And then there were four. Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona are your 2012-13 Champions League semifinalists, and the greatest club competition in football is headed for quite the climax.
Dortmund and Madrid booked their spots on Tuesday, seeing off Malaga and Galatasaray, respectively, in the quarters. Barca and Bayern joined them with two-legged triumphs against Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, respectively.
Who plays who in the last four will be revealed in Friday's draw, with the possibility of a Clasico matchup between Barca and Madrid looming large and also an all-German affair between Dortmund and Bayern.
Some will be hoping the two Spanish and two German teams are kept apart.
Without further ado, here are my Champions League semifinal rankings, which I thought long and hard over and look forward to debating heartily with you in the comment section below.
Jurgen Klopp's much-admired young team were German champions last season. Bayern Munich blew away their title defence, but Dortmund were arguably the most impressive team of the Champions League group stage, coming out on top of this edition's obligatory "group of death," which featured juggernauts Manchester City and Real Madrid.
Dortmund have been less convincing in the knockout stage, but with the attacking talents of Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski at their disposal, the squad is capable of wounding any opponent if they find their groove.
The two big concerns are whether they can get back to the form they showed early on and whether their defensive weakness—particularly to aerial balls—will be brutally exposed by a more clinical opponent.
Dortmund's comeback against Malaga proves they have the mental strength to go the distance, but their lack of experience at this stage of the tournament counts against them in this ranking. They might be unbeaten, but I would expect that run to end against any of their three potential semifinal opponents.
The creativity of Reus and Gotze is very important to Dortmund, but Lewandowski's six goals have the been the biggest factor in their run. The Polish striker has emerged as a world-class finisher over the past couple of seasons and will be a subject of much concern for the coach who has to contain him in the semifinals.
|Manchester City (a)||Group||1-1||Reus|
|Real Madrid (h)||Group||2-1||Lewandowski, Schmelzer|
|Real Madrid (a)||Group||2-2||Reus, own goal|
|Ajax (a)||Group||4-1||Reus, Gotze, Lewandowski (2)|
|Manchester City (h)||Group||1-0||Schieber|
|Shakhtar Donetsk (a)||Last 16 1st leg||2-2||Lewandowski, Hummels|
|Shakhtar Donetsk (h)||Last 16 2nd leg||3-0||Santana, Gotze, Blaszczykowski|
|Malaga (a)||Quarters 1st leg||0-0|
|Malaga (h)||Quarters 2nd leg||3-2||Lewandowski, Reus, Santana|
The most obvious argument against Real Madrid's challenge is found in the 13-point gap that separates them and great rivals Barcelona at the top of La Liga. But while Madrid have floundered domestically, Jose Mourinho's counterattacking team have found a way to get it done on the biggest stage.
When they click going forward, as they did in the first leg against Galatasaray, Madrid are a fearsome proposition to contain. Cristiano Ronaldo is the Champions League's leading scorer this season, and his team's shots-on-target count of 119 (UEFA) tells you Madrid know more than one route to goal.
There are doubts defensively, but don't read into their 3-2 defeat to Galatasaray, a tie that was over before the second leg began. Their 2-1 loss to Dortmund in the group stages, however, is of more concern and will be in focus if the two teams are reunited in the semifinals.
If that happens, I would still expect Madrid to lean on their experience and progress.
Ronaldo has scored over half of Madrid's goals in the Champions League this season, weighing in with 11 in 10 games. He's one of only three players to have played every minute of those 10 games and is the difference between Madrid being a very good team and one that is capable of winning the whole thing this season.
|Manchester City (h)||Group||3-2||Marcelo, Benzema, Ronaldo|
|Ajax (a)||Group||4-1||Ronaldo (3), Benzema|
|Borussia Dortmund (a)||Group||1-2||Ronaldo|
|Borussia Dortmund (h)||Group||2-2||Pepe, Ozil|
|Manchester City (a)||Group||1-1||Benzema|
|Ajax (h)||Group||1-0||Ronaldo, Callejon (2), Kaka|
|Manchester United (h)||Last 16 1st leg||1-1||Ronaldo|
|Manchester United (a)||Last 16 2nd leg||2-1||Modric, Ronaldo|
|Galatasaray (h)||Quarters 1st leg||3-0||Ronaldo, Benzema, Higuain|
|Galatasaray (a)||Quarters 2nd leg||2-3||Ronaldo (2)|
Bayern have had a couple of wobbles along the way—losing away to BATE and at home to Arsenal—but the manner in which they dispatched Juventus in the quarterfinals reinforced just how ruthless and powerful a force Jupp Heynckes' team is.
Domestically, Bayern have been utterly dominant this season. Their lead over second-placed Dortmund is 20 points in the Bundesliga, and their goal difference of plus-66 is twice as good as any team in the division.
They have talent to burn. Franck Ribery, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Mario Mandzukic all bring guile and attacking thrust. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Manuel Neuer form part of perhaps the most solid spine left in the tournament.
All the evidence suggests this should be Bayern's year; it's a chance to avenge their painful defeat in the final last time around. Many have picked them to win the whole thing from the very start.
They're a formidable outfit, nobody can doubt that, but I still think there is one team better.
So many candidates. Muller, Ribery, Kroos, Mandzukic and Philipp Lahm all bring real quality and influence to their areas of the pitch, while Neuer is among the best goalkeepers on the planet.
But it's Schweinsteiger who stands as Bayern's talisman. And it's Schweinsteiger who leads this team in spirit and will need to be at his very best to drive them to a first Champions League title since 2001.
|Valencia (h)||Group||2-1||Schweinsteiger, Kroos|
|BATE Borisov (a)||Group||1-3||Ribery|
|Lille (h)||Group||6-1||Schweinsteiger, Pizarro (3), Robben, Kroos|
|BATE Borisov (h)||Group||4-1||Gomez, Muller, Shaqiri, Alaba|
|Arsenal (a)||Last 16 1st leg||3-1||Kroos, Muller, Mandzukic|
|Arsenal (h)||Last 16 2nd leg||0-2|
|Juventus (h)||Quarters 1st leg||2-0||Alaba, Muller|
|Juventus (a)||Quarters 2nd leg||2-0||Mandzukic, Pizarro|
Every team in the last four has shown themselves vulnerable to some degree.
Barcelona were stifled by AC Milan at the San Siro and deservedly went down 2-0. And they were given a scare by upwardly mobile Paris Saint-Germain, who rallied for a draw in France and created the better first-half chances at Camp Nou before going ahead.
Both times, Barca responded. Both times, they found a way to unlock their potential as possibly the best club side in the history of the game.
For all the talk of Bayern, Dortmund and Madrid, let us not forget that this iconic team of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Co. will be competing in their sixth successive Champions League semifinal. They have won two of the last four tournaments.
Barca, like Spain at Euro 2012, have made steady progress with only the occasional glimpse of what we know they are capable of. From here on in, I expect to see the genuine article. And I expect Barcelona to triumph at Wembley in May.
Not much to say here. Messi is the world's best player, and Barcelona's challenge lives and dies on him being fit for the rest of the tournament.
|Spartak Moscow (h)||Group||3-2||Tello, Messi (2)|
|Benfica (a)||Group||2-0||Sanchez, Fabregas|
|Celtic (h)||Group||2-1||Iniesta, Alba|
|Spartak Moscow (a)||Group||3-0||Alves, Messi (2)|
|AC Milan (a)||Last 16 1st leg||0-2|
|AC Milan (h)||Last 16 2nd leg||4-0||Messi (2), Villa, Alba|
|PSG (a)||Quarters 1st leg||2-2||Messi, Xavi|
|PSG (h)||Quarters 2nd leg||1-1||Pedro|