The Road to Wembley – Champions League Semifinal Preview

Champions League Trophy & Final Match Ball at Wembley

As unscripted as this year’s Champions League has been, it seems that the final four could not be more straightforward. The dominance that all four teams have established throughout the year has been a reflection of the immense progress that Spanish and German soccer has taken, with advancements in their soccer infrastructures over the last 20 years. This establishment clearly indicates the dominance over, both international and club level tournaments since. The last three international tournaments have seen Spain crowned as worthy champions, with the Germans reaching the 2008 Euro Final and the semifinal in both the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros.

The semifinal draw has paired one German giant with a rival Spanish giant. Bayern were the first team drawn followed by Barcelona, leaving Madrid and Dortmund to face off in the other tie. Each first leg matchup will take place in Germany on April 23rd or 24th, followed by the second leg in Spain on April 30th and May 1st. There is no shortage of subplots leading up to the two ties and for soccer fans around the globe, the prospect of a Clasico final still weighs in the balance.

Bayern vs. Barcelona

Lionel Messi

The World’s Best

The first match up will see the soon to be champions of their respective leagues fighting it out for a spot at Wembley. Bayern became the fastest team ever to clinch the Bundesliga title this past weekend with 6 games remaining. Barcelona seems destined to reclaim the Spanish title from Real Madrid, maintaining a 13-point gap with 8 games remaining.

Bayern and Barca last met in the Champions League in 2009, when Barcelona knocked the Bavarians out in the quarterfinals. Since then, Bayern Munich have gone on to reach the final twice (2010 & 2012), losing both times. Barcelona, on the other hand, has seen its dominance in the competition reach far beyond that of any other team in the modern era. In the Champions League, Barcelona has reached seven out of the last 8 semifinals, only losing to Liverpool in 2007 during the round of 16. They have also been crowned champions 3-times (2006, 2009, and 2011) and are the only team to ever reach 6 consecutive semi-finals. The Blaugrana will continue to do everything they can to remain a dominant force in Europe’s top club competition against the team their former manager will be joining next year.

It seems hard to imagine that Pep Guardiola can improve on Bayern’s current success, especially if they are able to knock the Catalans off their perch. Pep will have a close eye on the tie, but depending on what the outcome is, it could be a lose-lose situation for the former Barca manager. If Bayern do come out on top, it will show that the Germans aren’t in desperate need of him. For Barcelona, fans undoubtedly cannot say that he is the missing factor considering the Bluagrana were knocked out at the same level of the competition last year and did not win La Liga. So in a sense, all bets are on that deep down Pep will want his former team to go through.

The matchup is certain to be a nose-to-nose knock out tie, with both teams possessing tremendous technical capabilities and relentless fluid attacking. Bayern has marched past its opponents rather easily in prior rounds, while the Catalans looked quite susceptible to the wide counter-attacking of PSG. This will be the key to unlocking Barcelona’s consistent possession game. If Bayern are able to tie down the likes of Messi, with Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger, they can then launch a lethal and wide counter with Robben and Ribery. Ribery will be the key factor for Bayern given that Alves likes to get far up the pitch, leaving space in behind. If the game is a caged affair, which is not very likely, then some great match-ups to watch will be the young attacking Austrian left-back David Alaba against the experienced Brazilian Dani Alves. Both love to push forward in attack and both will have their hands full with the attack of the opposite.

Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund

Cristiano Ronaldo

Madrid’s Key to Success

Dortmund now stands in the way of the long awaited and historic La Decima for Madrid. On paper this seems the perfect draw for Madrid, but if we were to look at the results from the group stages, Dortmund would have its own say. Both came out of group D with Dortmund coming out on top. In those two group games Madrid only claimed one point, losing in Germany and salvaging a last grasp draw at home with a late Mesut Ozil free kick. Madrid knocked out the then reigning champs Dortmund in the 1997-1998 European Cup, but since 2000, Madrid are winless in its last 9 trips to Germany in the Champions League.

Jose Mourinho will surely be looking at this as a chance to do what he does best, defying odds, and beating teams in the latter stages of the competition after losing to them in the earlier stages. In 2010, Inter were beaten in the group stages by Barcelona only to come back and beat Barcelona and eventually win the title against Bayern.

Madrid and Dortmund are both in second place in their respective leagues. Both sides posses the capability to hold the ball for long periods of time and launch scathing counter-attacks with speed and precision. The first leg will be played in Germany, so Madrid will want to end their winless streak on German soil. Before the heroics in Dortmund against Malaga in the quarters, both teams seemed to be going in opposite directions. Madrid was on the incline after beating Barcelona in consecutive matches and knocking out English giants Manchester United in the round of 16. Dortmund meanwhile, had been well below par after losing to Bayern in the German Cup and tying Shakhtar and Malaga. In each of their previous first leg ties Dortmund could only muster draws, but came back to win at home, in the latter winning in epic style with two goals in stoppage time.

In the group stage games between the two, Madrid seemed to have trouble with the speed at which Dortmund attacked, with the likes of Rues, Lewandowski, and Gotze on the break. Ronaldo was held at bay in both ties and was unable to get the service needed because of Dortmund’s high pressure. Both go into the tie in pretty good shape health wise, and Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos will be reinstated to the starting lineup after serving a one match ban for yellow cards picked up against Galatasaray in the first leg of the last round. One problem for Mourinho will be the absence of Arbeloa due to his red card after coming on to replace the injured Michael Essien. If Essien is not fit for the tie, then Mourinho will be forced to either move Ramos out to right back, where he is not as effective as when in the center, and have Pepe come in to partner with Varane, both of whom looked lackluster in the last game in Turkey, or he could experiment with Sami Khedira at right back.

Just like in any other match Ronaldo will prove to be the game changer. The leading scorer in the Champions League with five goals in his last four matches, Ronaldo seems to be on a mission of his own to reclaim the top spot that Messi has sat on for the last four years. If Alonso gets time to play those long diagonal balls, or to play with Ozil who always finds space and picks out the right pass for Ronaldo, then Ronaldo will prove to be a huge problem given his current form.

Whatever the outcome is, all four teams are worthy of their spots in the semifinals, and all four posses the qualities of being crowned as worthy champions. If you’re any bit of crazy about soccer as we are here at soccerloco, then these ties will prove to be thrilling and provide us with some of the best soccer we’ve seen in a while.

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