Champions League last four: How the sides measure up

One trend is disrupted in the Champions League, so another continues. Atletico Madrid’s elimination of Barcelona means the semi-finals will not feature all three of the super-super-clubs – the Catalans, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid – for just the second time since 2011.
It also means that, for the 26th consecutive season, the European Cup will not be retained. Perhaps these quarter-finals emphasised a big reason for that. In an era when the competition has become eight to 10 sides of broadly similar quality crashing against each other, it is very difficult to maintain the necessary level for eight consecutive knock-out ties over two years. The likelihood is that you will eventually come up against the wrong team, at just the wrong point. The difference was that Barca looked so ominously good. As a consequence, the competition now looks so much more open.
So, with former favourites Barcelona out, how do the rest of the last four measure up?
Bayern Munich
This is Pep Guardiola’s third time in the competition with Bayern, and this might well be his luckiest of all with the elimination of Barca. They were the team that stopped him last season, and the team that had seemed by far the strongest this campaign. That status now passes to Bayern.
The path has cleared – although Guardiola should also be conscious of a clear warning from his former club’s elimination. The Catalans largely went out because of something that is all too familiar to the Bayern manager, even if Atletico forced the issue by being so good. No matter how good you are, no matter how strong you look, the wrong slump at the wrong time is just fatal in a knock-out of the nature of the Champions League. It played a large part in Guardiola’s two previous eliminations, as they peaked far too early. Can they get their timing right now, as he comes to the end of his time in Munich? His legacy at Bayern all rests on this. He’s been given quite a boost.
Atletico Madrid
Barcelona were abnormally flat in the second leg at the Vicente Calderon, but that also must be put into the context of how ferocious Atletico were. It is no exaggeration to say that they are by far the best defensive side in the world right now. In a competition as high-scoring as Spain’s, they have conceded just 16 goals in 32 games. That is the best defensive record out of all the top five leagues bar Bayern Munich, who have conceded just 14 in 29.scoring their second goal
At the same time, Atletico are not by far the best team in their country in the way the Germans are, and have achieved that in a very different way. All those who play under Diego Simeone absolutely laud the sophistication of his approach to defence. It perhaps reflects that, in a period of football when the latter stages of the Champions League have never been more open or goal-laden – and when the competition is almost always won by a prolific side – he has restored proper value to defending again. That means it isn’t necessarily much of a boost to the other three sides they are through instead of Barca. The Catalans’ front trio may give opposition sides the ultimate problem, but Atletico give them a problem some have largely forgotten how to solve.
As well as Simeone’s organisation, his connection to the players also derives extreme commitment. It could be seen in the second half against Barca, as 11 men in the box were prepared to block everything in any way. Diego Godin’s black eye became a garish symbol for a team worthy of great respect – and perhaps even the tag of favourites.
Real Madrid
The key to Real Madrid’s campaign will arguably be pot luck: can the brilliance of their stars outweigh the chaotic nature of their imbalanced team structure? They went 2-0 to Wolfsburg because they’re so lacking in so many areas, and then won 3-0 because Cristiano Ronaldo remains such a force of nature. The wonder is whether that imbalance can still be enough at this stage, since they will no longer be playing defences as forgiving as the Germans’. Something is going to have to give, or Ronaldo and the rest of his team-mates are going to have to give even more.
Manchester City
It is remarkable and respectable that, after a league season as deflating as this for City, Manuel Pellegrini could yet go out on the ultimate high. He could also create quite the storyline by denying his successor Guardiola the Champions League he craves at Bayern. There is an irony that so much of City’s troubles have been put down to the fact the Catalan’s appointment was announced at the start of February. It could be down to something that happened just three days before that: Kevin De Bruyne’s injury.
It does not seem a coincidence that City have been so much more clinical since he returned. He was the tie-winner against Paris Saint-Germain. He could yet be a Champions League winner sooner than many expected.

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