Real Madrid-Bayern Munich, Liverpool-Roma in Champions League semis
Former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko was part of the Champions League semifinal draw in Nyon, Switzerland on Friday.
It was only fitting, since football heavyweights Real Madrid and Bayern Munich were paired together in the last four of Europe’s top club competition while Liverpool’s Mo Salah will make an emotional return to former side Roma.
Real and Bayern have faced off three times in the knockout phase already since 2012, with the La Liga outfit triumphing twice including 6-3 on aggregate in last season’s quarterfinal that necessitated extra time.
Both are very familiar with being at this stage. Real are appearing in the semis for an eighth straight season and Bayern have been in the final four in four of the past five.
“It’s a cracker of course, a clash of giants in a positive sense,” Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes was quoted as saying by the club website. “Two teams with great tradition in European and world football, both play attractive football and love the sport.
“It’s a difficult draw for both sides. But we don’t know whether it would have been easier against Roma or Liverpool. We have to take it as it is.”
Just how Bayern — the only team in the semis leading its domestic league; the other three are well behind in theirs — will stop Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the key questions.
The prolific Portuguese tormented Bayern with five goals last season. And this season he has scored in a record 11 straight Champions League games, keeping his cool Wednesday when netting a penalty deep in injury time to eliminate Juventus in the tense battle of last year’s finalists.
The record 12-time competition winners so nearly paid the price for sitting back at the Bernabeu nursing a 3-0 first-leg lead, with the “Old Lady” of Italian football mounting a comeback to level the tie at 3-3 prior to the late penalty drama.
But if Ronaldo figures to be in the spotlight yet again, don’t forget the potential return of Real’s influential central defender Sergio Ramos. The club captain sat out the second leg against Juventus due to a suspension and would normally be expected to resume his duties against Bayern.
According to reports though, the combustible Ramos could miss at least the first leg of the semis for coming down from the stands Wednesday to join in the celebrations.
Bayern cruised to the semifinals in overcoming Sevilla 2-1 on aggregate and in Heynckes have the man who led the German powerhouse to the treble in 2013, highlighted by a fifth title in the Champions League or European Cup.
The former Real boss is expected to retire at the end of the season and Bayern named his replacement Friday in Eintracht Frankfurt manager Niko Kovac.
The 46-year-old Kovac, who spent most of his playing career as a central midfielder in Germany, was a Croatian international and formerly guided the Croatian national team. He’ll no doubt be keeping an eye on his future, higher-profile team in the semifinals.
Roma president Jim Pallotta jumped into one of Rome’s famous fountains in joy after his team stunned Barcelona in the quarterfinals and said he didn’t mind who the Giallorossi got next.
But truth be told, Liverpool — who engineered an upset of their own by eliminating Manchester City — and Roma were probably chuffed to draw each other. The clash is a rematch of the 1984 final Liverpool won, with that season also marking the last occasion Roma advanced to the semifinals.
“Liverpool have made a statement similar to ours by knocking out the team I thought might be the favorites to win it all, Manchester City,” Roma’s veteran captain Daniele de Rossi told the team’s Facebook page.
Roma completely shut down Lionel Messi in the second leg Tuesday and their task now will be to foil Salah, another diminutive left-footer who can dribble and finish with aplomb.
Apart from leading the Premier League in scoring, Salah is tied for second in the Champions League this term — behind Ronaldo of course — alongside hard-working teammate Roberto Firmino and Sevilla’s Wissam Ben Yedder on eight goals.
Salah a fan favorite in Rome
Salah was a firm fan favorite in Rome but according to Football Italia, facing financial difficulties and dealing with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, Roma were essentially forced to sell the Egyptian striker.
He turned out to be a bargain buy, purchased by Liverpool for £38 million ($54 million) a month before Brazil’s Neymar went for 222 million euros ($273 million) to Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona.
“I still talk to most of the players there,” Salah told CNN. “We were very close to each other and we are good friends.”
Salah and Firmino were on target as Liverpool crushed Premier League leaders Manchester City 5-1 on aggregate. The Reds are England’s most successful team in the European Cup or Champions League, matching Bayern’s five titles, but last appeared in the semifinals in 2008.
The first legs of the semifinals take place April 24 and 25 with the return legs on May 1 and 2.
The final is scheduled for May 26 in Kiev, where Klitschko is now the mayor.