Euro Bites: Champions League semi-final line-up provides reminder of Europe’s Big Four
With Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus proving their genius by reaching the last four of the Champions League, Kate Partridge’s latest Euro Bite looks at the enduring power of a champion’s mentality.
In my last Euro Bite, I wrote this: “It’s advantage Iberia after the first leg of the European quarter-finals and a shock bad week for Germany’s all-stars…The Champions League final will be at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, capital of the World Cup winners. But the chances are it will be another all-Spanish affair.”
Three eventful weeks across the continent later, that prediction still holds. As for why, I’d say is due to the rarest combination of talents: consistency of genius.
At first, it seemed a case of commentator’s curse. After their 3-1 humbling in Portugal, Bayern then squelched Porto 6-1 in Munich to reach their fourth straight Champions League semi-final.
Despite missing the injured Robben and Ribery, failure had not been an option, but five goals in a 26-minute first-half blitz electrified the Allianz Arena. A second treble in three years was suddenly back on. Destiny. Gehen Sie, Pep!
Barcelona made it seven semis in eight years by breezing past PSG. Despite old boy Zlatan returning to the Nou Camp, PSG were flummoxed by Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi could afford a quiet one as Neymar’s brace turned a 3-1 lead into a 5-1 romp. Barca were eyeing a first title in four years.
Holders Real also squeezed through without Bale, Benzema, and Modric, edging ten-man Atletico 1-0 at the Bernabeu in another gritty Madrid derby. Forgotten man Javier Hernandez came up trumps to hand Real a late first win over their rivals in eight. “Golden Chicharito” purred la Marca. What a contrast to “Pea-45.”
The victory also put Real into their fifth straight European semi-final, equaling a club record set by the greats di Stefano, Puskas et al in 1960. Could the ten-time winners and modern Galacticos become the first ever Champions League retainers?
Italian giants Juventus last won it in 1996 – but were also on course for a treble. After Arturo Vidal’s first-leg penalty, a goalless snore-fest in Monaco was enough to put the Old Lady into the last four for the first time in 12 years. Patrice Evra summed it up: “We qualified Italian style. It’s ugly, but it’s solid and it’s efficient.” Or, to use a motoring analogy, it was less of a Ferrari GTO than a Fiat Multipla.
And that’s how the last four looked, ahead of a semi-final draw that pitched Juve against Real and Barca versus Bayern. The headline was Pep Guardiola back to Barca (and Ancelotti to Turin). The draw also offered the tantalising possibility of a Super Clasico: a first-ever Barcelona versus Real Madrid European Cup final, while the arch-rivals did battle for the La Liga title.
Yet the semi-final line-up was also a powerhouse reminder of Europe’s historic Big Four. Real have reached the last four in a continental cup competition on a record 31 occasions. Barcelona are second with 30, then Bayern on 25, and Juventus fourth with 22. English teams, take note.
Similarly in the Europa League, Rafael Benitez’s twice-winners Napoli faced Ukrainian outsiders Dnipro, and holders Sevilla took on Fiorentina, leaving open the possibility of an all-Serie A final. It also means that Spain or Italy could do a sweep of the European trophies. Again, hello England.
Other matters came to pass. Bayern retained their Bundesliga title, but were dumped out of the German Cup by arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund and a gleeful Jürgen Klopp, the champions contriving to miss every spot-kick in their penalty shoot-out – which I suspect would not have happened against an English team.
Juve also clinched their fourth straight Scudetto, and first under the low-pulsed hand of Massimiliano Allegri. And, in the background and over the waves, twice-European winner Jose Mourinho led 2012 champions Chelsea to the English Premier League title to seal a domestic double. The clue here is in the adjectives.
Back in Germany, and with the treble now a memory, Guardiola faced a trip home to the Nou Camp with an injury-hit squad under an even hotter sweatier spotlight. His heroic record in Catalonia of 14 trophies in four years, including two Champions Leagues, means cruelly little in Bavaria if it isn’t repeated with Germany’s uber-club.
Despite the ongoing absence of Robben and Ribery, Guardiola’s sixth straight semi was a lesson in tactical excellence…until the 77th minute, when the brilliance of Lionel Messi and a devastating break helped rip the visitors apart. Thirteen shell-shocked minutes and 3-0 later, Bayern’s chances of a double now look as hopeful as a turkey’s reprieve on Christmas Eve.
Porto II in Munich? Unlikely. Barcelona have won 16 out of their last 17 games in all competitions, with their front trio of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar bagging 111 goals this season. Only Deportivo la Coruna’s 4-0 stunning of AC Milan back in 2004 saw a three-goal lead overturned.
Ribery and Robben are also out for the term. And Bayern failed to muster a single shot on target at the Nou Camp. Actually, the more I write, the less likely a comeback seems. And the more attractive the Manchester City job looks.
In Turin, it was tighter. Cristiano Ronaldo’s first-half header meant an away goal advantage in an otherwise deserved 2-1 victory for Juventus, as Real’s poor record in Italy continues.
But at the Bernabeu, apart from the wobble against Schalke, Real have not lost since last September’s Madrid derby. And I suspect Messi’s wresting of the scoring record might spark a desire from a certain Galactico to get it back. Some geniuses hate to be bested.
In the Europa League, it’s advantage Dnipro. Striker Yevhen Seleznyov came off the bench late on to grab an away goal in a 1-1 draw at Napoli, putting a spoke in the experienced European wheel of boss Benitez.
After his triumphs with Valencia and Chelsea, the Spaniard is aiming to become the first manager to win the second-tier trophy with three different clubs. It would also propel Napoli into the Champions League next season, which he seems unlikely to achieve via the league.
Last weekend, Benitez was the subject of a faintly embarrassing “Rodgers out Rafa in” fly-by banner over former club Liverpool. Talks are continuing over his Napoli future, while English Premier League chairmen consider recruiting, ahead of a bumper new season of TV cash. As Alan Partridge would say: “When you’re hot, you’re hot.” It may be time to turf the tenants out of the house in England.
Bar a minor miracle, Napoli or Dnipro will face Unai Emery’s Sevilla in the Warsaw final after the holders beat Fiorentina 3-0 in Spain, two of them care of full-back Aleix Vidal.
Sevilla are also looking to successfully defend the trophy for the second time in a decade, having won it in 2006 and 2007. No team has ever won the UEFA Cup or Europa League four times – showing what you can achieve when you take the competition seriously, especially with a domestic title the prize of a select few.
That brings us back to England’s top team. After clinching the title last Sunday, Mourinho said that he had come back to Chelsea to win the hardest league of all. The shattered Portuguese coach looked like he had played every match.
It had been a campaign of two halves: free-scoring brilliance until New Year, when a humbling by Tottenham prompted a shift to clinical efficiency. There was also victory in the League Cup en route, a fourth-round exit in the FA Cup, and a Last 16 finish in the Champions League. The mythical quadruple had been mooted, as Mourinho said he feeds on trophies.
Last summer’s additions of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa helped lift Chelsea from third to first, as Mourinho targeted the players he needed to complete a team he could call his. The lure of Champions League football, extra TV money, and the manager’s winning mentality mean Chelsea are now an intoxicating choice for the world’s top players in another pivotal summer transfer window. Winning creates winners.
Through flukes of history, the Blues didn’t make their European Cup bow until 1999, so lack the pedigree of the Big Four. But in terms of recent history, and that of their manager, Chelsea look the most likely of the English teams to succeed in the continent’s top tournament in the near future.
The genius of star players and unique coaches and consistently producing the fruits of that talent are the keys to making history, and then repeating it. Real, Barca, Bayern and Juve have all proved it.
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