When I look at the UEFA Champions League semifinals, I see two intriguing matchups that will make for compelling viewing—but perhaps in very different ways.
In Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, I think we will see a great tactical matchup because in many respects, these are two similar teams. We all know that Jose Mourinho, if nothing else, is a great tactician. He understands how to prepare for any opponent, especially in Europe, and having coached in Spain, he'll have familiarity with Atletico.
But in Diego Simeone, he's running into a manager on the rise—and one who in many ways is similar to Mourinho. Like Mourinho, Simeone is bold and confident, and he prefers a steady lineup, though Atletico might not have as much depth as Chelsea.
With Branislav Ivanovic missing for Chelsea, Mourinho could have a bit of a dilemma over how to set up in the back. Cesar Azpilicueta could move back to his natural position at right-back to cover for Ivanovic's absence, but that would open up other issues. There may have been a notion of playing Ashley Cole, but he's been out of favor and not fit.
For me, Azpilicueta should stay where he is, because Atletico's right side is where most of their danger comes from. If Azpilicueta stays put, we might see Mourinho move David Luiz to right-back, taking him away from the middle, which could lead to even more issues. With Nemanja Matic cup-tied, Mourinho might have to rely on Ramires and Frank Lampard in the holding roles.
Whatever he chooses to do, his team will face a tough task against Atletico. Under Simeone's leadership, this could be a historic season for them, not only in the Champions League, but in La Liga as well. In Koke, they have a brilliant player who I could see fitting in with any of the four remaining semifinalists. Diego Costa has been wonderful for them as well, but Simeone deserves credit for tweaking his team during the absence of David Villa, as well as for the emergence of Raul Garcia.
Atletico are well-balanced, strong at set pieces and capable of hitting you on the counter. In fact, because of their similarities with Chelsea, I think this tie will be tight, a matchup of two well-matched teams.
I have to imagine that it will be much more tactical than free and wide open over the course of two legs.
Real Madrid vs. Bayern Munich
In many ways, this would be a wonderful final, not because anyone thinks Atletico and Chelsea are undeserving, but just because Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are two of the most storied clubs in European club football history.
Real are still chasing La Decima, their 10th European title, and Bayern are trying to become first team in Champions League era to win the competition in back-to-back seasons. Yet, both have been doubted of late.
Real Madrid come in on the high of beating Barcelona in Copa del Rey, but they might have to play the first leg in Madrid without Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga in record time and still have a chance to win a second consecutive treble, yet it's easy to wonder whether they are not as invincible as they were last season.
I have a feeling that, whereas Atletico Madrid-Chelsea will be decided at the team level, this tie could come down to one superstar winning it for either side. Both teams have so many great players, great individuals who could win a match on their own.
Ronaldo has returned to training ahead of the first leg, per ESPN FC, but we have to note that Real Madrid recently proved, against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, that they can cope without him. That said, you just can't replace a player like Ronaldo, who can change any game at any moment.
But even so, Real Madrid do have other players who are capable of delivering the goods. Perhaps Gareth Bale can build on the wonderful goal he scored against Barcelona and be the leader for Real.
Or maybe it will be someone else, someone who has benefited from Carlo Ancelotti's leadership this season. Under Mourinho last year, I thought many of the players were restricted and everything geared toward Ronaldo. Players weren't free to express themselves or express the best parts of their game in many ways, and a great example of that was Angel Di Maria.
Where Mourinho concentrated on Di Maria's weakness, Ancelotti has focused on his strengths and set up a formation to allow him to play more freely. And because of this, Di Maria is another one of the reasons I think that, if Ronaldo doesn't play, it won't be as damaging as it was last season under Mourinho.
As for Bayern, I have written before that, while roles were clearly defined last season under Jupp Heynckes, the players sometimes look confused in Guardiola's system. With that in mind, I believe that Pep Guardiola has to do what Ancelotti has done with Real Madrid and allow the players to play in their natural positions.
Philipp Lahm needs to play at right-back to shore up the back four, which has been a weak point for Bayern. In addition, he should give freedom to and place emphasis on Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. When they play well, driving at the opposition's back four, everything falls into place and players like Thomas Muller and Mario Mandzukic benefit.
Unless they do that, I think it's going to be tough for Bayern Munich.
This is no doubt a meeting of the giants with intense pressure hanging over them. The pressure of winning La Decima is real, but it's different for Real Madrid under Ancelotti because I think he brings calmness to the team. For Bayern, meanwhile, there's a chance to become part of history.
In a matchup of two teams under pressure, individual brilliance might decide it.
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