The Champions League has rightly been criticized in recent years for the increasing hegemony apparent in its final four. The modern-day trio of European super clubs—Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid—had made up three of the semifinalists in three of the last four seasons. And few anticipated that trend being interrupted after the three clubs were kept apart in the quarterfinal draw.
Instead, Friday’s semifinal draw will have a degree of freshness about it. Atlético Madrid showed once again that huge financial disparity can be overcome on the pitch by shrewd coaching and a full committed united group of players, while Manchester City became the first of Europe’s nouveau riche to break into the Champions League’s established order.
Atlético’s triumph was undoubtedly the headline-maker in the quarterfinals, knocking off holders and favorites Barcelona. The Catalans had appeared the best-placed team yet to become the first side to win back-to-back Champions League titles. But for the second time in three years, Atlético produced a brilliantly intense performance at the Vicente Calderon to end Barcelona’s run in the quarterfinals.
Having been just two minutes away from lifting the European Cup in 2014, Atlético will now be awed by the prospect of going further. It was Real Madrid that cruelly denied Atlético in that final two years ago, and their city rivals are now a potential opponent in the semifinals. Defender Filipe Luis, though, is not keen on the idea of a rematch at this stage.
“Friday's draw? I hope we don't get Real Madrid, we know each other too well and they're a different and dangerous team in Europe,” he said, according to Spanish sports daily AS.
Just having made it to this stage will be a considerable relief to Real Madrid. Despite being expected to cruise through to the last four, the record 10-time champions were stunned by a 2-0 first-leg defeat at Wolfsburg. Yet Zinedine Zidane’s side were rescued by the highest scorer in the history of the Champions League further extending his record tally as Cristiano Ronaldo bagged a hat-trick in the return match at the Bernabeu.
They are now in a sixth consecutive semifinal, where they will be desperate to improve upon a 1-4 record at this stage over the past five seasons. The only time Real Madrid have reached the final since 2002 was when ousting Bayern Munich in the last four two years ago. And the prospect for a rematch exists in Friday’s draw after the Bavarians in the end progressed past Benfica with a degree of comfort.
The Portuguese Liga leaders had leveled the score on aggregate early on in the return leg in Lisbon, only for Arturo Vidal and Thomas Müller to snatch away goals and effectively end the tie. It was a result that keep alive Pep Guardiola’s hopes of adding a Champions League crown in Bavaria to the two he won in Barcelona.
To many, despite looking set to win a third Bundesliga title, Guardiola’s time at Bayern will be considered a failure unless he leads them to a Champions League title. With his departure confirmed for this summer, he knows this is his chance to leave on the highest of highs.
To reach that goal, though, there is the tantalizing scenario, at least for the neutral, of Guardiola having to get past the club he will take over for next season. Manchester City have already decided that Guardiola represents an upgrade on current manager Manuel Pellegrini. However, the Chilean will feel he has proved something of a point by guiding the club into the semifinals for the first time.
Drawn against another team looking to break through into Europe’s final four the first time since being given a huge financial injection, City triumphed 3-2 on aggregate over Paris Saint-Germain thanks to a goal in each leg from their most expensive signing, Kevin de Bruyne. Pellegrini, though, insists that a semifinal meeting with Bayern Munich and the man who will replace him at the Etihad would not have any extra significance.
"For me, exactly the same,” he said, according to BBC Sport. “It doesn't matter. It will always be a difficult team.”
Champions League semifinal draw details
Time: 5:30 a.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1