My piece for the Boot Room on the Champions League and Europa League semifinals. I don’t think there’s one clear winner for either. We are in for, hopefully, some really good football.
The Champions League and Europa League return this week and nothing is guaranteed. Manchester City play Real Madrid while Bayern Munich face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. The Europa League sees Liverpool take on Villarreal as Sevilla battle Shaktar Donetsk. Each tournament has its favourites but their competitors are just as likely to progress. Each tie has its own fascinating tactical battles and the story lines for each team to consider as well. Barcelona’s defeat at the hands of Atletico mean that Bayern are the favourites for the Champions League. It’s certainly ironic that they face the team best-placed to stop them short of that goal.
Bayern will expect to dominate any of these teams in possession but the level of defensive intensity they face against Atletico will be huge test – just ask Barcelona. Pep Guardiola certainly has the options to match Diego Simeone’s team physically but the Spaniard won’t want to deviate from his preferred method of play unless absolutely necessary. Atletico are one of the few sides that are well-prepared to give up possession as part of their game plan yet pose a dangerous threat in attack. If the likes of Antoine Griezmann or Fernando Torres make the most of their chances then Atletico could be headed for another upset. The worry for the Spaniards is that too much focus on defensive endeavours will leave them toothless in attack. Bayern may well have preferred to face Real Madrid or Manchester City despite their more potent attacking threats as both have had their defensive issues this season.
The tie between City and Real Madrid could be an open affair. City may be more comfortable with the ball in their possession, but their performances against Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round show just how potent they can be on the counter, especially with Kevin De Bruyne leading the way. Madrid have been in really good form since the victory over Barcelona in the most recent Clasico. A comeback victory against Wolfsburg in the recent round and domestically against Rayo Vallecano this past weekend means Zinedine Zidane’s side will be full of confidence. Madrid haven’t particularly impressed when favoured to win a tie, as their victories over Wolfsburg and Roma could well have ended up in defeat with better performances from their opponents, but City will like being the underdog. Throw in Manuel Pellegrini’s interest in getting one over the club that unceremoniously let him go, and they most certainly will not lack motivation.
The Europa League is Europe’s second tier competition but there was some quality play in the knock-out rounds. The four teams in the semi-finals were key to that quality and deserving of their current position. Sevilla will be favourites, they are looking for a third straight tournament victory after all, but there’s plenty to be excited about as the tournament comes to a close.
Sevilla face a winner of the predecessor of the Europa League; the UEFA Cup, in a Shakhtar side that had become much more accustomed to life in the Champions League. Their experience in that competition, generally reach the knockout rounds, has shown in their run to the semifinals. Attacking talents such as Taison, Wellington Nem and Bernard along with experienced heads such as Darijo Srna and Eduardo make them tough opposition. Sevilla will be well-prepared with Unai Emery at the helm but this has the looks of a very tight tie.
Nobody would have seen Liverpool and Villarreal as European semi-finalists at the beginning of the season. Jurgen Klopp has come in and transformed this Liverpool side, culminating in 4-3 second leg victory of Borussia Dortmund that vaulted them to this stage. Marcelino Toral’s Villarreal has progressed well in the last few seasons domestically, and are now reaping those rewards on the European stage. It will be the case of a well-organised, tactically sound Villarreal side against Liverpool’s ‘heavy metal’ football. Surely, it will be fun to watch and we are in for a feast of football.
All the semi-finalists are going through relatively good periods of form or recently picked up vital confidence-building results. Each team also has defining story-lines playing a part in their motivation.
Liverpool and City will feel the pressure of carrying the torch of the Premier League, having seen the league dramatically under-perform in recent seasons. A trip to the final would be a solid platform for a Liverpool resurgence while City will want to truly join the European elite. Shakhtar Donetsk have plenty of European experience but have ultimately failed to have success. Sevilla chase history while Bayern Munich look; hopefully, to repeat it and cement Guardiola’s legacy at the club. Atletico will want further vindication that their approach will work while Madrid can improve upon an astounding European legacy. Villarreal will see this as another step forward in their return to upper level of La Liga.
The final four of the Champions League and the Europa League will provide plenty of excitement. Despite supposed favourites, no team is a clear winner of their tie or the tournament. We’ve seen what happened to the teams previously in that category, Barcelona in the Champions League and Dortmund in the Europa League. European club football is considered the best in the world and the challengers in the continent’s two premier competitions have a chance to prove just that.