Aficionados of Champions League football, be they purists or pragmatists, must be purring over the semifinals that this year’s competition has thrown up. There might be no Milan, Liverpool, Ajax or Man United, but the surviving lineup still reads like a who-is-who of European aristocracy.
This column couldn’t wait for yesterday’s draws, but it mattered little because whichever two clashes were to be served up would be nothing short of lip smacking.
Royalty they might be though, but the final four have not been without their flaws and there are things they are going to have to do better if they are to grace the final at the magnificent Olympiastadion in Berlin next month.
They are the lesser of upper crust left, ever having won it only twice, and last scaled these heights way back in 2003 when a Pavel Need-less team lost to AC Milan in a shootout at Old Trafford. They have crept in under the radar but will now come into close scrutiny and so must address one big blemish to stay alive.
The best executors of a back three, Juventus have perfected wing-back play through Stephan Lichsteiner and Patrice Evra. But while they shut out Monaco quite superbly, Girogio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonard Bonucci are not as impregnable as that mean defence marshaled by Ciro Ferrara under Marcelo Lippi way back then. Even then, without an intense high press and a super quick break, defending doggedly old Italian style is no longer enough.
And so Juventus are going to have to score more than once, a feat that their opponents will almost certainly guarantee. Carlos Tevez, Alvaro Morata, Fernando Llorente and the midfield quartet of Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and the ageless Andrea Pirlo all know the way to goal and must find it again.
My favourites to win the whole thing, Barcelona have the attacking edge because of the multi-pronged strengths of that front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. In tandem they are unstoppable, but what PSG disappointingly failed to do in stretching out the area behind that trio, others will manage.
Gerard Pique and the back five have done a lot better than they have been given credit for, but for Barca to prevail they must have Iniesta playing again to the level seen at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night, and Busquets, Rakitic and Xavi mobile with and without the ball the way they once were.
The outfit that I reckon really has the stopping of Barca is Bayern, coached by the man who sat the Catalans on the throne of Europe in a style he has since transferred to Munich, if only to a degree.
Attribute it to cockiness or a lack of sharpness from having it a little too easy in the Bundesliga lately, Bayern have tended to switch off for potentially fatal spells on their European travels. They got away with murder at Manchester City, Shaktar Donetsk and Porto, but will not do so if they let slip again.
Their injury woes dissipating, it is the concentration levels that Pep Guardiola has to focus on.
The odds are always stacked highly against the defending champions, and the jinx manifests itself in different ways.
Having peaked too early the way I saw it, Real Madrid have not been at their best in the knockout phases, although overall there were improvements on their Schalke showing against Atletico Madrid.
The irony is that the absence of Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema accorded them better balance against Atletico and yet they must return, and Luka Modric even more so.
For all the risks involved, and with the wobbliness of Iker Casillas and the rearguard considered, Real Madrid’s best bet is to stay on the front foot and step hard on the accelerator.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor