Champions League semifinals preview

There are four teams left in this years Champions League. Monaco, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Juventus. All teams had different paths to this year’s semifinals, but nevertheless, here we are. Real Madrid play Atletico Madrid in the first semifinal, with their first leg taking place Tuesday, May 2 at 2:45 p.m. and the second leg on Wednesday, May 10 at the same time. Meanwhile, the first leg for Monaco vs Juventus will be on Wednesday, May 3 at 2:45 p.m. and second leg will be Tuesday, May 9, also at 2:45 p.m. Each team’s keys to success will be different if any of them are hoping to reach the final in Cardiff on June 3.


Real Madrid

One of the biggest names in world soccer, Real Madrid, are trying to win their record 12th Champions League crown. They are the diamond standard in club soccer. Los Blancos have reached the semifinals in the Champions League in each of the past six seasons (this being their seventh in a row). Real is also looking to become the first team since AC Milan in 1989 and 1990 to win the Champions League back-to-back. Real are the clear favorites. Lead by Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, Real have the most prolific front three aside from Barcelona. However, the talent does not stop there for Real. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are the creative sparks in the midfield, and captain Sergio Ramos is a stalwart in defense. This Real team is loaded. The players on their bench would be first-team players anywhere else. But the players that no one thinks about are probably the most important. Left-back Marcelo and defensive midfielder Casemiro were the two most pivotal players in Real’s quarterfinal win over Bayern Munich. Casemiro plays a more withdrawn role, sitting in front of the back line, that allows the likes of Kroos and Modric to express themselves on the field. Anyone who watched Marcelo’s masterclass against Bayern in the second leg of the quarterfinal  knows how good he is. He tore through Bayern’s defense to set up Ronaldo’s hat trick goal. Marcelo is constantly marauding up and down the left side, always offering an attacking outlet and tracking back on defense. Real certainly has the talent to breeze past their in-city rivals, but one bad performance and they could be crashing out of the competition. In other news, if Ronaldo were to win the Champions League this year, it would be the fourth time he’s done so, which will bring him level with Lionel Messi.


Atletico Madrid

Constantly being viewed as the little brother in Madrid, Atleti have made a habit of reaching the semifinals of the Champions League. This is their third trip to the semifinals in the past four years. The two previous years, Atleti reached the final where they were beaten by Real. So Atleti will be fueled by revenge even more. Atletico’s playing style matches the personality of their manager, Diego Simeone. They are a tough team, not scared to make a tackle. They like to break down the opposition, but they also have the flair and skill to slice through the most astute defenses. What makes this year different from the past two times Atleti have made it this far is that they are playing Real in the semifinals. Both of Atletico’s losses to Real in the finals have been heartbreaking. The first loss, in 2014, Real scored three goals in extra time to win 4-1. Two years later Real beat Atleti on penalties. But the difference this year is that Atleti will get two shots at Real because of the two legs. Atleti will likely look to sit back and hit Real on the counter-attack, and they certainly have the players to do so. Goalkeeper Jan Oblak has six clean sheets, which is second most in the Champions League. While defenders Diego Godin, Filipe Luis and Juanfran are all veteran players who have plenty of experience. The three of them will likely lead Atleti from the back, but do not be surprised if Atletico’s flair players show their stuff. Antoine Griezmann, Saul Niguez, Yannick Carrasco and Koké have the ability to get through any defense. Griezmann has been especially impressive this year. He leads his team with five goals and two assist in this year’s Champions League. The only worry for Atleti would have be from their bench. Atleti does not have the same squad depth that Real has, so their starting 11 could become stretched and tired during this two-legged affair. Regardless, expect a fiery affair between the two Madrid giants.  


Juventus

Juventus are probably coming off the best win out of the last four teams. They demolished Barcelona over two legs in the quarterfinals with an aggregate score of 3-0. The first leg saw Juve score all three of their goals against Barca, while the second leg was a defensive masterclass. That is what should make Monaco, and whoever Juve play in the final should they reach it, terrified. Juventus have only conceded two goals during the entire Champions League season. Their goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, has seven clean sheets. In front of Buffon is the domineering center-back duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. The center-back pairing shut down Barcelona’s Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. What makes this year’s Juventus different from the one that lost to Barcelona in 2015 final is that there is more attacking flair. The Argentinian connection of Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala has been lethal. Dybala has been especially impressive (just ask Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti). It should not be a surprise that Juventus has made it this far either. Juve made their intent clear during the summer transfer window in 2016. They used the $123 million from the sale of Paul Pogba to sign Higuain, Miralem Pjanic and Dani Alves. All three were top players at their respective clubs before they left for Juventus. Without Juve having to compensate for Pogba’s obvious talent, other players have shined. The aforementioned Dybala is has become one of Europe’s most sought after players, and midfielder Sami Khedira looks unstoppable at times. And with what should be favorable draw against Monaco, Juventus should be favorites to reach the final in Cardiff.


Monaco

Blessed with young, exciting talent, Monaco have surprised everyone by reaching the semifinals. The dark horse, and least favored to win the competition, do not let Monaco’s youth fool you. They had to beat a Pep Guardiola managed Manchester City in the round 16 and Dortmund in the quarterfinals. So there is not much doubt that Monaco is battle-tested. It is their unexpected and furious attacking play that should worry Juventus. On any given night, one of their young stars could dominate a match. Benjamin Mendy, Thomas Lamar, Bernardo Silva, Tiemoué Bakayoko and Kylian Mbappe are the core of this young Monaco team. Each one of them has been linked with big money moves away from Monaco this summer, and winning the Champions League would only raise each one of their prices substantially. Mbappe particularly has garnered the most praise. He has been dubbed the next Thierry Henry, which is very high praise for a teenager. It is easy to see why after an impressive two-goal haul against Dortmund in the second leg of their quarterfinal match. Defender Kamil Glik, midfielder João Moutinho and forward Radamel Falcao offer enough veteran experience to this young team. Falcao himself has been a revelation this season. He is starting to emulate the form that he showed at Atletico Madrid, and seems to have finally moved passed his horrid times at Manchester united and Chelsea. Even if Monaco do not get past Juventus, they should still be a joy to watch. Monaco have already been a breath of fresh air in this year’s competition, so fans should enjoy them for as long as possible. It might not be long until all of this talent moves on to bigger clubs.