Champions League

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Dortmund, Madrid have points to prove

FOX Soccer News previews this week's Champions League semifinals.
FOX Soccer News previews this week's Champions League semifinals.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The prospect of ignominy - or worse, anonymity - can be a powerful motivator. And both Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid (live, FX, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET) have a point to prove on in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semifinals as a result of one.

They are the also-rans in their domestic leagues, the ones we might not remember when the year is out. Both teams fell far behind their respective archrivals early, and for all their talent and investment, were never able to close the gap. It was an unjust fate. They were excellent, two of the better teams we’ve seen – but overshadowed. Beautiful though they may have been, they were only good enough to be bridesmaids, to adorn the spot just below the top perch in the standings. Nobody ever remembers what the bridesmaid looked like.

But Real Madrid and Dortmund can change that. By winning the Champions League, they could crash the wedding. All they have to do is beat the other, on Wednesday and then again next Tuesday and then win the final at Wembley on May 25. Sounds easy, right?

Certainly, both are deserving. And there is a measure of cruelty in either of these sides having another club loom over them domestically, for if they’d come along at just about any other time, they would have dominated. It’s just that Madrid ran into perhaps the greatest club side of all time in Barcelona, and that Dortmund has been overtaken by a Bayern Munich side that has the capacity to end up in the same conversation.

ROAD TO WEMBLEY

Watch the best shots from this week's UEFA Champions League semifinal round.

Real Madrid sports some of the world’s best forwards in Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel di Maria and Karim Benzema – with no less than Gonzalo Higuain coming off the bench – capable of tormenting Dortmund’s defensive line without cease or mercy with their quick interchanges and physicality. Real’s central trio of Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira will feed the forwards a steady diet of long balls and through balls, traffic which Dortmund’s midfield will have to find a way to stifle.

Dortmund won the last two Bundesliga titles with a swashbuckling swagger born of their collection of mesmerizing young talent and their adeptness with the ball. Ilkay Gundogan, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze – who will, horror of horrors, join Bayern this summer – hold the reins to their offense. Polish striker Robert Lewandowski adds size and precision, conspiring to make Dortmund a lethally quick and efficient side. But while Dortmund have been colossal at home, in front of their famous Yellow Wall, they are at times shaky on the road, meaning they’ll want to build a good lead on Wednesday.

Both managers have an outsized stake in the outcome. Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp can confirm that he’s one of the best soccer minds in the game by winning this trophy. Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, can become only the second manager to ever win the Champions League (or its European Cup predecessor) three times and the first to do it with three different teams. What’s more, if Mourinho is to have any hope of retaining his job, he’ll have to land Real’s 10th continental crown.

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When Real first came to Dortmund during the group stage, the sides ran at each other full bore, with Gotze and Ronaldo stealing the show. Dortmund ultimately won out 2-1 on a Marcel Schmelzer tally. In Madrid, Dortmund held another 2-1 lead until the 89th minute, when Ozil snuck in a free kick at the near post. Real controlled the ball for the most part in both games, but Dortmund’s intricate passing and razor-sharp counter attacks ultimately won them the series. These sides are fairly similar in their tactical disposition, then, as Real will also lurk on a quick counter against a strong opponent. It’s just that during the group stage, Dortmund were ever so slightly more efficient at it than Real were.

But all that precedent counts for little now. This time around, their honor is at stake.

Not to mention the biggest club trophy on earth.

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