As they battle for Europe's most coveted trophy, we analyse the four teams who will battle for a place in the final
Club Atletico de Madrid
League: La Liga
Coach: Diego Simeone
Captain: Diego Godin
Key Player: Koke
Okay, Diego Costa has scored a ton of goals this season and he is an inspiration for those around him. But the young Spanish midfielder, Koke, is an inspiration for Diego Costa. He plays the role Mesut Ozil played for Cristiano and he does it with the most aplomb. With passes having Xavi-like precision, Iniesta-like vision and an ability to shift a gear in the absence of other proven leaders, Koke has really come to the fore this season and taken Spain by storm. His individual abilities and the ability to combine with those around him has helped Koke guide Diego Simeone's side to the summit of the Spanish league with just 4 games to go. He can also score goals from pressure situations and when the team needs it the most, as proved by his tap-in against Barcelona that sent the Catalans out before the semi-final in Europe's elite for the first time in seven years.
Why they can win:
Diego Simeone is energetic, composed, organised, fast, suave, and smart and can become really aggressive when needed. Atletico Madrid is a reflection of Diego Simeone. The team is modeled around Simeone's abilities and it has already won them the Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, and the Copa del Rey. The Rojiblancos play with men behind the ball and their 4-4-2 formation leaves no gaps between the full backs, center halves and central midfielders, which enables them to deal with threats in the air and on the ground. They have quick-footed players to hit opponents on the counter and Diego Costa converts his chances into goals almost every time. The likes of Arda Turan, Diego Godin, Felipe Luis, Raul Garica, Diego Ribas and David Villa are the perfect embodiment of Simeone's methods: not too flashy but can get the job done. They remain organised for the full 90 minutes of a match and never stray away from their strategy. But Atletico's biggest advantage remains each player's ability to understand and co-ordinate with his teammates and manager and they enjoy each other's company.
Where they may fall short:
Unlike most other teams, Atletico Madrid haven't been in pressure situations in the Champions League. They faced a rather straight-forward ask in the group stages, breezed past AC Milan in the Round of 16 and knocked the mighty Barcelona out in the quarters without much ado. A sudden up in quality of opposition and continuous pressure over 180 minutes of a tie might just prove to be the undoing of a very competent Atletico side. Also, none of the current crop of players has won the Champions League except David Villa, who won it 3 years ago with Barcelona. That in itself is a huge boulder of pressure for the young stars of the 'other side' of Madrid.
Atletico Madrid are known to keep their nerves cool. If they can, once again, drive inspiration from Simeone and keep their heads straight, they may deliver one of the biggest surprises of recent years in Europe. For the first time in many years, a dark horse would actually go on to win the competition and that may be a big motivator for them.
League: English Premier League
Coach: Jose Mourinho
Captain: John Terry
Key Player: Eden Hazard
Jose Mourinho rightly labelled Eden Hazard as the best young player in the world. The Belgian international is proving his coach's statement right time and time again with match-winning displays at such a tender age. His superior dribbling and passing ability have got the Blues out of pressure situations countless times this season alone. With his partners of previous seasons, Juan Mata (sold) and Oscar (benched) not in the first team any more, the weight of carrying the 2012 champions lies solely on Hazard and he is proving that he is up to the task. He starts moves and with the absence of a true goal-scoring striker, often finishes them off. No defender, till date, has been able to go toe-to-toe with him for Hazard is just too fast and skillful. He can also hit the ball a long distance and has a cool head to score penalties in case regular taker Frank Lampard is absent.
Why they can win:
Eden Hazard receives most of the plaudits for Chelsea's workman like victories, but Chelsea's real heroes are the four that make up the defensive quartet. Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry instill the defensive composure and organisation that Mourinho demands from his teams and more often than not keep Chelsea in big games and win them the big games. They display enough composure and concentration to soak up pressure and attacks for the better part of 90 minutes and supply the likes of Hazard, Andre Schurrle and Nemanja Matic to start counter-attacks, the lethal weapon of The Special One. Add to that, the presence of the world-class Petr Cech between the posts and you have a formula for the most miserly defense in all competitions. They give nothing away until the whistle is blown and balance the lack of a world-class striker in the team. This is enough to frustrate opponents in big matches and steal the thunder with a lightning quick counter and kill off the game.
Where they may fall short:
A well-documented absence of a striker has already seen Chelsea lose a strong foothold on the EPL title. Mourinho has lamented that the strike trio of Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba are too casual and ineffective leading to a zero source of inspiration and no final target on the counters. Lack of goals from these players has seen Mourinho change tactics and formations leading to disastrous results and in case it happens in the Champions League, Mourinho can wave a CL title with a third team goodbye for at least another season. Mourinho has shown his frustrations on international television and press conferences and the lack of confidence among the strikers may hurt the Blues in the business end of the competition where no team likes to give anything away.
The absence of Eden Hazard due to injury might hurt their chances as he is the main threat on the counter. However, Schurrle has hit top form but his performance in big game matches is not yet tested. Mourinho's Chelsea is not yet a finished product, as he has stated countless times, but he has the ability to get the best out of his team with high stakes on the line. With a packed bus, a few swift counter-attacks and 2 away goals by wide men might just see them lift the trophy in Lisbon.
(L-R) Arjen Robben, Eden Hazard, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa. Pic/ AFP
League: La Liga
Coach: Carlo Ancelloti
Captain: Iker Casillas
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Madrid has a host of stars who can win matches single-handedly. But the most important and effective of them all has to be the World player of the year 2013, Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese has already notched up 14 goals in 9 games this season, more than double the tally of any player still left in the competition. But it is not just his goal scoring ability, but also his pace, power and dribbling abilities that have humbled oppositions. He has also worked on the mental aspects of his game and is a calmer, cooler and better player under Carlo Ancelloti. His assists have increased since last season and he combines well with other players like Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. Ronaldo terrorises defenses with his brilliantly-timed runs and skills on the ball. But his most important contribution to the team has been his ability to influence others and raise their games.
Why they can win:
Madrid scores goals by the dozen. When Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo (the 'BBC') link up, it spells doom for the opposition. They have smashed 6 past both Galatasaray and Schalke and managed to score more than 2 goals in 3 matches each against quality opposition like Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. Ancelloti has imbibed an ultra-attacking philosophy at Madrid and it is paying rich dividends. When the BBC switch-off (rarely), Di Maria, Isco and Luka Modric come to the fore. They have the ability to boss the midfield and score tons of goals against even the most organised defense. This mentality of 'see-goal-will-shoot' is Los Blancos' greatest weapon with their desire to win La Decima. The current crop of players, bar Iker Casillas, have never won the Champions League in the Madrid jersey and would love to etch their name in history as the team to win the Bernabeau outfit an unprecedented 10th European crown which has eluded them since 2002.
Where they may fall short:
Like most attacking teams in the world in history, Real Madrid has a shaky defense. Alvaro Arbeloa has been constantly injured. His back-up, Daniel Carjaval, is too often seen combining with di Maria leaving gaps for the opposition to exploit at the back. Pepe and Marcelo look a shadow of the players that were part of the meanest defense at the turn of the year. With more games come more mistakes from the pair, some which have already cost Madrid too much. Raphael Varane, a promising, young, strong defender has been criminally kept on the bench by the Italian boss leaving Sergio Ramos to do all the hard work to reduce the pressure on Casillas. Ramos, too, has encountered an unusually difficult and formless season after guiding Madrid to the summit of the league in December. He keeps giving away free kicks in awkward positions, can't outrun attackers despite his pace, is hot headed and often ends up leaving his team down to ten men and without a center-back. Such a defence can be easily exploited by any opponent, as shown by a Reus-inspired Dortmund in the 2nd leg of the quarter-final by almost engineering a comeback after being down 3-0. Also, in case Ronaldo goes missing, the whole team suffers.
If Sergio Ramos can lead the defence tactfully without getting sent off himself, Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. can certainly win any match on any given day. However, Madrid will have to shift away from being a one-man team and perform at the same level if Ronaldo suffers a dip in form unexpectedly. They have the resources to do so, but these resources have time and again failed to be up to the mark as showed by Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the league and Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-final. However, if Ronaldo plays out of his skin and Bale and the rest of the team contribute to the best of the abilities, there is no doubt Carlo Ancelloti will deliver the Decima.
Coach: Josep Guardiola
Captain: Philipp Lahm
Key Player: Arjen Robben
In a line-up as star-studded as Bayern, one wouldn't expect a player totally alien to the coach's philosophy to lead the line. But Robben has done just that this season. The Dutchman is playing the role his wing twin Franck Ribery played last season. He is at the heart of most of Bayern's attacks, combining flawlessly with skipper Philipp Lahm and right-back Rafinha and is a constant threat to opposition goals from the right-hand side. Pep Guardiola has made sure Robben is never out of action by letting him drift inside centrally or even partner up with Ribery to create a nightmare for defences on the left. His goals and assists have gone up a notch and he has been featuring in the "Team of the Week" for many, if not all, football experts. Robben, who was tipped to leave the all-conquering Bavarian giants when pass-master Guardiola was appointed as manager, has actually upped his game under the Catalan tactician. He has won more penalties (4) than any other player this season in the Champions League and is staking a claim to be called the best right winger on the planet. And if that wasn't enough to scare opposition defences to death, he still has that 'cut-inside-from-the-right-and-unleash-a-solid-left-foot-curler-into-the-corner' move that every defender and goalkeeper knows but can't do anything about.
Why they can win:
Arjen Robben is not the only attacker in the team. The other part of "Rob-bery", UEFA European Player of the Year 2013, Franck Ribery is still contributing to the team with innumerable key passes. His dribbling skills and pace haven't showed any signs of slowing despite him turning 31 earlier this month. Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze are important elements in the attack, linking up the wings and the center effortlessly. Muller can also play back-up striker and trouble defenders in the air and has a good presence of mind which is essential to score goals following scrambles in the box. Add to that, Mario Mandzukic's aerial ability and work-rate and Bayern have an attacking prowess no team can match. Supplying arsenal to these big guns is the Bayern-born trio of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lahm and the young but assured Toni Kroos. With mesmerizing touches, divine passing and a killer instinct, this central trio provides enough for the men up front to rip open oppositions. On their day, if all these elements link-up without any hiccups, even the most organised of defenses will have a tough time to contain wave after wave of blitzkrieg for the full 90 minutes of a contest. And this season, mostly all days have been their days.
Where they may fall short:
In a team that is so fully packed for every position, it may be surprising to find the center of defense loosely equipped. Brazil's bit-part player Dante teams up with Germany's hard-footed and sometimes uneasy Jerome Boateng. The towering duo is slow and susceptible to fast counter-attacks. They allow wide players to drift in behind them and often give away cheap freekicks in dangerous positions and leave 'super sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer' to do all the hardwork. A well-equipped offense can easily see Dante and Boateng out of their zone and out of the game by the time the 90 minutes come to a close. The replacements, Daniel van Buyten and Javi Martinez, too, don't offer any consolation.
If Dante and Boateng can be true to their game plan and not hold a suicidal high defense line, Bayern's attack is enough to win them matches and ties against any opposition. Not many people would bet against Bayern repeating the treble with them already having won the Bundesliga as early as in March. The curse of the successful defense of the Champions League still hovers over the elite competition, but Bayern are in a great position to end that drought. "The Terrible Twins", as always, will remain consequential to their bid. If they can, they will truly justify the status of the best team in the world of this century and may even surpass Bayern's own 1970s team and AC Milan in the 90s.
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