Semifinals open endless possibilities
There are only four clubs left standing in the UEFA Champions League. German giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, who have dazzled all season, and Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Spanish archrivals both considered among the best club teams of all time.
They avoided each other in Friday’s semifinals draw, however, as the names emerging from the little balls failed to deliver on a pair of dream matchups. Rather, in the customary exercise in awkwardness, the waffling man on stage – flanked by a retired star and conducting strange stunted interviews with club legends from those involved as the trophy gleamed beside them – coupled Bayern Munich with Barcelona, and Borussia Dortmund with Real Madrid. The German clubs will host the first home games on April 23 and 24, respectively, while the Spanish clubs will put on the returns on April 30 and May 1.
The prospect of a pair of classics in the semifinals had been tantalizing, but the matchups we got instead nevertheless leave open the possibility of getting an all-German or all-Spanish final between much-hated rivals.
And the Bayern-Barca and Dortmund-Real bouts will be riveting all the same.
Bayern reached the semifinals by dismantling Juventus 4-0 on aggregate in the quarterfinals, the way they have almost all comers this season while continuing their quest to avenge their penalties loss at home to Chelsea in last year’s final. Barca stumbled into the final four after a close call against Paris Saint-Germain, in which they needed to score a goal in the final 30 minutes of the second leg to advance, which, of course, they did. They haven’t looked nearly so imperious this season, however, since they also went into the second leg of the round of 16 trailing 2-0 to AC Milan (They won 4-0 at home). But if the Catalans win it, it will be their third Champions League trophy in five seasons, a feat matched only by Real Madrid in recent times, when they did it from 1998 to 2002.
Both clubs play scintillating soccer that brings joy to their fans and neutrals alike. Bayern’s wingers Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben will hope to occupy Barca’s backs Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, while Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luiz Gustavo will have to figure out ways to keep that golden triumvirate of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi from running the show and dissecting them with the thousand paper cuts of their vaunted short passing game.
Dortmund survived a bad scare in the last round. In a thriller against Champions League debutants Malaga, Die Borussen found themselves down 2-1 both in the game and on aggregate in the 91st minute of the second leg when they scraped together the two goals they needed. Their return to Europe’s elite ended a long hiatus as financial troubles crippled the club in the decade following their Champions League victory in 1997. Real Madrid sat pretty in the second leg of the quarterfinals, having beaten Galatasaray 3-0 at home. When they took an early lead through tournament top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, there seemed little to play for. But the Turks staged a furious comeback and with three goals by the 70th minute, were within two of pulling off a miracle of sorts. They fell short, but it put a scare into Real, which has been waiting on its record tenth European title for a decade now.
In the semis, Dortmund and Madrid will face each other for the third and fourth time this Champions League season. They had been drawn together in the group stage, making up the so-called “Group of Death” along with Ajax and Manchester City. Back in the fall, Dortmund won 2-1 at home and they drew 2-2 in Madrid. This will count for little in the semifinals, but it nevertheless underscores that while Dortmund may have a young core of players, the back-to-back German champions are sufficiently seasoned to cope with Madrid’s might. Both clubs boast fabulously talented forwards – with Ronaldo, Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil on Real’s side, and Robert Lewandowski, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze on the other – and will run at their opponents, promising a great spectacle.
A one in two chance remains that we get to see a matchup for the ages between archrivals in the final at Wembley Stadium in London on May 25. But as it's becoming ever more clear, any four of these teams are capable and deserving of being crowned kings of the continent.
Also drawn on Friday were the semifinals of the UEFA Europa League. Fenerbahce, who upset Lazio in the last round, drew Benfica, who survived a tense bout with Newcastle United. Their first leg will be played April 25. The return is slated for May 2.
FC Basel, who shocked Tottenham Hotspur in a pair of 2-2 games and won on penalties, were paired with Chelsea, who successfully clung on to their 3-1 first-leg lead over Rubin Kazan in a 3-2 second-leg loss. They will play on the same days. The Europa League final will be held on May 15 at the Amsterdam Arena.