It’s almost time, boys and girls. Atlético Madrid will discover the identity of its Champions League semifinal opponent in less than two hours. The first leg of these ties will take place May 2 and May 3, with the return leg slated for May 9/May 10. The winners, of course, advance to the June 3 final at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium.
The draw has been relatively kind to Atlético in this Champions League campaign, as los colchoneros were pitted against non-traditional powers in Bayer Leverkusen and Leicester City. Atleti coasted past Bayer 4-2 on aggregate and looked comfortable for the majority of the 2-1 aggregate victory over Leicester. But this team knows very well how slim the margins are for error at this stage of the Champions League, and this unique draw will see three opponents capable of ruthlessly punishing mistakes.
Let’s get started.
Juventus just got done dismantling Barcelona in the quarterfinals, notching a second consecutive 3-0 aggregate win over a very impressive 180 minutes (especially at Camp Nou on Wednesday). If you wanted to boil it down - which I do for the sake of keeping these capsules somewhat brief - Juve are Atlético’s Italian cousins. The Serie A champions have elite goalkeeping, an elite defense, a midfield that has become stronger over the course of the season and great pace, creativity, experience and finishing up top. Manager Massimiliano Allegri arrived in Turin with something to prove and has mostly proved himself, but he’s missing one big trophy.
Any of that sound familiar? Because it should. All of it should.
These two sides are just about equal everywhere on the pitch. Gianluigi Buffon vs. Jan Oblak. Diego Godín vs. Leonardo Bonucci. Paulo Dybala vs. Antoine Griezmann. This tie would be an all-out war and come down to the tiniest of details; honestly, I’m not sure we’d see a goal over 180 minutes.
The most surprising quarterfinalist, the prolific Monaco pasted a justifiably upset Borussia Dortmund 6-3 on aggregate, the second consecutive tie in which the Ligue 1 table-toppers notched a half dozen goals. Led by wunderkind Kylian Mbappé, former Atlético hero Radamel Falcao and a stable of other young and outrageously talented players (Thomas Lemar, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva), Monaco’s goalscoring prowess and composure in spite of youthfulness has been the talk of the competition and the latest high in a stunning revival for a team that played in Ligue 2 just five years ago.
Leonardo Jardim’s side have its fairly obvious weaknesses - like defending competently away from home - and logic dictates that Atlético would have done well to draw them. But Monaco’s ability to score seemingly at will against anyone, anywhere gives me pause, even against a defense as rock-solid as Atleti’s. What’s more, there would be a similar dynamic to the quarterfinal, as the mattress makers will be favorites and will have more of the ball. This matchup probably would work more in Atleti’s favor if it were to take place in a one-off, where away goals wouldn’t sting so bad.
Yup. Real Madrid’s highly controversial escape act against Bayern Munich means Zinedine Zidane’s men are here yet again, into a seventh straight semifinal.
I fully expect Atlético to be drawn against Real Madrid this afternoon and will be stunned if it doesn’t happen. It is the obvious draw, regardless of if you believe in conspiracy theories or not. The derbi foes have met in the Champions League each of the past three seasons, with Atlético coming out on the losing end each and every time. Atlético are 100 percent trained on winning the Champions League this season, and the path to doing that has to goes through the holders and most hated rivals.
Atleti will be pretty heavy underdogs in this semifinal, but considering the unfortunate events of Lisbon and Milan, it is both strategically and psychologically better to play Real Madrid over two legs rather than in a one-off. Los blancos have demonstrated that they are simply untouchable in the final of this competition. Atleti will relish one last derbi at the Vicente Calderón and will not be scared of going to the Santiago Bernabéu for the second leg. The chances of ousting Real Madrid at any point are slim, but they are higher over two legs.