We are 39 days away from the Champions League final in London’s Wembley Stadium, and the excitement of the quarterfinal ties is likely to be upstaged by two stellar semifinal matchups. One semifinal pits fierce rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid against each other, while the other will give Manchester United a chance to break their curse in knockout stages against German teams when the Red Devils face off against Schalke.
Barcelona vs. Real Madrid
The matchup that looked to be inevitable once the quarterfinal draw was released is finally a reality, and the two fixtures will be the fourth and fifth contests between archrivals this year after tomorrow’s Copa del Rey final. High-flying Barcelona won the first meeting, 5-0, at the Camp Nou and is currently at the top of the Liga table. Barcelona is eight points clear of Real Madrid after Saturday’s 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu, with just six games left in the domestic schedule.
Thanks to their sizeable lead in La Liga, the Catalans have most likely sewn up their 21st league title. The path to their second Champions League final in three years, however, won’t be so easy. The Merengues have made no secret of their desire to win the club’s record 10th Champions League title and have yet to lose in the competition this year.
Adding to the drama, Jose Mourinho became the Real Madrid manager at the beginning of the year, primarily to bring the biggest trophy in club competition to the Spanish capital for the first time since 2002. This title drought has been made all the more painful by Barça’s success — the Blaugranas have won two of the last five Champions League titles and are well on their way to their third consecutive Spanish league title.
Saturday’s clash in Madrid was a clear sign that Mourinho will be following a completely new approach to the rest of his team’s games against Barcelona. The old one clearly did not work, as evidenced by the humiliating five-goal loss at Camp Nou in the first half of the season. The self-styled “Special One” benched talented young midfield star Mesut Ozil in favor of playing reckless, aggressive defender Pepe in a holding midfield role. It worked wonders to limit Xavi and Iniesta’s runs and through passes, as well as stopping Lionel Messi, who now holds the Barcelona record with 48 goals this season. The presence of a defender in midfield seemed to make it more difficult for Real to hold possession, though, as Barcelona controlled the pace of the game and had a stunning 76 percent of the possession. Undoubtedly, Mourinho will use this strategy in Saturday’s game and their upcoming Copa Del Rey clash. Barring an unforeseen disaster in that cup final, he will probably employ similar tactics for the first leg on April 27. Mourinho knows that his team, talented as it is, cannot beat Barcelona at their own game. Accordingly, he has resorted to the tactics he used last year with Inter Milan when the Italians eliminated Barca: deep defending, quickly closing down Barca’s stars, staying compact and counterattacking when possible. That being said, he will also surely need at least one moment of brilliance from the on-form Cristiano Ronaldo if the Merengues are to advance. A goal from a set piece or a long-distance rocket from the Portuguese superstar in one of the two legs could very well suffice for Real Madrid if they are able to engage the low-scoring matchup that Mourinho wants.
No matter who wins, soccer fans around the world should get ready for two exciting and aggressive games. Barcelona have to be the favorites, but it is never wise to underestimate a heart of champion like José Mário dos Santos Félix Mourinho.
Schalke vs. Manchester United
Schalke soundly beat Inter in the quarterfinals, 7-3, to send the defending champs crashing out of the tournament, while Manchester United eased past Chelsea, 3-1, on aggregate. Inter’s loss was not altogether surprising given their domestic struggles, but the one-sided nature of the loss — which saw the Royal Blues of Schalke earn a stunning 5-2 first-leg win at the San Siro to virtually kill off the tie — can be attributed as much to Schalke’s class as to Inter’s poor form. If nothing else, the result should serve as a quiet warning to the Red Devils, who will be looking to redeem themselves after an FA Cup semifinal loss to local rivals Manchester City.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is widely considered the more likely team to face off against one of the Spanish giants at Wembley. Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick admitted as much when he said that his squad will be the underdogs — a sentiment Mourinho agreed with, predicting an easy victory for the Mancunian side.
Schalke’s front line is led by Real Madrid legend Raul, who has scored four goals in three career games against Manchester United. He will undoubtedly pose the most significant threat to the Red Devils, looking to add to his all-time record tally of 71 Champions League goals. Joining Raul on the German side’s attack force will be another former Real Madrid forward, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and the duo — along with Jefferson Farfan and Jurado — will definitely challenge the United backline. If Schalke’s stellar performance against Inter is any indication, Man U central defenders Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic need to be on their best behavior in order to keep the Germans off the scoresheet. Ferdinand and Vidic are two of the strongest and most accomplished centerbacks in the world, and they make for a very intimidating pair. In contrast, the strike partnership of Raul and Huntelaar is based more on elusivity and skill than the brute-force approach seen in the Premier League, typified by the likes of Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and United’s own Wayne Rooney.
On the other end of the field, Rooney will look to continue his recent resurgence against a tough Schalke defense that could prove difficult to break down. The mixture of experience and youthful talent exemplified by Christoph Metzelder, Atsuto Uchida and Hans Sarpei will be tough to match.
The most important member of Schalke’s defense, though, will be goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Neuer will have to keep on his toes to stop Ferguson’s impressive group of forwards from trouncing Schalke. Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez are likely to have chances to test the German keeper.
Schalke will, however, have history on its side, as United have struggled against German teams in the knockout stages of the recent past. The Red Devils were dumped out of the competition by Borussia Dortmund in 1997, by Bayern Munich in 2001 and by a Ballack- and Berbatov-inspired Bayer Leverkusen squad the next year. Last year’s tough loss on the away-goals rule to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals still causes fans grief. The last time United beat Munich was in the famous 1999 final, when Ole Gunner Solksjaer and Teddy Sheringham scored in the dying seconds of the game to snatch the game away from the Bavarian giants. The current team has a similar look today, starting Rooney and Hernandez, who has earned glowing comparisons to Solksjaer for last-minute key goals.
Regardless of which two teams end up advancing to play in the final at Wembley on May 28, we’re in for an exciting conclusion to this year’s iteration of the world’s premier club soccer competition.
Michael Appau is a sophomore in the College. Cem Yolbulan is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Gemini Sports appears in every other Tuesday edition of Hoya Sports.