After some drama both on and off the pitch in a quartet of well contested quarterfinals, the final 4 for this season Champions League has it all. The defending champions, the entertaining underdogs, the tactically balanced, and the battle-hardened dreamers. Will Real Madrid become the first champion since Manchester United to earn the right to defend their crown in Cardiff? Or will Atletico, Juventus or Monaco provide the spanner in works of Europe’s most successful football club?
Below we preview the semifinal between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid of the UEFA Champions League 2016/17.
Atletico Madrid must be sick of the sight of their cross town rivals. Their European dreams have been crushed by Real for 3 seasons in a row (in 2 finals, and one quarterfinal), though to Atletico’s credit, possible victory has felt closer each time.
There’s additional significance to this match-up as well. With the 2nd leg being the last ever European fixture at the Rojiblancos, there’s an added emotive incentive to bidding goodbye in style to their 51 year home, ahead of their eventual move to the Estadio La Peineta in a couple of seasons’ time.
Unlike in 2015, when these sides last met in a two-legged contest, the 1st leg takes place at the Bernabeu. The last time two times Real visited Atletico, Cristiano Ronaldo ran riot with a hat-trick and he did it again in the first leg of the semi finals.
Can Ronaldo score another hatrick? Current betting odds for him to be the first goal scorer are 4/1
Surprisingly, apart from Atletico, Real tend not to bump into sides from their own country too often in European competition. The last Spanish opponent to defeat them (at all, never mind over two legs) was Guardiola’s Barcelona, no less, in 2011’s star studded showpiece. By contrast, Atletico’s bogey team is clearly their cross-town rival; the Rojiblancos managed to eliminate Barcelona at the quarterfinal stage en route to both final appearances in 2014 and 2016.
How They’re Doing Currently:
Real Madrid’s unbeaten run in all competitions since February ended abruptly recently in El Clasico with a masterclass performance by Lionel Messi, but Los Merengues still hold the advantage in La Liga, though they’ll need to win their game in hand. On the whole, Zinedine Zidane’s star studded cast remains relatively free of issues. Injury to Gareth Bale would be typically seen as a problem, but impressive cameo performances by youngster Marco Asensio and Isco have broadened the options available to the Frenchman in attack. In some cases, the entire squad has been rotated in full against relatively weaker opponents (such was the case vs Sporting Gijon and Leganes). On the whole, the team hasn’t looked fluid or impressive, but the results have still held largely to the high standards set by the club, even if Zidane isn’t being spoken of particularly highly of late in media circles that find his tactical approach a little reckless and lacking of sensibility, particularly defensively. The alleged pressure of the El Clasico defeat seemed to make them more determined to become the first club to retain “Big Ears” in the Champions League era.
Atletico remain adrift of their two larger rivals in La Liga, but Simeone’s talent for navigating the Champions League remains intact. Like their cross-town rivals, they too haven’t been receiving much praise for their output on the field, even if the points have largely been consistently hauled in; their recent defeat to Villarreal was their first in 13 matches in all competitions. Europe remains the side’s sole realistic chance for silverware this season, and with clouds still hanging over the futures of various players and coach Diego Simeone, not to mention the imminent departure from the Vicente Calderon, Atletico have a fair amount of sentiment driving some impetus behind a win over their local rivals to progress to their 3rd final in 4 seasons. Unlike their larger neighbours, Los Rojiblancos have tended to rotate very little in recent fixtures, and that’s unlikely to change in the semifinal.
Players to Watch:
Talisman Cristiano Ronaldo is back to his above average goalscoring form, fresh off his 100th goal in European competition and likely seeking a personal milestone of catching Lionel Messi’s current 11 goal haul in the current Champions League campaign (not that Atletico typically concede too many goals anyway). The midfield leadership of Luka Modric will be critical to unlocking the stubborn Atletico press; while the Croatian hasn’t been in imperious form, class is permanent and his vision and range of passing could be crucial to assembling the types of attacks Real will need in order to break the resilient Atletico defensive guard. But the key cog in the wheel may well be destroying midfielder Casemiro, who didn’t just walk a fortunate tightrope in escaping punishment for some choice tackles vs Bayern – but will likely be required to ensure the critical absence of Sergio Ramos (suspension), Pepe (injury) and possibly even Varane (injury) at centre back doesn’t get exposed by Atletico.
Make no mistake, but with a centre back crisis in the heart of Real Madrid’s defence, Antoine Griezmann is massively important to Atletico’s prospects. The Frenchman’s form has tapered off slightly in recent matches, but his threat remains a critical component to leverage and if he gets the required level of service, his influence, particularly in the first leg could be massive. It would be a very Simeone-like approach to focus heavily on securing an away goal; don’t be surprised if it is Griezmann who gets it. In midfield, the combative dynamic offered by Saul Niguez will be considerably important to ensuring that Modric and Kroos don’t get the chance to dictate the play as they typically like. But the biggest job of the two nights is likely to land at the feet of centre back Stefan Savic, who’ll probably have his tentative defensive style challenged extensively by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, who’ll no doubt favour moving into that righthand central channel protected by Savic.
On the surface, it seems almost disingenuous to expect anything else but a win over two legs for Real Madrid. After all – better squad, better players, better track record. But then add the layers of complexity to the battle; Atletico’s sentimental motivations, their likely frustration at constantly being eliminated by their rivals, and the sense that all is not right with the Bernabeu’s cast and crew… and maybe, just maybe, this is the moment when Atletico finally changes the script. But football is seldom romantic in its results and after the 3-o first leg semi final mauling at the hands of an inspired Ronaldo Atletico Madrid will need a miracle to progress to the final. Thus it’s likely that once again Real will progress. Expect a high scoring match as Atletico Madrid search for goals giving Ronaldo and Co space and opportunity on the counter attack.
Current Betting Odds For This Match: