Champions League

Champions League: Real Madrid are the favourites but Juventus is full of surprises

The Spanish team is depleted in the absence of key players, but Ronaldo is in top form again.

Europe has got its top four club teams to compete for the crown of European Champions. A journey which starts off from the domestic league level and winds its way through tiers of intense competition with the best soccer clubs of Europe is now down to the last five matches.

Not surprisingly, the match-up is on expected lines. Consistent in form and results, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the big two from Spain, have taken their place in the semifinals. And so have Bayern Munich, the vastly improved Bavarian giants, who have had such a profound impact on European and world football in the past few seasons. And rounding off this incredible list, the last spot is taken by Juventus, the Grand Old Lady of Turin – and newly crowned Champions of Serie A as they picked up the Scudetto with four games to spare last week.

In the first semifinal leg in Turin, Real comes up against Juventus in what promises to be a tactically brutal encounter. Real will be no stranger to this as they have themselves come through an agonising quarterfinal (two legs at that) against their cross town rivals Atletico – a repeat of last year’s final where Real picked up the La Decima. There was only one goal across both legs of this quarterfinal – as it took waves of Real attacks to finally pierce the impressive Atletico defence and squeak through to the next round.

Rejevenated Juve

Juventus, not unsurprisingly for teams from Italy, has a terrific defensive record coming into this game. In Serie A, their strong central defence line-up of Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci have let in only 19 goals this season in 34 matches.

In the Champions League, they have gone a step further with six clean sheets and only five conceded goals in 10 matches. Though they finished second to Atletico in the group stage, strong performances in the knock-out rounds against Dortmund and Monaco have now seen them come up against Real.

In Buffon, they have a world class keeper marshalling the team’s defence just behind the creative brilliance of Vidal and Pirlo and Tevez, Llorente and Morata up front. But make no mistake – their strategy will not be based on scoring goals in a free flowing game – but to not let in anything first and then scramble for a goal through counter-attack opportunities.

While they will be a strong defensive unit across both legs no doubt, for them to win against Real, the difference will have to come in the offensive line-up. The midfield and frontline will have to make inroads in the strong Madrid defence and wait for the opportunities patiently if they were to have any chance in scoring. And going by what we saw in the quarterfinals, the match could well be a low scoring one with maybe a goal or two being the difference between the two sides.

Real class

And what do we say about Madrid? The Spanish giants are sitting in the second spot in La Liga behind Barcelona and have had a tough run in the Champions League having to edge past Schalke before coming up against Atletico in the quarterfinals. There will be no Modric and Benzema but, on paper, their line-up still looks good enough to put it past Juventus in the normal scheme of things.

In Ronaldo, James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale they have a world class strike force and if given an opportunity the Manchester United striker on loan, Chicarito, has also proved that he can contribute. Sergio Ramos will be going on his customary deep probing runs from the back line and the rest of the defence with the likes of Varane, Coentrao, Pepe and Arbeloa will be quite difficult to break down.

The midfield will have to rise to the occasion in the absence of Modric, a vivacious playmaker, and it will depend a lot on Khedira, Isco, Illaramendi or Kroos to keep the supply line going for the boys up front.

Carlos Ancelotti is no stranger to Juventus and their style of play while Massimiliano Allegri is also trying to stamp his own authority on a Juve team which still seems to miss their talismanic ex manager Conte. In today’s match in Turin, do not expect too many goals as Juventus will try and lock down their defensive fortress first and foremost. But expect Real to chip away relentlessly and any away goal might prove vital in the long run.

Real are the favourites on paper but do not rule out the Italians – for time and again people have done it to their own peril.

Rathindra Basu lives, breathes, sleeps sports and is forever waiting for the next Indian sporting triumph. Since this usually takes much time and infinite patience he also listens to music, reads voraciously and eats almost anything that moves!

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