Champions League semis: What We’ve Learnt: May 1, 2014

We seem to have come  a long way in such a short space of time during this UEFA Champions League campaign.

After another competition of high drama, controversy and spades of quality, the finalists for this year’s competition are set. Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are the two teams that will battle it out at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon on Saturday,  May 24th for the right to be called European Champions.

Madrid will be chasing their tenth European crown—La Decima—after their demolition of Bayern Munich in the semi-final. A brace each from Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo saw Los Blancos cruise into the last two by an aggregate score of 5-0, as Carlo Ancelotti’s team exploited Bayern’s obvious deficiencies defending set-pieces and counter-attacks.

In the other semi-final, Atletico produced a superb performance to overcome Chelsea 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. An early goal from Fernando Torres put the home side in front, but Diego Simeone’s side responded superbly. A stike from Adrian Lopez just before half-time was followed after the break by a Diego Costa penalty and a tidy finish from Arda Turan.

This year’s final is a enticing proposition, and here’s a few things we’ve gathered about both of the finalists and the two sides vanquished at the semi-final stage this week.


Ancelotti Influence Remains Key To Madrid

Real Madrid reached the semi-finals three times in a row under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, but despite the Portuguese’s obvious European pedigree, he was never able to take the nine-time winners to a Champions League final; never quite capable of channelling Madrid’s embarrassment of attacking riches when it really mattered.

Ancelotti, by contrast, has not only facilitated a system in which Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale can all flourish, but the Italian has also been able to conjure a cohesive defensive shape and unyielding midfield tenacity. The latter two of those aforemention attributes being qualities you wouldn’t typically associate with Real Madrid.

Before a baying Allianz Arena, Madrid produced a clinic in effective, direct football against the holders. They exposed Bayern from set-pieces with excellent deliveries and dynamic movement in the box, whilst on the break they were absolutely scintillating. Ancelotti set his side up in an orthodox 4-4-2 system, and when Madrid sprung from deep, they’d often find Ronaldo and Benzema two-on-two with the Bayern central defenders.

Under Ancelotti, this team have shown a will to be versatile and the ability to adapt to the opposition, something that is vital in the latter stages of this competition. You suspect it will be crucial once again in the final if they are to emerge victorious.

Toothless Bayern Lost Their Edge After Bundesliga Win

In our preview for the Champions League knockout stages, we thought the only thing that could stop Bayern would a loss of competitive edge once they’d wrapped up the Bundesliga. Unfortunately for Pep Guardiola, that proved to be the case.

They rotated their XI a lot before games against Arsenal and then Manchester United, and there were signs in those ties that their early season edge and rhythm was beginning to seep away. But Bayern’s hesitancies were shown up in earnest by a quality Madrid team who have been fighting for trophies on three fronts. Subsequently, the Spanish side were sharp and battle-hardened.

Guardiola was completely undone by his opposite number. Playing without an orthodox holding midfield player proved to be a huge error on the part of the former Barcelona boss, as the Madrid counter-attack scythed through Bayern like a hot knife through butter. Bayern themselves had a similarly dynamic threat last season, but that directness they had under Jupp Heynckes seems to have been engulfed by Pep’s possession-based mantra.

Bayern have lost their way a little over the last few weeks and now must focus on the German Cup Final against Borussia Dortmund. On reflection, there have been plenty of positives under Guardiola and they shouldn’t be too disheartened by this mauling.


Atletico Madrid Have Grown Into Some Side

Going to play against a Chelsea team managed by Mourinho at Stamford Bridge in a Champions League semi-final is some task, but Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone took it all in their stride as they romped to a 3-1 win.

Even when Atleti fell a goal down to former Rojiblanco Torres, they remained patient and continued to play in their own manner.

Once Adrian Lopez scored the away goal, Simeone’s team took complete control of the tie. They starved Chelsea of the ball and completely nullifyed the home side’s attacking threat.

What makes the success of this team even more remarkable is that a host of these players had never been in this situation before. They are, in the main, Champions League novices, whilst Chelsea still have a core of players who won the trophy back in 2012. Watching last night, you’d have thought it was the other way around.

Atletico have played without apprehension, without fear, with a swagger and an unshakeable sense that they belong at this elite level. And you suspect they’ll do exactly the same when they face their city rivals in the final.


Mourinho Shows His Hand Too Soon

We’re so used to seeing Jose get it right in big games. It’s become almost second nature to see his team be patient, probing and then snatching their opportunity when it arises. So when Torres put Chelsea 1-0 up in the tie, there was a sense that might be enough to see them through.

But credit to Atletico, who battled back and scored an away goal. But even at this juncture, there was still 45 minutes to go in the game. So it was a surprise when ten minutes after half-time, Mourinho withdrew Ashley Cole for Samuel Eto’o, going 4-4-2 and making the game a lot more open.

It was a drastic shift from the Chelsea boss, and as the game opened up, it was the visitors who took control, popping the ball around with more freedom and shutting down the Chelsea midfield with ease. It was no surprise when under pressure, Eto’o conceded a rash penalty and Diego Costa took advantage give the visitors an almost insurmountable lead.

Would Mourinho have been better suited keeping things tight and launching an assault in the last ten minutes? Surely he would have known another goal for the visitors would have effectively ended the tie?

I suppose we’re in no position to question the big-game management of a man who has achieved so much in his career. But maybe this time he could have handled things a little better.


Final Is Impossible To Call

In Lisbon on 24 May it’ll be the first time ever that two teams from the same city have taken part in the European Cup final. And it’s a very tough one to call.

In domestic competition this season they have met four times. Atletico Madrid avoided defeat in both league clashes, with one win and a draw, whilst Real Madrid won both legs of their Copa Del Rey semi-final.

Real will certainly be the favourites given their star names, experienced manager and European pedigree, but Atletico have overcome every challenge put in front of them this season.

It’s also worth noting that Atletico well be able to field their strongest possible XI, whilst Real will be without their midfield lynchpin Xabi Alonso, who will miss out through suspension.

Who do you think will come out on top in the Lisbon final? Will Real’s star quality shine through, or will Cholo’s troops upset the odds again?

Let me know in the comments section below. Or follow me on Twitter @MattJFootball

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