Champions League Semi-Finals Preview

by Nigel Assam

On Friday, the draws for UEFA’s Champions League semifinals pitted Bayern Munich against Barcelona, and Real Madrid against Borussia Dortmund. Come May 25th, London’s Wembley Stadium will host either an all-German final, or another El Clásico. For supporters of other traditional powerhouses such as Manchester United, Juventus, or AC Milan, or last year’s champions, Chelsea, although their teams were knocked out earlier in the competition, the upcoming semifinals (and even the prospect of what should be a thrilling final) will offer spectacular soccer.

Bayern Munich, who already sealed their 23rd Bundesliga title on April 6th, will look to get past Barcelona. After losing in the final last year to Chelsea at the Allianz Arena, their home ground, they are looking to claim their first Champions League trophy since 2001, making them five-times Champions of Europe. Should they accomplish this, it will be the successful ending to manager Jupp Heynckes’ two-year reign. Watching with interest will be incoming manager Pep Guardiola, former Barcelona manager – his recent past vs. his immediate future. For Guardiola, Bayern Munich has always been “the business”. Bayern Munich will hope to win their 8th Double this year.

Although Barcelona have not sealed the La Liga title, it is already a given that the Spanish title is theirs, making it their 22nd; their 13 point lead over second placed Real Madrid, their historic rivals, and possible 2013 Champions League finals opponents difficult to overcome. Barcelona are also hoping to become five-times champions of Europe, having last won the competition in 2011 at Wembley Stadium against Manchester United. Winning the Champions League would also be of special meaning to the Catalan team, which they would undoubtedly dedicate to manager Tito Vilanova, whose recent battle with parotid gland cancer had him being treated in a New York City hospital for six weeks. He returned to his position in late March.

For Real Madrid, since they have ceded the La Liga title to Barcelona, becoming European champions is the prize they are aiming for. Should they get past Borussia Dortmund and triumph at Wembley, this will be their first European trophy since 2002, and their long-awaited tenth. Real Madrid are alone in winning the competition nine times so far. For José Mourinho, winning with Real Madrid will make him the first manager to win the European Champions with three different clubs. He first won the competition with Porto in 2004, then with Inter Milan in 2010, after which he immediately took over at Real Madrid.

His time at Real Madrid has not gone as smoothly as was expected. There has been friction between him and the Spanish press, criticizing him most recently over his dropping of club and Spain captain, goalkeeper Iker Casillas. The club’s hierarchy have been reported to be unhappy with his lack of success in knocking Barcelona off their perch and a section of madridistas (the club’s supporters) have been showing their discontent with him. Recently, he challenged them to take out their criticism upon him as he proposed to appear before them on the field prior to a game so they can jeer him. Winning the Champions League title would be the ending he would relish to silence his critics and leave the club on a high note.

Although he has been silent on his immediate future plans, it is known he desires to return to managing in the English Premier League. It is known that he longs to replace Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United when the latter retires, of which the latter has not given any indication of doing. With the lack of a permanent manager at Chelsea, it is speculated that he may return to manage the London club, where is loved by the players and the fans, but from which he was fired in 2007 by billionaire-owner Roman Abramovich.

But first he and Real Madrid must get past Borussia Dortmund, this year’s outsider favorites. This will not be the first time in year’s competition these two sides are meeting. In the group stage, they faced each other, with Borussia Dortmund edging the Spanish club to finish top of their group. Having emphasized European success this year, Borussia Dortmund are looking to claim only their second Champions League title, winning it back in 1997. Dortmund have surprised many this year with their performances on the European stage, especially Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, who has been linked in the media with interest from many top clubs. Jürgen Klopp’s managerial talent has also brought him into the attention of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who seeks a repeat of last year’s success over Bayern Munich. As usual, the German manager has refused to speak about his future, repeating his commitment to Borussia Dortmund.

Against Real Madrid, the German club must nullify Cristiano Ronaldo, this year’s competition’s leading goal scorer, with 11 goals to his credit, three ahead of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. One way for Klopp’s men to accomplish this is by clamping down on Mesut Özil, Real Madrid’s attacking midfielder whose relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo is pertinent to the Spanish club’s success.

Should the Wembley final be an El Clásico, it will be the third time Barcelona and Real Madrid will meet in competition in four months, with Real Madrid coming out on top on the last two occasions. For José Mourinho, it will be sweetest success if his team defeats Barcelona in the final, where he was assistant coach to the late Bobby Robson and his successor, Luis van Gaal. It was during this time that Pep Guardiola played at Barcelona. An all-German clash pitting Bayern Munich against Borussia Dortmund will be another game in the historic Bavarian rivalry between these two clubs. For Dortmund, having lost this year’s Bundesliga title to Bayern Munich, winning the Champions League final in a Bavarian derby would be the ultimate statement.

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