Madrid will be the epicentre of European football for two days this week as the Spanish capital’s two biggest clubs, Atletico and Real, host Chelsea and Bayern Munich respectively in the first legs of this season’s UEFA Champions League semi-finals.
While it is no surprise to see holders Bayern reach the last four along with nine-time winners Real and Chelsea, the competition’s last English victors, few people expected Atletico to come this far, 40 years on from their only appearance in the final.
First semi-final, Tuesday 22 April
Atletico Madrid-Chelsea, Vicente Calderon, Madrid, 20:45
The revelations of the year, Atletico remain ideally placed to win La Liga, while Chelsea’s Premier League title hopes suffered a massive dent when they lost 2-1 at home to Sunderland on Saturday. The only unbeaten team left in the competition, with eight wins and two draws to their name, Los Colchoneros have developed a habit of setting a furious pace at the start of games and then keeping their noses in front.
The experience and cunning of Jose Mourinho, the first coach to reach eight Champions League semi-finals, could prove decisive, however, just as it was when the Londoners overcame Paris Saint-Germain on away goals in the previous round. Yet, what opposite number Diego Simeone lacks in experience, he makes up for with his ability to infuse his players with burning desire and a will to win, qualities that came to the fore in their 2-1 aggregate defeat of Barcelona in the quarter-finals. Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic will miss the game through suspension, while four players on each side are one card away from suspensions of their own.
Player to watch
Diego Costa has proved a worthy successor to the seemingly irreplaceable Radamel Falcao in the Atleti front line. A combative, powerful, all-action striker, the 25-year-old Spain man has struck 35 goals this season, 27 of them coming in 32 La Liga appearances, and is scoring at a rate of 0.76 goals per game. His battle with the Chelsea defence and John Terry in particular will be one of the keys to the tie.
Second semi-final, Wednesday 23 April
Real Madrid-Bayern Munich. Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, 20:45
There is not much Pep Guardiola does not know about Real Madrid, and not much Carlo Ancelotti does not know about Bayern either, having gone unbeaten in six games against the Bavarians during his time in charge at AC Milan, overseeing four wins and two draws. Since claiming the Bundesliga title in record time, Bayern’s form has deserted them on the domestic front, with Guardiola’s side going three games without a win in the league, a barren spell that included a painful 3-0 home loss to Borussia Dortmund. Though they got back to winning ways with a 2-0 victory at Eintracht Braunschweig at the weekend, their performance was far from convincing. In contrast, Real are in fine fettle, having collected their first trophy of the season in downing Barcelona 2-1 in last week’s Copa del Rey final, this despite the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese will be on duty against the Germans, however, as Real resume their bid to win the European crown for a tenth time.
Player to watch
Gareth Bale is on top form, as he proved with his magnificent winner against Barça a few days ago, a stunning solo goal in which he showcased his sprinter’s pace. With Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema for company in the Madrid front line, Bale will pose a significant threat to the Bayern rearguard.