Twenty-eight teams down, four remain. With only three games separating them from Europe’s ultimate prize, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid are keen on adding another piece of silverware to their already prestigious trophy cases.
For the first time in recent memory, many believe the four best teams in European soccer have qualified for the last four of the Champions League. Will we have an all-German affair? Will we witness another fierce El Clasico battle? Or will we see a mixture of both take center stage at Wembley? Here are my thoughts on this season’s Champions League semifinals, which begin on April 23.
Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona
Bayern Munich manager: Jupp Heynckes
A winner of this trophy with Real Madrid in 1998, Heynckes will be looking to end his career on the perfect note. He came very close to winning the Champions League last season against Chelsea and knows this opportunity does not present itself too often. With the Bundesliga title already won, he can afford to rotate his squad for the rest of the domestic season, which will keep his top players fresh for the Barcelona tie.
Bayern Munich player to watch: Mario Mandzukic
After a stellar EURO 2012, the Croatian striker made the move to the Allianz Arena from Wolfsburg. With 20 goals this term, he has been in astonishing form. Not only that, but also he has kept German striker Mario Gomez out of the starting 11. His goals will be needed if Bayern want to reach a third final in four years.
Barcelona manager: Tito Vilanova
The 44-year-old first-year manager has missed some time due to a recurrence of parotid gland cancer, but Barcelona is still on course for its fourth Champions League title since 2006. Vilanova was always going to have a hard time emulating the success of former manager Pep Guardiola, but a La Liga and Champions League double would represent the perfect start. He will be hoping Argentine superstar Lionel Messi is at full strength for this tie.
Barcelona player to watch: Gerard Pique
Tipped by many to be the best central defender in the world, the Spaniard is having another strong
season. The former Manchester United reject is a strong player who reads the game well. Unlike most defenders his size, he is able to control the ball with confidence and lead Barcelona’s feared attack from the back. He will be called upon to stop Mandzukic and the rest of Bayern’s forward options.
Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona verdict
It is Pep Guardiola’s future side against his former one as the champions of the Bundesliga take on the champions-elect of La Liga for a spot in the final. Bayern is coming off a commanding 4-0 aggregate win against Italian champions Juventus. The Bavarian giants were able to control playmaker Andrea Pirlo and take advantage of rare mistakes from ‘keeper Gianluigi Buffon. Much like Chelsea last season, Barcelona is riding its luck. Down 1-0 in the second leg against mega-rich Paris Saint-Germain, the Catalan giants summoned Messi off its bench, and the diminutive playmaker set up Pedro, whose goal in the 71st minute sent the four-time Champions League winners to the semifinals for a sixth successive time. Xavi and Andres Iniesta will need to continue to play well, and David Villa will need to be at his inspirational best for Barcelona. Summer arrival Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger will need to challenge the aforementioned Spanish pair, and Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery will have to make the most of their limited chances for the German club.
Barcelona to advance to the final on aggregate, 3-2
Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid
Borussia Dortmund manager: Jurgen Klopp
Is there a more sought-after manager in world soccer than the Dortmund boss? He lost out on the Bundesliga this campaign, but before that, he won the domestic title in back-to-back years. If he continues to spur the interest from clubs like Chelsea, he has a chance to take Dortmund to the heights it reached in the late ‘90s.
Borussia Dortmund player to watch: Marco Reus
After scoring 21 goals in 37 appearances and leading Borussia Monchengladbach to a top-four finish, the German midfielder said no to the likes of Inter in favor of a move back home to Dortmund. Along with Mario Gotze, he is the future of the German national team. He will be hoping to continue his goal-scoring form against last season’s La Liga champions.
Real Madrid manager: Jose Mourinho
The Special One is hoping to accomplish a special feat. The Portuguese boss is looking to become
the first manager to win Europe’s most coveted crown with three different clubs, after he won the Champions League with Porto in 2004 and Inter in 2010. He is one of the most controversial managers in the world, but no one can deny his success.
Real Madrid player to watch: Gonzalo Higuain
Karim Benzema may be a better finisher, but Mourinho prefers the Argentine forward over his French counterpart. Higuain has excellent awareness in front of goal and his strength and cleverness work well with Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo. If Madrid is to advance to Wembley, he will need to be ruthless when the opportunity presents itself.
Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid verdict
Just as they did twice in the group stage, the 2012 Bundesliga and La Liga champions will compete with a spot in the final at Wembley on the line. In the last round, Dortmund was able to complete one of the most dramatic come-from-behind wins in Champions League history. Down 2-1 with less than five minutes remaining against Malaga, goals from Reus and Felipe Santana sent the German club to the semifinals. Real Madrid, on the other hand, had little trouble with Turkish giants Galatasaray. A 3-0 home win and two goals from Ronaldo in the away leg handed Madrid a 5-3 aggregate win and a third consecutive semifinal trip. Madrid will need to keep showing the same attacking impetus that has gotten them to this point. With Ronaldo and Higuain starting and Benzema and Luka Modric off the bench, Madrid should have no problems there. Dortmund will need to keep the ball with Reus and Gotze as much as possible. They can either take defenders on or distribute the ball to Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, who will be watched closely by Sergio Ramos.
Real Madrid to advance to the final on aggregate, 3-2