend's league game with a slight tweak of his thigh, it’ll be interesting to see just how much of an effect, if any, this will have on his effectiveness. Returning back to Manchester against his once hated rival will only provide more motivation for a player who appears hell bent on winning this tournament almost single handedly.

Alejandro: I have not avoided the stark reality of pointing to Cristiano Ronaldo as being the man to watch any time he is on the field. Although given my esteemed colleague Mr. Sherman’s proclivity towards Real Madrid, it has been admirable to see his restraint in playing favorites. Real Madrid are certainly not short of stars, as Gareth Bale has fallen into form spectacularly for Los Blancos and Sergio Ramos is recognized as one of the most aggressive and relentless defenders in the world. 

Having said that, I have repeated time and again the strengths of this Manchester City side, and they are not short of talent either, although Argentine star Sergio Aguero will want to pick up what has been a disappointing Champions League campaign thus far with only 2 goals in 10 appearances. 

Look for the returning Vincent Kompany to establish himself in the Manchester City defense, especially with the absence of Yaya Toure, out with a knock suffered against Stoke City, who has appeared in all but one Champions League matches thus far (it is important to note that the match Toure missed was the win against Paris Saint-Germain that saw Man City through to the semis).

Deciding factor

Justin: City are unbeaten in seven games across all competitions, and it’s no coincidence the streak began with the return of Kevin De Bruyne. On the sidelines for a little over two months with a knee injury, the Belgian was critical in getting the Citizens past PSG in the last round with goals in both legs, including the match winner in Manchester. 

With his wide range passing and ability to test a goalie from any distance, the Madrid backline must be aware of his presence at all times. For Real Madrid, they come in a little bit hobbled and it remains to be seen just how fit Ronaldo and Benzema will be come game time. Benzema was pulled from Saturday’s game with a hamstring issue and missed training on Monday, while Ronaldo was only able to do some light running on the side. Without a traditional forward on the bench to replace him, Benzema’s availability/effectiveness could tilt the tie either way.

Alejandro: Real will look to be the aggressor in this matchup, especially with Cristiano in the form that he has been in, netting 16 goals in this year’s Champion’s League campaign. I will have to agree with Justin on a key issue in this analysis -- Karim Benzema could very well win or lose this matchup for Real. 

Benzema has caused about as much agony as he has joy for Real fans in the past. When he has his boots sighted, he is one of the most clinical finishers in the game, but when he is off his game, especially against a keeper of the likes of Joe Hart (City), he could lead Real’s efforts wanting for lack of a clean finish, and Man City could make them pay dearly for that.  


Justin: My esteemed colleague correctly predicted City to advance last round when I didn’t see a chance. Their defense was a bit better than I expected, while I also underestimated their organization in the midfield. So, naturally, I should afford the team from Manchester much more respect this time around -- wrong. 

Madrid possess the much more experienced side and have the benefit of playing the 2nd leg in Madrid, a place they have been practically unbeatable under Zidane. Madrid wins, 3-2.

Alejandro: For all intents and purposes, as they are in nearly every match they appear in, Real Madrid is favored to win. As mentioned earlier, if Benzema holds himself together and does not make mistakes, enough attention could be drawn to him for either Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale to allow Real the space they need to score. Joe Hart (Man City) will do everything in his power to keep the ball out of the City goal, and the City midfield led by Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are more than capable of doing their part in terrorizing Keylor Navas. 

This is going to be one the of toughest calls of the year, although not necessarily statistically (Real lead in all numerical categories), but rather based on selfishness and pride. Having picked City to go through in all of the knockout stages, and seeing them do so, has endeared their side to me. Everyone loves a Cinderella story, Man City advances, 3-3 aggregate (5-4 on penalties at the Bernabeu).

** Each match can be seen on FS1

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