Just two matches remain until we will know the two teams left standing to fight for the UEFA Champions League trophy in Milan this May, and C.J. Radune and Joel Forquer of the Prime Sports Network are on hand to get you ready.
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Last week saw the completion of the first leg of the UCL semifinals of Europe’s best club teams this season. Each of the four contenders remain in contention to book their spot in the final after a draw and narrow victory, and those results promise to set up second-leg thrillers this week. We will no longer wonder who remains standing to battle it out to hoist Europe’s most prestigious club trophy following this week’s all-important showdowns.
Real Madrid (H) vs. Manchester City (A)
Real Madrid’s top scorer failed a late fitness test and was forced to sit out of the first leg tie between the two sides. Though Madrid was forced to carry on without Cristiano Ronaldo, the Spanish giants weathered the first half with relatively few chances on goal from either side. More chances came in the second half as Madrid began to edge into the match over the home side, ratcheting up the pressure as the minutes ticked off. City’s Joe Hart proved to be valuable in front of goal, and a call for a penalty never materialized for the home team. That increased pressure from the visitors simply didn’t translate into a goal, though. The first leg ended in a scoreless draw, and now the teams head to Madrid with each side still in the hunt for an appearance in the final.
C.J.’s players to watch:
- Man City – Joe Hart G – Hart weathered a heavy storm from Madrid in the second half of the first leg draw. While the first half saw just a handful of shots, the pace picked up as the pressure mounted on City’s defenses. Hart was at the top of his game, and matched the attack from the visitors. The stage will be different this week, though. Both teams need to score to win, and being away from home makes the task a bit more difficult for City. Hart will undoubtedly come under pressure again, and his team will be relying on him to keep them in it.
- Real Madrid – Cristiano Ronaldo F – Would Madrid have scored with Ronaldo on the pitch? The team’s chances were hindered even further when Karim Benzema was forced out of the match at halftime. The tournament’s highest scorer could have provided that essential spark, but his lingering thigh injury forced him out at the last moment. He should be ready to go (and well rested) in this week’s follow-up, though. At home he led his side to the semifinals with an impressive display, and that ability is exactly what the team will want from him again this week as they chase the final.
Joel’s Players to watch:
- Man City – Kevin de Bruyne M – Manchester City’s attack didn’t trouble Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas too much in the first leg. The only shot on target from the English side came off the boot of Belgian midfielder Kevin de Bruyne. This is the second Champions League match in a row where de Bruyne is the only City man to either score or put a shot on target. City simply cannot get away with that level of performance for a third straight match and expect to advance to the final, especially playing Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. The Citizens will be feverishly chasing that precious away goal, and de Bruyne looks the most capable of scoring for the Manchester side at this stage.
- Real Madrid – Gareth Bale M – Bale’s season has, without a doubt, been a tale of two competitions. In Spain’s La Liga, he has scored 18 goals and provided 10 assists, which puts him in the top 20 in both categories for Europe’s five major leagues. In the Champions League, he has scored zero goals and provided one assist. Should Ronaldo or Karim Benzema, or both, miss playing time in the second leg, Bale is going to have to step up in a huge way and deliver a masterful performance for his side. Real certainly has the advantage with their years of Champions league experience and the fact that they’re playing at home, but this tie is far from decided.
Bayern Munich (H) vs. Atletico Madrid (A)
Atletico started their semifinal campaign off on the best possible foot by scoring against Bayern in the first 15 minutes of last week’s match. The strike from inside the penalty box by Saul Niguez gave the Spanish side early confidence despite Bayern appearing to dominate the possession statistic. Manager Pep Guardiola made all three of his changes in quick succession and the Bavarians were creating more chances in the second half, but the German side was still finding it difficult to break through to net a valuable away goal to take back to Munich. Both teams saw potential goals denied by the woodwork, which only stoked the already tense atmosphere that is sure to follow the sides to Germany this week.
C.J.’s players to watch:
- Atletico – Juanfran D – Defense will be the key to Atletico’s ability to advance to the final from this week’s match in Munich. Having a goal advantage over the home side means that Bayern will be in attack mode, and the onslaught they showered on Madrid’s back line in the second half last week is just a taste of what is to come. Juanfran is a stalwart at the back for Atletico, and he committed relatively few fouls for being on the pitch as much as he has been. Atletico can now advance with a scoreless draw, and Juanfran will play an important role in blocks and clearances in helping that become a reality.
- Bayern – Robert Lewandowski F – I am sticking with Lewandowski for the second week in a row. He had some chances last week, but wasn’t able to put one into the back of Atletico’s goal. Rest assured that he will be a prime target for passes into the penalty area again this week, though. Being the home side gives an advantage that Lewandowski can capitalize on. He played a full 90 minutes last week, and could be a breakout player helping Bayern to turn around their first-leg loss.
Joel’s Players to watch:
- Atletico – Jan Oblak G – Oblak is a clean sheet machine. In Atletico’s last five matches, Oblak has conceded zero goals, an impressive feat that becomes even more incredible when achieved against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, arguably two of the most prolific striking teams in the world. He should be brimming with confidence after making seven saves that prevented the visiting Bavarians from bagging a valuable away goal in the first leg match. The test will certainly be tougher in the second leg, as Bayern Munich will be playing at home and ferociously attacking in order to level the tie. Then again, if anyone can pass that test, it’s Oblak.
- Bayern – Arturo Vidal M – Like C.J., I am standing by my Bayern pick from last week. Vidal was powerful in the midfield for Bayern in the first-leg loss. We was unlucky to not find the back of the net, as he took five shots and put three of those on target. He was also a key defensive contributor, registering four clearances, three tackles, and two interceptions during the match. Bayern will need Vidal to play well upfront by creating scoring chances and in defense by keeping Antoine Griezmann and company from bagging a critical away goal that would require Vidal’s side to net three to advance.
Be sure to tune in this Saturday April 30th at 11 a.m. ET to hear C.J. and Joel as they are joined by Oulala.com’s Ben Carlotti as the Champions League wraps up the semifinals and sets the stage for the May 28th final at the San Siro stadium in Milan.