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Champions League semifinal preview

Posted: Apr 25, 2022
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And then there were four. The UCL semifinal lineup is ready and is, on first glance, a strange mix. Real Madrid, Manchester City, Liverpool and Villarreal. One would think that is a typing mistake. Villarreal in the Champions League semifinal does sound like a person caught in the wrong job. One would usually associate the final stages of the Europa League with the Yellow Submarines.

However, here we are. The big punchers of the continental stage assembling alongside the unlikely guest. And it is not as though they do not belong there. Unai Emery's side has beat legitimate European powerhouses en route this dream run. First, it was Juventus who fell to Villarreal in Italy. Bayern Munich was next. And Villarreal was in the mood for encore.

Their fellow Spanish team charted a fascinating path themselves. Real Madrid, themselves a behemoth of the Champions League, are pretty unfancied entrants too. PSG and Chelsea, both favourites going into the respective ties were left behind as Madrid keep holding on to this tournament.

The English teams, meanwhile, have been favourites all along. No surprises, no giant killings. They have been the billed giants for this tournament since start. And they are living up to their billing. Liverpool and Manchester City will very well fancy going all the way. But, first, Spain separates that all English affair.

Champions League semifinal - Manchester City vs Real Madrid


Real Madrid are still alive then. And like everyone has been saying for the last two, the next one will be their biggest test. Only that, the next one will actually be that. Manchester City is no PSG and neither are they Chelsea. Very similar in the supercharge to European stardom. And yet very, very different as clubs.

All of PSG, Chelsea and City have been backed by ownership change and subsequent cash inflow. However, City are a club very aware of their project and very much in control of who holds power. There is a clear hierarchy, clear structure and well, they have an owner.

City is among the best functioning clubs in Europe and have arguably the greatest manager ever in their midst. They recruit well, they play well and they win serially.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid, are exactly the archetype of a Champions League dream. Solely for the sheer attachment they have translated into this singularly immovable ability that sees them somehow hold on. Karim Benzema's goals or Luka Modric's outrageous moments. Perhaps Casemiro's haring around midfield and Fede Valverde borrowing all of Madrid's lungs to never stop running. There is a little bit of the mystic with Real Madrid. An inexplicable desire to keep winning this tournament.

Champions League semifinal - Manchester City team

Manchester DerbyIt is certain that Pep Guardiola will not field any number 9 in the Champions League semifinal. It is almost unbelievable how this manager somehow finds a system to play around difficult situations. City's quest for a striker landed them no result and here they are, on the cusp of a League and Champions League double.

What do they do in the absence of a striker? Pep simply plays lottery ball on matchday and assigns someone that position for the purpose of pre-match graphics. Beyond that, formation plays no role in City's functionality. It is a mere detail. A rather useless detail in City's ultra detailed approach.

One could argue the depth of talent means Pep can just about pick any front four accompanying Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan. However, there is factual evidence that each of those players available have performed better in City blue than anywhere else. Even Rodri and Gundogan have improved their games.

Joao Cancelo is another one who has excelled under Pep. He is a right back who can be called the best left back while occupying - with distinction - the central midfield position in buildup. In a nutshell, this City side will take some beating.

Champions League semifinal - Real Madrid team

Champions League semifinal BenzemaAnd if there is any team in Europe that can beat another team in a Champions League knockout game, it is Real Madrid. Simple math of winning the tournament more than any other team is a clear case in point. Real Madrid are the absolute undeniables of the continental stage.

Not solely in history of their club, but of this season too. Look at the PSG victory. They were totally outplayed and never in the tie till the last 45 minutes when they recovered from a two-goal deficit. King Karim Benzema, who seems to be defying his own reality, has been pivotal to Madrid's fortunes. Goals and more goals, whenever you need. Benzema is a vending machine outputting goals on demand.

Then there is Luka Modric. This man somehow seems to get more jaw dropping with age. There is no platitude to define Modric correctly. He is one of those you are meant to just watch. Descriptions fall short with the Croat. Chelsea, in the Champions League quarterfinal, were walking all over Los Blancos. Up by three and one foot in the semifinals, Madrid were a few academic kicks away from knockout.

Then that magical outside of the boot pass emerged. It is one of those rare moments of brilliance on a football pitch that can hardly be fathomed. That particular piece of artful boot meeting ball can be clipped and replayed without context across the world in viral videos. It was simply that delectable. There are moments you can predict with great players. You know Messi will dribble past you as though you are absent. Ronaldo can shoot from anywhere as though the keeper didn't exist. But, with that pass, you could never have seen it coming.

And so, the visionary Guardiola, must see every possible alternate coming. Only he can. And only he can then overthink into self submission. One tie, two games and multiple sub narratives. Buckle up!


Champions League semifinal - Liverpool vs Villarreal


Liverpool are absolutely flying at the moment. Perhaps no other English team has ever played every game of every competition with as much distinction. They have quite simply distanced themselves from most of what people would reckon competition. Manchester United, their biggest rival, found out the gaping difference in quality in their Anfield visit.

And on the other end of daylight is Villarreal. A team that has made bridging gaps commonplace. In fact, the Champions League feels more like a common man's achievable dream with every step the Yellow Submarines take. There is a lot of romance in this Villarreal run. It is unlike many seen in the recent editions of the Champions League. In the age of super clubs run by billionaires, oligarchs and oil states, they are the rare exception.

Champions League semifinal - Liverpool team 

Champions League LiverpoolThumbs up to whatever team Jurgen Klopp selects. And that is not a pun on Thiago's favourite thing to do with his hands. The Liverpool number 6, upon arrival, had faced a few jokes. It was understandable given Bayern Munich usually does not let players go unless they are winding down their careers. The Spaniard, however, has been quite superb for Liverpool.

There is a sense of calm in the way he dictates the game. He struts around the pitch, hardly seems to break a sweat and orchestrates the game exactly how he wants it to be played. A ringmaster at his art's finest.

And yet, he is perhaps not the team's most impressive player. Neither is Mo Salah, despite his outstanding goalscoring form. One may argue Sadio Mane to be Jurgen Klopp's most valued cog in the superperforming wheel. Or maybe Trent Alexander-Arnold. There is also Andrew Robertson and nobody has even mentioned Virgil Van Dijk.

Liverpool are a buffet of feastworthy dishes and yet very, very functional. They are so aligned in intensity, physicality and effort that they continue to outperform the sum of their parts. And their parts themselves sum to a fearsome total.


Champions League semifinal - Villarreal team


Champions League semifinalSamuel Chukwueze VillarrealVillarreal's run in Europe, isolated, has been eye widening. And if one takes a look at their league form, the achievement seems even more head scratching. The team in the Champions League semifinal is seventh in their domestic league. And yet, one cannot dismiss Villarreal's chances. They have scalped two of Europe's biggest fishes thus far.

However, the biggest still awaits them. Liverpool is, beyond reproach, one of the two form teams in the continent. Unai Emery will need all his players to play the perfect game to scale the Anfield mountain. Central to his team's fortunes will be the defensive duo of Raul Albiol and Pau Torres.

Equally important are Gerard Moreno and Arnaut Danjuma. The duo conjured Villarreal's tie defining goal in Allianz Arena. The creative eyes will once again fall on these men, who will have to do a lot of defending over the course of this tie.

But that will be nothing new for Emery's men. These bunch of players almost revel in the back to the walls situation. After Simeone's Atletico, it is this Villarreal side that is very comfortable without the ball. And thus, while on paper this looks foregone, there is a lot of winning and losing to do in this one.