The chances that you’ve recently come across some commentary lamenting the inferiority of the PL’s finest to the European giants – ‘‘It’s time for a reassessment, youth development’’, yada-yada-yada – are pretty high. So, in the interest of sanity, I’ll keep my own thoughts on this issue brief. It’s been this way for a while, and really shouldn’t come as any surprise. The two Spanish clubs and Bayern have historically attracted more world-class players – it helps that they bring in a fair few through their respective Academies too. Though the Milan sides have had a torrid time as of late, the big three in Italy all have a rich history of consistent European success – just think about some of the sides they’ve fielded over the last twenty years, not to mention those in the days of yore. It’s makes sense – bigger countries produce more talent, and those players don’t grow up wanting to play for Arsenal. Would anyone be surprised if Eden Hazard, the best player on the best team in England, left for the continent in a couple of years, in the same way Cristiano Ronaldo fulfilled his childhood dream of playing for Los Blancos? EPL teams are functionally built to grind their way through a gruelling season in the self-proclaimed ‘best league in the world’; the European sides exist in a cyclical pattern of juggernaut construction, amassing wave after wave of transcendent talent, reminiscent of some kind of arms-race for control of the intercontinental football Empire. I’ve been reading too much about the new Star Wars movie.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s focus on the monumental upcoming clashes in the semi-finals of the 2014/15 Champion’s League. Tuesday night sees Real Madrid face-off against Juventus. Madrid have perhaps the most curious, and least European, approach. Mourinho has imposed a defensive, sum-of-all-parts system at all his destinations, and successfully too, but since taking over Carlo Ancelotti has loosened the shackles a bit. Real are still defensive minded, but Ancelotti has tailored his tactics to maximise his best asset, Ronaldo. Why wouldn’t he? When not in possession, Madrid set-up in a rigid, ‘two banks of four’ 4–4–2 that Sam Allardyce would be proud of. James Rodriguez usually tucks in on the left side of midfield, and Gareth Bale (or Isco, if Bale is injured) drops down on the right. Ronaldo stays high up the pitch in the left-channel, alongside striker Karim Benzema. Normally, this is a huge no-no; not leaving yourself outnumbered in the centre of midfield is paramount now that the majority of teams opt to play three in there. But Ronaldo changes things. Real’s opponents are (rightly) terrified of over-committing in attack, knowing that no. 7 is ready to spring on the counter-attack. When they do reclaim possession, Ronaldo instantly gets wide on the left, Bale surges up on the right, and James glides into a no. 10 position. That’s not an enviable situation to be facing, especially on the counter, and the combination of speed and incisiveness of that foursome is unplayable at times. Just look at their third goal against Bayern last year.
Juventus have cruised to their fourth straight Scudetto in a woefully weak Serie A. The Old lady hasn’t faced a side of Madrid’s calibre all season, and it’ll be a test. Normally, Juve play a classic Italian 3–5–2, or 5–3–2 depending on the latitude of wing-backs Evra and Sebastien Lichtsteiner. But it’s more realistic that Allegri opts for a funky kind of 3–6–1 – he could replace Carlos Tevez’s (who’s been in ’08 United form of late, by the way) usual strike partner with Claudio Marchisio and shuffle him in alongside Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo in the centre of the park. Packing the midfield with three Olympian athletes and a wily pivot isn’t a bad way to go against the dual metronomes Modric and Kroos. That leaves the usual suspects in Juve’s experienced and doggish back three to sweep up anything that gets in behind. It’s by no means fool-proof, but it’s probably the best shot the Italians have got.Common sense would suggest that Juve don’t have enough attacking fire-power to trouble Real, and will be lucky if they hold out for a draw. But this is the Champions League, and anything can happen on the night.
On Wednesday Bayern go into the Nou Camp to face Barcelona. The two teams have been the best performers in Europe in recent months, and the clash will hopefully live up to expectations. The focus of the game will be on Guardiola’s return to his former kingdom, but really the key question should be this: how will Barcelona fare against a team that has taken what they do to the next level? The similarities are palpable; Pep’s Barca could also switch between a 4–3–3 and a 3–5–2 with a flick of a switch, and they too wanted to control possession and reclaim it through hyper-aggressive high pressing.
After a couple of (relatively) down seasons, Barca retooled over the summer with the acquisitions of Jeremy Mathieu, Marc Andre ter Stegen and, most importantly, Ivan Rakitic, who has all the possession and playmaking skills you’d expect from a Barcelona player, but is far more mobile and defensively effective than the ageing Jedi Master, Xavi. He’s the kind of well-rounded midfielder that Barca just hasn’t had at their disposal in recent years, and has taken a lot of pressure off Andrés Iniesta to be the sole link player. Luis Suarez looks to have now settled in to arguably the most mercurial attacking trio in club football history.
But if there’s a team built to stop Barcelona, it’s Bayern. They’ll likely customarily pack the midfield, hoping to strangle the service to Messi and Suarez. Thomas Muller and Thiago Alcantara should hound Sergio Busquets all evening in order to disrupt Barca’s fondness for slow, meandering build-ups before playing that killer pass. All this will be in an attempt to force the Catalans into playing into the channels; central defenders Boateng and Benatia have the size and athleticism to recover and contain, whilst Manuel Neuer will as usual be lightning off his line. Going forward, Bayern will be missing Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski. That’s a massive blow and a disappointment for neutral spectators, but Bayern’s depth should allow them to cover adequately. Certainly though, the chances of a moment of brilliance that could swing the tie in Bayern’s favour are somewhat reduced. It will be interesting to see who has the lion’s share of possession, as both sides usually focus heavily on ball retention. The outcome may well be decided upon who can adapt quickest to not having the ball for prolonged periods of time, a situation that Bayern undoubtedly have the more suitable players for.
With four of European football’s most decorated and successful clubs remaining, tournament football doesn’t get much more exciting than this. As always, the games will be tense and probably cagey affairs. It will be the little things that make the differences. An errant pass here, a piece of bad marking there. That kind of thing. Results could go either way, but secretly we’re all hoping for a Messi – Ronaldo showdown in the final.