UCL Semis: A Tale of Two Homecomings

This year’s UEFA Champions League semifinals read like a veritable Academy Awards of soccer talent. In the first matchup of the two-game series, Real Madrid, the competition’s defending champ, squares off against perennial Italian league winner Juventus; the second series sees treble-chasing Barcelona square off against last season’s German double winner Bayern Munich, which is chasing its own treble this season, too.

Inside the contents of this year’s semifinals: the world’s two best players for the last seven years (Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo); the world’s four most expensive players (Gareth Bale, Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and James Rodriguez); the best players from Germany’s 2014 World Cup-winning squad (too many to list); the only coach to win the UCL three times with two different teams (Carlo Ancelotti); the only coach to win six trophies in a calendar year (Pep Guardiola); Germany and Italy’s champions-elect (Bayern Munich and Juventus); as well as Spain’s champion-elect, which will be either Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Combined, The four semifinalists have won the European Cup or Champions League an astonishing 21 times, finishing runner-up 16 times, during the competition's 60-year history.

In addition to the blockbuster lineup of games, there is much history between the players and coaches of these teams, which means that fascinating sub-plots abound. As you might have heard, both Bayern’s Guardiola and Real’s Ancelotti have been paired with their former clubs -- although Guardiola’s return to Barca will surely be a happier occasion than Ancelotti’s return to Turin, as the former won 14 titles in four seasons with the Blaugrana, while Juve fired Ancelotti after just two.

"It is indeed special for me, but also Thiago [Alcantara] and for my staff. Barcelona was our life," an emotional Guardiola said after the semifinal draw on Friday. "There's nothing bad I can say about my old club. I have great respect for them and I will never forget this match and this experience. I was successful there, but I am happy to be at Munich now. But believe me, Barcelona is the strongest team."

Guardiola’s insistence that Bayern is the under-dog ahead of the two-game clash with his former club is interesting, especially when you consider that the Catalan outfit has won just one of the last eight meetings between the teams in the UCL. Moreover, the last time Barca and Bayern met was in the 2013 semis -- and with many of the same players -- Bayern walked away with a comfortable (read: embarrassing) 7-0 aggregate win.

Of course, there are also major differences for both clubs between then and now, including both coaches (Bayern’s then-manager Jupp Heynckes has since retired while Barca’s Tito Vilanova was ill during that series and sadly passed away in 2014), as well as the additions of Neymar and Luis Suarez for Barca and Thiago, Mario Goetze and Robert Lewandowski (among others) for Bayern.

Another interesting sub-plot is the fact that coach Luis Enrique and Guardiola are friends and former teammates, having spent five seasons together at Barca. Given Guardiola’s astonishing record as coach of the Catalan club, Enrique, who has far less experience at this level, claims: "Pep is the best because he has won a lot of trophies, for his way of playing attractive football, for how he settles in other countries and because he is my friend,” he said, adding that no matter what happens on the field: "It means a marvelous occasion for all Barca fans.”

Back to the other semifinal: though some might say that Juventus is simply happy to back in the UCL semis after a 12-year absence (when, ironically, it beat Real), the Italian club heads into the two-game series confident about two things: one, it defends very, very well, having conceded just five goals in ten UCL games this season and just one goal in four knockout round games this year; and two, it has the added advantage of coasting through its final seven games in Serie A thanks to its essentially insurmountable 15-point lead over second-place Lazio.

Madrid’s Ancelotti, meanwhile, noted this much in his post-draw press conference. Having led the 10-time champ to UCL glory last season, the Italian tactician is aiming to become the first coach to win Europe’s top club competition for a fourth time. Should Real prove victorious, it would also become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992.

As Juve director and former star Pavel Nedved said after the draw, “We're up against monsters in the semifinals, but you can't make predictions…"It was always going to be difficult, whoever we got.”

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