It was a week of high drama in the UEFA Champions League that produced two wildly different, yet equally gripping games in Madrid, a huge upset in Munich and six goals on Merseyside. For all the talk of Super Leagues and plans for an unnecessarily long and convoluted group stage, it’s still the same old two-legged knockout format, used since the first ever European Cup 66 years ago, that produces the greatest tension and most exciting football.
This year, as was the case in the inaugural 1955/56 competition, the Final will be in Paris and Real Madrid will be hoping to be there once more having reached the last four for the 31st time. The parallels between the two eras largely end there though.
French side Reims and Hibernian of Scotland contested one of the Semi-Finals in 1956. This year, while we do have a surprise Semi-Finalist in the shape of Villarreal, the field has already been narrowed down to clubs from just two countries – England and Spain. Between them, the two strongest European leagues have contributed seven of the last eight winners with two all-Spanish and two all-English Finals during that period.
Villarreal’s never-ending European dream
While there is at times a repetitive feel to the Champions League these days, with the same super wealthy clubs from the same countries largely dominant, crucially the competition has not completely lost its ability to throw up surprises and the kind of underdog story that Villarreal have written for themselves this year.
The sleepy Valencian town of Vila-real, population approximately 50,000, has always been the unlikeliest of settings for the glitz and glamour of the Champions League. Aided of course by their own wealthy owners, Villarreal have had their brushes with European glory before, but the last eighteen months has brought an extraordinary run of success on the continental stage for the Yellow Submarine on a budget that is dwarfed by some of the clubs they have defeated.
Since appointing Unai Emery in the summer of 2020, Villarreal have played 26 European matches and only Manchester United have beaten them inside 90 minutes. While their domestic form has regularly left plenty to be desired, Villarreal have saved their best football for the European stage, winning the Europa League last term and they achieved their best result yet with a 2-1 aggregate win over German champions Bayern Munich, sealed on Tuesday night thanks to Samu Chukwueze’s late goal to shock the Allianz Arena.
It goes without saying that Villarreal would not be getting an invite to any Super League. However as recent UCL Semi-Finalists Lyon and Ajax have also shown, there is still a path to the business end of the competition for so-called smaller clubs, something that would almost certainly be lost were any breakaway league ever to be formed, or potentially even if UEFA were to take further steps towards appeasing the financial interests of the game’s elite.
Real Madrid throw it all away, but still find a way through
There was also a night of raw tension and drama in the Spanish capital on Tuesday as a remarkable Quarter-Final tie between Real Madrid and Chelsea concluded. Los Blancos were 3-1 up from the 1st Leg in London thanks to Karim Benzema’s brilliant hat-trick and had what should have been an unassailable advantage.
Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea had other ideas. The Blues produced one of the best performances the Santiago Bernabéu has seen from a visiting side in Europe. Goals from Mason Mount, Antonio Rudiger and Timo Werner turned the tie on its head and in truth it could have been more with Marcos Alonso having a goal ruled out by VAR for the faintest of handballs.
However Real Madrid never know when they are beaten in Europe, and on a night when there should have been absolutely no potential for one, they still managed to pull off a comeback victory with Benzema netting again before a sublime pass from Luka Modric teed up Rodrygo for the winner in Extra Time.
It was a great European tie which ebbed wildy in one direction and then the other. However like so many have done over the years, it ended with a Real Madrid victory. As was so often the case under Zinedine Zidane when Los Blancos won the competition in three consecutive years, there is a sense that they don’t need to execute perfect gameplans or dominate entire ties in order to progress and potentially go all the way once more.
Atleti bow out as City & Liverpool set up Anglo-Spanish showdown
The opposition for the Spanish clubs in the Semi-Finals this season could not be tougher though. Wildly perceived to be the two strongest sides in Europe currently, Liverpool and Manchester City took their own private battle for silverware to another level by both securing progress on Wednesday night as Madrid was once again the setting for a tension-fuelled and ultimately controversial 2nd Leg tie as tempers flared as the defending champions of Spain and England clashed.
Having essentially parked the bus at the Etihad where they didn’t even register an attempt on goal in a 1-0 defeat, Atletico Madrid had to show more in the 2nd Leg and they certainly did that. Roared on by a deafening atmosphere in the Wanda Metropolitano, they gave Manchester City the kind of test they seldom get at home or abroad, as Diego Simeone’s side showed once more that they can be a match for anyone at home in Europe.
At Full-Time, the stadium rose in unison to applaud the efforts of an Atleti side that still hasn’t lost a Champions League knockout game in their own stadium under Diego Simeone. However a 0-0 draw on the night wasn’t enough as Pep Guardiola’s side held firm to set up a return to Madrid next month in the Semi-Finals. Liverpool meanwhile progressed to face Villarreal, despite resting key players during an entertaining 3-3 draw in the 2nd Leg of their tie with Benfica at Anfield.
While Real Madrid ran out of steam in last season’s Champions League Semi-Finals, in part down to their involvement in a LaLiga title race which went to the final weekend, they will be hoping the roles may be reversed this season. Manchester City, who had the 2020/21 Premier League title all but won by the Champions League knockout stages commenced last term, are locked in a fierce battle with Liverpool this time around where just one slip-up could prove decisive.
That should offer a genuine helping hand to the Spanish duo. While the Spanish title race is unlikely to be over by the time the UCL 1st Legs take place, Real Madrid have the kind of points advantage that should at least enable them to rotate in the games around it. Villarreal meanwhile are down in 7th place and Unai Emery has already made it very clear that he’s willing to risk missing out on European qualification in favour of their best shot at Champions League glory since their only previous run to the Semis sixteen years ago.
The Premier League sides will be the favourites and some quarters of the English media will already be looking ahead to a potential Liverpool-City Final. However with home advantage in the 2nd Legs, Real Madrid and Villarreal cannot and should not be written off having both already emerged from two difficult knockout ties.